by Blandina “Bambi” Cárdenas, Ph.D.  • IDRA Newsletter • October 1997

On most measures, I consider myself a woman of great good fortune. I have lived in a time of true evolution, a time in which men and women, individually and as members of disenfranchised groups, made thousands of decisions, large and small, that would break the bonds that limited their life and their development. I have traveled the world and deliberated policy in Europe, China, Latin America and the power centers of this country. I have been mentored by great genius and supported by brave hearts. I have felt far more affection, appreciation and recognition than I ever dreamed I would have or believed I deserved. At the beginning of my third quarter century, what I have come to think of with increasing affection as my ACT III, I am blessed with the surprise that after nearly three decades, there are still people interested in my thinking and willing to listen to what I have to say. Most importantly, I find myself with the opportunity to dedicate focused thought and attention to my favorite enterprise: the cultivation of new leadership for my profession, my community and my principles.

The process by which an individual or a group encounters the courage to stretch the limits of what they can become, I believe, is the most beautiful and exciting thing one can behold. When courage unleashes creativity and the love of self and others, you have the beginning of authentic leadership. When courage, creativity and love are absent, all the skills-based leadership development strategies in the world will fail to produce a leader. You may produce a passable manager, an effective executive and even a long-lived power holder, but the true leader will not emerge. Leadership is both art and science, but beyond these, it is spirit and passion. Leadership empowers and inspires; it puts others “in the spirit” to lead.

Over the course of the years I have participated in leadership development training, studied and designed leadership development training, and been exposed to many styles of leadership. While this exposure has done much to elaborate and refine my understanding of leadership, I have come to realize that all I needed to know about leadership and its development I learned in San Felipe, mi barrio Mexicano [in my Mexican neighborhood] in Del Rio, Texas, where I lived my first precocious 16 years.

San Felipe in the 1950s was a magical place where neatly groomed men and women, muy mujeres [strong women] whom I think of as Mexican June Cleavers, sewed their children’s clothes, cooked three meals a day, baked cakes from scratch and kept spotless houses in the face of their battle with the violent dust storms that made their way over the unpaved streets and parched lawns. Fathers were hombres rectos y trabajadores [honest hardworking men] who stood by their word, provided for their family and protected family honor. The collection of families that had come to Del Rio to escape the violence of the 1910 Mexican Revolution included many well-educated, politically aware and socially conscious individuals. Mostly liberales [liberals] from the Mexican states of Coahuila and Durango, these families were not about to acquiesce to the discriminatory treatment their children received in the local schools. In 1929 they filed the first school desegregation case in the United States, Salvatierra vs. Del Rio Independent School District. When that case failed to give them the relief they sought, the Mexican Americans in San Felipe seceded from the Del Rio Independent School District to form the San Felipe Independent School District. For 40 years this school district would survive, flawed in many ways, often near bankruptcy with perhaps the poorest tax base in the nation, and at the same time producing exponentially higher rates of high school completion, college participation and degree attainment, and professional and advanced degrees among Mexican Americans than any school district in the country.

What was remarkable about San Felipe was that its success was not limited to “la cremita” [the cream of the crop], those few students whose family standing and resources advantaged them in the education process, regardless of institutional discrimination. San Felipe empowered families and children in the most dire of circumstances. Literally hundreds of children who spent three months out of the school year on the migrant agricultural trail graduated from high school and went on to college. San Felipe even succeeded with the not-too-bright. I frequently run into a San Felipe student to whom we had always referred as “bién tapado,” or quite dense, and find that this individual has gone on to post-secondary schooling, is now thriving in a career and is the parent of superachieving children.

Other Mexican American communities in the Southwest had many of the same attributes of San Felipe, but the fact that San Felipe had wrested the schools, as the most important public institution involved in the formation of children, into their own control at great peril and at the start of the Great Depression, was a uniquely powerful expression of self-worth and self-determination.

The achievement of San Felipe made tangible for me three of the most essential elements in leadership development. First, San Felipe rooted me in a conscious link to a historical act of courage, heroism and sacrifice. Leaders de corazón y consciencia [with lots of heart and conscience] have to know where they and the things they do fit in the historical context of the continuing struggle for human dignity and actualization. They must be inspired by that history and humbled by it at the same time. They must understand that they are relatively insignificant, even as they realize with total certainty that what they do, and how well they do it, whether recognized or not, will advance history, or capitulate it.

The second essential element of leadership development that the context of San Felipe provided was locus of control. The belief that you can act upon the conditions that shape your world rather then be bound by those conditions is essential to leadership. Because my parents’ family and closest friends were always at the center of school governance, the district’s perpetual perils, financial and otherwise, were a major concern of conversations of family gatherings, canasta and domino games, and chance meetings. But the conversations always ended in an array of strategies, often amazingly ingenious ones, for solving the problem. Without the prospect of outside financial or political support, these remarkable people always found a way or invented one where one did not exist. The instinct to refuse to live with problems, to pursue feasible alternatives to even the most daunting of dilemmas, to get “out of the box” and create answers where none seem to exist, is an absolute non-negotiable of leadership and it must be cultivated in the leadership development process.

