Mary Rose Cardenas was fierce champion for Brownsville; embodied ‘power, persistence and courage’

dfwnewsa | December 29, 2023 | 0 | East Texas News , South Texas News

Mary Rose Cardenas was fierce champion for Brownsville; embodied ‘power, persistence and courage’

When Mary Rose Cardenas went after something, it was to benefit her community, not herself, and you’d be wise to go along or at least get out of the way.

Dr. Juliet Garcia, a lifelong friend, described her as a “fierce warrior with one goal in mind, and that was to represent her community and open doors of opportunity, and fling open those doors in a powerful way.”


Cardenas died in Brownsville on Sunday, Dec. 24, at the age of 92.

“She never thought for herself, but always for her community,” Garcia said.

She credited Cardenas, first elected to the Texas Southmost College Board of Trustees in 1984, with getting her hired as TSC president in 1986, making Garcia the first Mexican-American woman to lead a U.S. college or university.

Cardenas, who engineered a unanimous vote in favor of Garcia’s appointment, was later instrumental in creating the city’s first four-year university through a partnership between TSC and the University of Texas at Brownsville (now UTRGV).

UTB-TSC was created in 1991 and Garcia named president.

Cardenas, long before pushing Garcia to helm TSC, had known the future Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient as a little girl.

“She knew my father,” Garcia said. “She knew my mother. She knew the family. She knew everybody’s family. She knew your address. She used to work at the credit bureau in Brownsville. That’s where she cut her teeth. … She knew everybody’s address and their credit score.”

Cardenas had an “amazing mind,” and during TSC budget discussions would pull up numbers from several years past through a feat of sheer memory, Garcia said.

Mary Rose Cardenas, right, is seen with then-Texas Gov. Ann Richards in this undated photo. (Courtesy Photo)

“You did not stand a chance to confront her on a number,” she added.

Cardenas and her husband, Renato, who together built Cardenas Development and Cardenas Motors, were passionate proponents of education. North and South Hall on TSC’s campus were renamed for her in 2005 in recognition of her outsized contributions, though if Cardenas herself had had any say, it likely wouldn’t have happened.

“She didn’t want it,” Garcia said. “She didn’t ask for it. She didn’t know it was going to happen. She would never have asked for it.”

Being demure or apologetic was not her way, she said. Rather, Cardenas was “powerful and persistent and courageous” in overcoming political opposition as part of TSC’s board, on which she served more than 20 years, including four terms as chair. Her strength inspired others, and it was a quality Cardenas expected from others, Garcia said.

“I learned a great deal,” she said. “I would often say that I borrowed her courage until I grew my own, and that is the truth. So not only did she do her work in a way that was to be admired, but also in a way that would teach those around her, how they were to live their own lives. And that’s a very powerful presence to have.”

Despite her reputation as a dragon slayer, Cardenas was also filled with joy, said Reba Cardenas McNair, the oldest of five children.

“She was a very joyful person and she was a really positive person and she was a very faithful person,” she said.

In times of trouble, Cardenas’ refrain was “Dios is muy grande, God is good, God is great,” and she always believed things would turn out for the best, Reba said.

“She was definitely an optimist and led her life in a very positive manner,” she said.

Her mother was also very practical and business minded, and as a TSC trustee made a priority of tightening up policies and procedures related to purchasing, accounting and other matters.

“From a very young age her father taught her bookkeeping, so she was always very conscious of how money was spent and how you needed to keep track of it,” Reba said. “She was business oriented and she knew that things could be better run.”

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Not everyone was comfortable with change, though, and Cardenas and Jean Eckhoff, the only other woman on the board of trustees, found themselves on the receiving end of shouting and even picketing by members of the public during board meetings, navigating stiff opposition especially in championing Garcia for the top job.

Cardenas shrugged it off, with the attitude that things were changing so get used to it, Reba said.

Experiencing loss early in life (the death of a little brother when she was a child, and of her father in Cardenas’ late 20s), caused her mother to “enjoy every day,” Reba said.

“Her heart was big and she had a definite life force,” she said. “She was really a special type of person, really energetic, really determined, and always joyful with a big smile, and who really thought tomorrow would be a better day.”

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