Gilberto Cardenas: The Hard Journey Home

Author: John Shaughnessy '77

In this American dream, the tough street kid grows up to share the spotlight with baseball star Sammy Sosa, astronaut Ellen Ochoa and legendary rock musician Carlos Santana.

The troubled youth who struggled with grades is chosen to help Microsoft founder Bill Gates distribute $1 billion worth of scholarships.

The son of a single parent who worked as a secretary is invited to the inaugurations of Mexico’s President Vicente Fox and U.S. President George W. Bush.

In a few days, the incredible journey of Gilberto Cardenas ’72M.A., ’77Ph.D. will lead him back to Washington, this time to the White House for a summit on education. Right now, he sits in his office at Notre Dame, talking about a different trip. It was in the early 1970s, when Cardenas was a Notre Dame graduate student traveling with government inspectors as they toured the Michigan farms where Hispanic migrant workers picked crops. While dust kicked up as the car steered along a dirt road in the searing heat, Cardenas saw scenes he will never forget.

Exhausted men peered at him as they sat near the old railroad box cars that served as their homes. Weary women, some holding babies, stood outside huts. They had come in search of a small slice of the American dream and instead lived an American nightmare.

“That was a shock to me,” Cardenas recalls. “They were people who needed food and medical attention, and they lived in wretched conditions. But I also saw people providing services out there — nurses and people from nearby churches. I did a lot of volunteer work, trying to document the abuses. I wanted to use my education to help.”

While decades have passed and laws have changed, the quest for acceptance, respect and understanding continues for many Hispanics in the United States. That quest is at the heart of what Cardenas is trying to accomplish as the director of the University’s Institute for Latino Studies. He was asked to start the institute in 1999 because Notre Dame wanted to increase its commitment to Latinos, a predominantly Catholic group with Mexican, Cuban, Dominican, Puerto Rican and Central American roots.

“The Latino population is going through a phenomenal growth in the United States,” says Cardenas, an assistant provost who is also the director of the Inter-University Program for Latino Research, a 16-university alliance that’s headquartered at Notre Dame.

That growth is reflected in data from the 2000 U.S. Census and the Inter-University Program: The number of Hispanics in the country is above 35.3 million, a 58 percent increase from 1990 census figures. That increase has moved Hispanics ahead of blacks — 34.7 million — as the country’s largest minority. Now, 1 in 8 people in the United States is Hispanic.

While 75 percent of the Latino population still resides in seven states — California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Arizona and New Jersey — the Latino population at least doubled in 22 other states. The greatest percentage increases occurred in North Carolina (394 percent), Arkansas (337 percent), Georgia (300 percent), Tennessee (278 percent) and Nevada (217 percent). By region, the greatest percentage increase of Latinos happened in the Midwest (81 percent).

There is also this figure to consider: 70 percent of the Latino population in the United States identify themselves as Catholic.

As the numbers of Latinos surge across the United States to follow their own versions of the American dream, the impact on the country — and the Catholic church in America — is shaping up to be dramatic.

It also is continuing to be divisive.

No one knows this more than Cardenas. He knows debate rages about immigration policies as illegal immigrants pour into the country to take low-paying jobs that often go unfilled — working in meatpacking plants in Nebraska, landscaping jobs in Connecticut and textile mills in North Carolina. He knows controversy about border regulations intensifies when a group of hopeful Mexican immigrants die after they are abandoned by smugglers in the blistering heat of the Arizona desert. He knows fear results when established residents think too many Latinos have settled in their community, when too much Spanish is spoken there. He knows issues of justice and dignity challenge the church when a large number of Hispanic immigrants seek help at the parish level.

“The visibility of this group and this culture will cause several things to happen,” Cardenas says. “There will be the alarmist reaction. People will get scared. Some people will view it as bad, that it’s not the America they’ve known. And people who aren’t racist and nativist will sometimes have that same reaction. Not that they are opposed to things that are Mexican, but they see the difference. They don’t realize their sense of America has been distorted.”

That distortion is where the discussion should begin, Cardenas believes.

“Mexican culture and Mexican people have been an important part of the American experience. The very formation of the United States includes a Mexican component. There’s the territorial history in the Southwestern part of the country. But . . . over the years, that Mexican component of the American experience has been considered as something less than American. The fact is, it’s a very real part of the American identity. We’re trying to reclaim that.”