Perhaps the most powerful leadership trait which San Felipe developed was the instinct to look for and find assets in people and circumstances that appear to others to be largely lacking in assets. On this, my father was the absolute master teacher. “La persona bién educada puede conversar con un peón o UN presidente” [A well-educated person can converse with a peon or a president], he would say, “pero UN líder verdadero aprende de los dos” [but a true leader learns from both]. Daddy believed that there was much to be learned from even the lowliest of people. Not overly inclined to take on long tedious tasks around the house, he would regularly drive to Brown Plaza to hire any one of a dozen master derelicts to help with a plumbing, carpentry or mechanical job. The trick, he would tell me, was to get there early, before these men of genius started drinking. Then he would explain that Lalo el plomero [the plumber], Poncho El carpintero [the carpenter] or Wile El mecánico [the mechanic], were the absolute best craftsmen in town, but that the war or an unfaithful wife, a family shame or some other desgracia [unfortunate event] had turned them to drink. Once at Brown Plaza, he would invite the designated expert into the backseat of our car and immediately ask him for advice about how to best accomplish the task at hand. By the time we reached home, the highest of expectations for a superb job had been set. He was never disappointed, in part because he would continue the conversation as he closely supervised the activity throughout the day. Because my father was a man to be respected and because I was a constant tagalong, the language and subject of the conversations were always clean and I could engage in the wonderful discussions as well. To this day I am inclined to engage in conversations with people at all levels of the social or organizational hierarchy, much to my benefit. Today leadership theory has evolved to recognize the importance of this skill of “managing by walking around,” but I learned it in San Felipe, from my dad and the “untouchables” of La Plaza Brown.

San Felipe was a rich environment for learning about leadership at every turn. Learning how to lose became an art form with a Mexican American football team consistently five inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter then its Anglo opponents. Over the years I have come to realize that the greatest leaders are those who have lost badly, and chosen to become empowered by their loss. The worst leaders are those who have never experienced loss. In San Felipe, the most often heard cheer was, “That’s all right boys, that’s all right. Stay in their boys, fight, fight, fight.” In my 13 lonely years as a minority voice on the United States Commission on Civil Rights, I would often keep myself going by silently repeating the old familiar cheer.

Oratory was perfected at the San Felipe Methodist Church before one reached puberty – and in both languages. The leadership of women was everywhere: in the entrepreneurs who ran their corner tienditas [stores] and panaderias [bakeries], in the artists who sold homemade corn tortillas or took in sewing or ironing, and most of all in the teachers, who literally pulled whole families through 12 years of schooling. San Felipe was a veritable laboratory for relational leadership. Only a fool would try to get things done by pulling rank. You did it “por la buena” [the right way], by knowing the operative relationships of trust and confidence necessary for people to be motivated to act.

The teachings of San Felipe and a remarkable extended family equipped me well for the wonderful adventure of channeling my heart, my mind and my passion into the advancement of education, civil rights, the life chances of vulnerable children and the rightful place of Mexican Americans in this country. The journey would often be lonely, but never frightening. So much greatness would touch my life and hone my skills: Walter F. Mondale’s dauntless commitment to the least powerful and to ethical public service, Andy Ramírez’s tenacity and fearlessness, Joe Bernal’s courageous willingness to pay a heavy political price for his beliefs, Rosie Castro’s purity of heart and vision for her community, Matt García’s skill in getting opponents to negotiate, Gloria Rodríguez and Carmen Cortez’s powerful creative partnership, Rubén Hinojosa’s spirit and results orientation, Henry Cisneros’ artistry in governing, Mary Frances Berry’s mastery of history and the Constitution, Lalo Villarreal’s capacity to create logic and order from the prisms of my thinking, Raúl Yzaguirre and Willie Velásquez’s pioneering vision and lifetime sacrifice, Jimmy Carter’s centeredness.

Six presidents, three Mexican and three U.S., would come to know and respect my views. I would learn from sitting at the side of three great sages of American public policy: Arthur Fleming, Eisenhower’s Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare; Doc Howe, Lyndon B. Johnson’s commissioner of education; Alan Peiffer, president of the Carnegie Corporation and most of all from my mentor of 17 years, José Angel Cárdenas, MI hermano de corazón [my brother in spirit], whose gospel of leadership will forever ring in my ears. “You don’t bring about change by issuing a memorandum, Bambina,” was a favorite. “You don’t do administration by the seat of your pants,” and “la voz del pueblo es la voz de Dios” [the people’s voice is God’s voice]. Most importantly, José taught by example that the joy is in the doing and not who gets the credit, and that at times the greatest act of leadership is to get out of the way and let another carry the day.

I hope that ACT III allows me to share the gifts with which I have been blessed. I want those who would aspire to leadership to know that leaders are imperfect and vulnerable, that their strengths almost always are also their weaknesses, and that concern for ethics is the only safeguard for one who dares to expose their soul to lead. I want the new generation of leaders to know that I believe in them, just as those who helped to form my leadership believed in me. While I fear that this may be an immodest posture, I don’t worry that the immodesty will go unchecked. I have an outrageously intelligent and wise son at home who knows exactly how to keep my ego in proportion. Whenever I get to feeling overly important, he teasingly takes on a regal pose and with appropriate pomposity, declares, “There she is, my mom, the Princess of San Felipe.” Ego check is, after all, an important task of leadership.

Dr. Blandina “Bambi” Cárdenas is an associate professor in the department of education at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]