• IDRA Newsletter • October 2011 •

The Child

Of the many ways a man’s destiny may be shaped, two are important to this story. Family is destiny and character is destiny. José Angel Cárdenas was born into a family that valued and prized education. Justo and Matilde Cárdenas decided early that all five children would graduate from college, and the five children earned nine college degrees. They taught the fine old Mexican values of manners and respect, of defense of the weak by the strong, and above all, of measuring a man’s worth by the value of his word. As a child, José Cárdenas began to show the personal qualities that would later combine with his upbringing and circumstances to produce the man whose vision created IDRA.

José was a beautiful baby. One neighbor remembers the general wonder produced by his golden curls. “But you know,” he says, “he had a different image of himself. He always knew his own mind! When he was four years old, he took a pair of scissors and cut the risos off!”

José skipped three grades and came to the assistance of all his teachers, as manners demanded. One teacher declared to her class, “The is an article, and can never be the subject of a sentence.” José’s hand shot up and he asked politely, “Would you mind diagramming the sentence, ‘The is an article?’”

He amazed his friends and family with feats of memory and rapid mental calculation. José once tried to show the owner of a cambio – or money exchange – how to hold the rates for dollars and pesos in his head and make rapid calculations. Instead of learning the trick, the man hired him. José used his wages to go to the bullfights.

José always liked science, so one Christmas, he was given a chemistry set. His father went down to the basement and asked, “What are you doing, my son?” Very seriously, his son replied, “I’m making dynamite.”

And he’s been making dynamite ever since!

He started at the University of Texas when he was just 15. Despite his tender age, his classmates remember him as equal to any challenge and more than a match for his classmates, some of whom were GIs returning from World War II and much older. He belonged to the Alba Club, a progressive political force on campus. He took a class from one of the Hispanic professors who addressed the club, Dr. George Sánchez. “It may have been the first multicultural class in the country,” José says. “He was an influence, more than I realized at the time.”

The Educator

At nineteen, José began teaching junior-high science in Laredo and discovered what would prove to be a life-long love of children and of teaching. He even went to the Korean War as a teacher… of radio operation. Where was the dynamite? Returning to San Antonio, José took the express elevator from teaching to educational administration.

The Administrator

Dr. José Cárdenas became the first vice principal of Edgewood High School in 1955, and the first Hispanic administrator of the Edgewood school district. Dr. Cárdenas next served in the central office as district math and science supervisor, then as principal of Stafford Elementary School. He wanted to go back to teaching but at a higher salary. He accepted an offer from St. Mary’s University, where he soon chaired the education department. At St. Mary’s, he began contemplating teacher preparation, figuring out what it really takes to help children learn.

“I had seen that some teachers didn’t work as hard as I did, didn’t like children as much as I did, and were less successful with their students,” he says, “but I still believed schools themselves were right, that the values schools taught were superior to those of our own minority populations. One day, I happened to walk into a meeting of all the counselors in the school district. They were saying it was outrageous that Mexican American students had so many absences because of their family responsibilities – going the doctor with their parents, for example, to serve as translators. And I remembered all the books I had read for my master’s degree demonstrating that serious national problems resulted form ‘dissolution of the family.’ And yet these educators were ready to sacrifice the family to reduce absences. Did anyone ever say that serious national problems resulted from the excess absences of school children? I was prepared for a total transformation of my thinking, without realizing it.”

Research and Development

Dr. Cárdenas took a job in educational research, where these and other thoughts began to come together to combine explosively with new information. He was making dynamite!

“In the context of my research project at the laboratory,” he points out, “I began to talk to anthropologists who showed me how difficult it is for society to judge values, to decide which will prevail. And I thought about my classes with Dr. Sánchez, and what I learned from Julian Zamora, William Madsen, Arthur Ruble and Ted Parsons…

“And then, in one powerful moment, it all came together for me. One of these men told me that scientists had experimented with amoebas in a laboratory, and by using their reactions to color and light, they had trained these amoebas to recognize letters of the alphabet. And I thought, ‘What if the amoebas had been sent to public school instead?’ Then I would be hearing what I always heard about non-readers in our schools: ‘They don’t speak our language! They’re amoeba, how can you expect them to learn. They come from the wrong side of the pond!’

“What was different, and special, for those particular amoebas wasn’t their readiness to learn compared with other amoebas but the context – the laboratory and all its special equipment, the skills of the technicians, the elegant process the scientists had designed specifically for amoebas… And I was sure that all children could learn if their schools had effective curricula and materials, were properly equipped, and their teachers were well-trained and exercised every effort to teach them.

“I was determined to make it happen! But as I prepared to take up new responsibilities as superintendent of the Edgewood School District, I asked my fellow administrators, ‘What do you see as your primary responsibility?’ And they all said, ‘To stand up for my teachers.’ Well, whose responsibility is it to stand up for the child? I resolved this conflict by imagining that God had appeared to me in the night and asked me to defend his children.”

The Advocate

And defend them he did. Not only the students of Edgewood but all students. Dr. José Cárdenas made speeches, published papers and testified as an expert witness in Morales vs. Shannon, U.S. vs. Texas, Keyes vs. Denver, Lau vs. Nichols, Doe vs. Plyler, Otero vs. Mesa Valley, Castañeda vs. Prichard, and 60 other cases “Litigation was so important,” he asserts, “because many of these cases were class action suits, and through them we were able to better the educational opportunities of thousands of students. One that I am very proud of is Doe vs. Plyler, because these were students without any advocacy for them at all, and they were being blamed for failures of the schools.”

Dr. Cárdenas saw that one of the biggest problems – for his students and many others – existed in the vast inequities in school financing. “I kept hearing that more money was not the answer, yet I saw my most talented teachers being hired away by districts that did have more money.” Edgewood filed suit against the state commissioner of education. The boy who once multiplied exchange rates and money in his head to go to the corrida now mastered school finance to go to court. School finance was the founding issue of IDRA’s predecessor organization, Texans for Educational Excellence, or TEE. “It was always clear to me,” José says, “That more money alone was not the answer, but that it needed to be used for significant change.”

He developed his thinking about the need for change into the “Theory of Incompatibilities.” Essentially, it states that the values and practices of school are incompatible with the characteristics of many students – children from homes of little material wealth, for example, and those from minority populations. The school, he feels, must make its programs compatible with its students.

The Vision: IDRA

With the founding of IDRA, Dr. Cárdenas was able to multiply his efforts many times. “The effect of research and development can be powerful and far-reaching,” he says. “Our tutoring program [the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program] takes what the school considers failing students, and supports them in a role that schools value – teaching younger students – and they begin to succeed in school. This will reach more students and do more good than a thousand speeches or reports, and I’m very proud of it.”

The single goal of IDRA is improving educational opportunities for all children, and the organization prizes its intense singular focus. Supportive and critical observers alike agree that IDRA is creative, responsive, innovative and accountable. Every activity is thoroughly conceptualized and rigorously evaluated.

And what does his staff say about Dr. José Cárdenas? They say he’s tough but fair. That he has high standards. That he recognizes talent and enjoys encouraging its development and expression. That he will do the most difficult thing if he’s convinced it needs doing.

But above all, they say he does it all for the children. Because he loves them and because he said he would. And he’s a man of his word.

Su palabra es oro.

This story is from the transcription of a video developed by IDRA on the occasion of Dr. José Angel Cárdenas’ retirement in October 1992. Narrated by Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed., IDRA senior education associate.

Comments and questions may be directed to IDRA via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2011, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 2011 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.]