Cardenas believes that if the institute can provide information and data to educators, policy makers and political leaders, they will better understand Latinos and help make their lives better. He also believes that what is in the best interest of Latinos is in the best interest of the country, including a more humane approach to immigration and illegal immigrants.

“We have to change policy makers to view immigration as an asset, to be more sensitive to the hard work and the needs of the immigrant community. These are special people who are more motivated than other people, who have positive attitudes about America and work. Where’s the wisdom in driving these people to the desert? We shouldn’t treat them as deviants or criminals, even if they do come into the country illegally.” Cardenas believes the nation “should be setting up agencies to integrate people into American society instead of trying to make things harder for them.”

The Catholic church is helping immigrants make that transition better than any institution right now, Cardenas says. Better than schools. Better than hospitals. Better than government agencies. Most of that work is done at the parish level, like Saint Patrick Catholic Church in Indianapolis. Eva Morales is the coordinator of Hispanic activities at the church that was once a haven for 19th century Irish immigrants. Now, a steady stream of Hispanic immigrants comes to her office, asking for help with jobs, food, housing and questions of faith.

“They think the church is the answer for everything,” Morales says. “Sometimes we can be the answer. And sometimes we can’t.”

While Cardenas applauds the way local churches embrace the immigrants, he sees a concern at the higher levels of the church.

Sure, 70 percent of Latinos in the United States identify themselves as Catholics, he says. But that same study from the California-based Tomas Rivera Policy Institute also showed a decline in the percentage of Latino Catholics with each generation born in the United States. While 74 percent of foreign-born Latinos identify themselves as Catholic, only 59 percent of third or later generations identify themselves as Catholics.

“The church has to pay more attention to that,” Cardenas says. “That’s why we need to get more people trained to be in those communities, who know those communities, care about them and want to make a difference in those communities. Hopefully, we’ll see more Latino cardinals and bishops appointed in the church hierarchy. And there will be a greater effort to recruit priests and nuns from the Mexican-American population. Groups like the Holy Cross order will increase efforts to bring Latinos into their groups. And universities like Notre Dame will do greater outreach to the Latino community.”

The effort to bring Cardenas to Notre Dame shows the commitment the University is making to Latinos and their concerns.

Cardenas had been at the University of Texas since 1975 when Notre Dame’s executive vice-president, Father Tim Scully, CSC, approached him with the idea of establishing the Institute for Latino Studies. Cardenas initially hesitated. He was established at Texas. He had started Latino USA, a national radio program. He had a commercial art gallery in Texas for 14 years, accumulating the largest collection of Chicano art in the country. He was also concerned about leaving the Inter-University Program for Latino Research and the future employment of the people who staffed it.

Scully told Cardenas to bring the program and its staff with him. The deal was sealed.

“We aspire to be the nation’s leading Catholic university, and that increasingly means serving our Latino population,” Scully says. “Gil is magnetic and charismatic, a passionate and great leader. We want him to deepen and broaden the set of intellectual resources we have here for teachers and students. Since he’s been here, we’ve hired more Latino faculty (at least 10) than we have in many years. Have you been over to the institute yet? It looks like he’s been there forever.”

More than 100 works of art from Cardenas’ collection grace the walls of the institute in McKenna Hall. A crucifix hangs near the door to his office. So does the haunting sign that never lets him forget what is at stake. The sign, which hung outside a Texas restaurant in 1942, states, “No Dogs, Negroes, Mexicans.” As Cardenas walks by that sign and down the hall, he passes a prominently-displayed portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I feel for the struggles the African-American community has had, the things they’ve had to endure,” Cardenas says. “I was impressed by the tenacity and the persistence of Dr. King to improve conditions, to have an impact on American society. I was really taken by Dr. King’s death. He inspired me and so many other people to continue his work and to keep those dreams alive.”

He sees those qualities of leadership and courage in George W. Bush, too.

“I was one of 11 people on a national committee supporting Bush’s election,” he says about the George W. Bush 2000 National Latino Coalition. "I knew the governor while he was in Texas, and I liked the way he reached across party lines. I’m concerned about the border in Texas, and he was the only governor to have a more reasoned approach to Mexico and the immigration issue.

“I had been a Democrat until that time but I switched. A lot of my colleagues weren’t happy about that. But when someone does what he did, he should be supported. I think he’s making a genuine effort to be inclusive.”

Cardenas’s commitment to the Latino community was solidified when he came to Notre Dame in the early 1970s to pursue a graduate degree under the direction of the legendary Julian Samora. A sociologist, Samora served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and helped create the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Latino civil rights organization.

