Rick Cardenas: Tireless champion for Minnesotans with disabilities

Chris Serres, Star Tribune
·3 min read

Rick Cardenas, a towering figure in Minnesota's disability rights community, whose decades of relentless advocacy helped redefine how many Minnesotans think of people with disabilities, died of complications from a stroke on March 10. He was 79.

Growing up on St. Paul's East Side, Cardenas was a three-sport athlete in high school and was so talented at hockey that loud chants of "Car-dee-nas!" would echo through the arenas where he played. But after a car accident at age 18 left him paralyzed from the neck down, Cardenas spent most of his life pushing for the removal of physical barriers and attitudes that prevent people like him from fully participating in society.

"If the disability community had a Mount Rushmore, then Rick Cardenas would be one of the faces on that mountain," said Jane McClure, managing editor of Access Press, a newspaper for the disability community.

With his chiseled features, thick mop of white hair and broad smile that belied his determination, Cardenas recruited a wide cross-section of people to join his many campaigns, which included boycotting restaurants and other businesses that were not accessible, lobbying for better pay for home care workers and expanding mental health services for the Latino community. He had close ties with governors and state officials dating to the 1990s and successfully lobbied Gov. Mark Dayton's administration to fund two wheelchair ramps at the Capitol.

As co-director of Advocating Change Together (ACT), a disability rights group, Cardenas became a leader of an ambitious project to place proper headstones on the graves of the estimated 13,000 Minnesotans who died while living in state asylums and were buried in anonymous graves marked only with numbers — if they were marked at all. Working the halls of the Capitol in his wheelchair, he persuaded lawmakers to allocate more than $1 million to the project, and in 2010 the state issued a formal apology for its inhumane treatment of people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities.

"Rick had this wonderful grace and expansive heart of concern that drew others to him," said Jesse Bethke Gomez, executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living, a St. Paul-based nonprofit.

Cardenas was the oldest of four children born to a close-knit Mexican American family that was so poor they had no indoor plumbing in their lower East Side home. He excelled in football, hockey and baseball at Harding Senior High School, where his skills on the ice helped lift his hockey team to the state finals. He enlisted in the Army after a brief stint at the University of Minnesota. But on the day before he was to report to duty, he suffered a broken neck in a car accident and became a quadriplegic.

After two years of rehabilitation, Cardenas turned his attention to social justice causes. Inspired by the labor and civil rights leader Cesar Chavez, he helped organize boycotts of local stores that sold grapes from nonunion farms. With seemingly boundless energy, Cardenas opened a mobile bakery staffed by family and friends and helped found a St. Paul-based nonprofit, Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio that for the past 40 years has provided mental health services to Minnesota's Latino community."

Until the last year of his life, Cardenas fought to remove physical barriers that hindered access to public spaces. In 1987, he persuaded members of the St. Paul City Council to take a wheelchair tour of the city they governed to raise awareness of the many obstacles, such as uneven sidewalks, that made getting around city streets perilous for people with disabilities.

Among his most visible accomplishments was persuading elected officials to build an elevator with wheelchair access between St. Paul's skyway system and the light-rail station at the center of the downtown.

An outdoor memorial service for Cardenas will be held June 13 at Harriet Island in St. Paul from 1 to 5 p.m.