“He not only took me in as a student but as part of the family,” Cardenas recalls. “I remember how sensitive he was to the people he was studying. He treated them with utmost respect and dignity.”

Cardenas tried to follow those principles when he toured the Michigan and Indiana farms where migrants worked in the 1970s. He tried to make people aware of the chilling conditions the Hispanic workers faced.

“The livestock were treated to better housing and facilities than the people,” recalls Olga Villa Parra, who worked for the University’s Institute for Urban Studies at that time and has remained one of Cardenas’ close friends. “He put out several reports on the blighted conditions of those migrant camps. He couldn’t see people living in those conditions. It was heartbreaking. He wanted people to have a consciousness about this.”

Cardenas’s conscience and research also took him to the Mexican-American border.

“Gil was one of the first to cross the border and research the experience of the undocumented worker coming to the United States,” says Refugio Rochin, director of the Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives in Washington, D.C. “His studies of the immigration, poverty, border conditions and the socioeconomics of Latinos have been groundbreaking.”

Leaning back in his chair at McKenna Hall, Cardenas recalls a poignant scene from those research efforts along the border. He sat in a federal prison with a group of undocumented immigrants who had been arrested trying to cross the border. One man said he had left his home in Mexico because there were no jobs, and he needed to earn money to get medicine for an ill family member. The man looked desperately at Cardenas for help, trying to understand why he had ended up in jail for trying to save a family member’s life. “He couldn’t figure out why he was being treated this way,” Cardenas recalls.

Today, Cardenas’s journeys take him along different paths. He walks to the Main Building at Notre Dame to discuss hiring new professors and creating new courses in Latino Studies — wanting to motivate and train a new generation of scholars. He travels to Philadelphia, to the lavish headquarters of the Pew Charitable Trusts, to talk about establishing a center at Notre Dame for the study of Latino religious life in America. He heads to Washington, D.C., to discuss policy concerns. He visits Chicago where the institute is doing a five-year study on the impact of Hispanic immigrants in such westside communities as Berwyn and Cicero.

“For a long time, the area was very hostile to minorities,” the 54-year-old Cardenas says. “Now Mexicans are 60 percent of the area. A lot of them are recent immigrants. There’s a high demand for Mexican labor. What we’re trying to do is look at the migration patterns, the quality of life, the obstacles, the responses of social services and health services, the changing dynamics between new settlers and old settlers. We want to turn all this information over to the Latino communities and the more institutional communities, to make life better.”

Cardenas can talk about the Hispanic immigrants who have become well established in the United States. He can talk about the recent immigrants who still struggle toward the American dream — working multiple jobs, living in substandard housing and trying to overcome the problems of language and poverty, including drugs, gangs, teen pregnancy and high dropout rates.

He also can talk about hope for the future, including the Gates Millennium Scholars Program. Cardenas is a member of the six-person advisory committee for the program that will provide $1 billion in minority scholarships — over the course of 20 years — to students from African-American, Asian-American, Latino-American and Native-American backgrounds.

What he doesn’t spend much time discussing is being included, for three straight years, on Hispanic Business magazine’s listing of the 100 Most Influential Hispanics in the United States. The list includes Sammy Sosa, Carlos Santana, Ellen Ochoa and filmmaker Gregory Nava, as well as national leaders in politics, labor and business.

“He’s an important person but he has not lost that sense of caring, that sense of heart,” says Parra, who now works as a consultant regarding Hispanic issues. “He’s a very down-to-earth person who gives back abundantly. His is an American success story.”

Cardenas knows the hopes and struggles of the Latino people because he has lived them.

When he was 10 and growing up near Los Angeles, his parents divorced and his father left home. He admired his mother’s perseverance and independence as she worked to create a life for him and his brother. Still, he was lured by the gangs in his neighborhood. He even became a gang member before he saw how hate and crime could ruin lives. During college in California, he returned to the gangs — this time trying to help youths escape them.

A divorced father of two young sons, Cardenas had another transforming moment when he returned to Notre Dame in 1999. He had come home to a place that has nurtured the religious faith he thought he had lost forever.

“In college, I was full of myself,” he says. “I was angry at the church. I lost my faith. About five years ago, I moved back to God. I find a lot of comfort and gratitude in prayer. Now I have the benefit of working with priests and nuns who are guided by faith values. That’s a real valuable part of my experience here.”

John Shaughnessy is a reporter with the Indianapolis Star.

Institute for Latino Studies