María Guevara Cárdenas, Chicana politician, activist, and feminist, daughter of Fernando Guevara and Paz (Manchaca) Guevara, was born on January 20, 1935, in Tivoli, Texas. As one of nine children in a family of migrant farm laborers, Guevara often joined her siblings as field laborers and, as a result, was unable to attend school year-round. In 1945 the family relocated to San Angelo, Texas, where she grew up in the predominantly Mexican American La Loma barrio. She attended public schools there but was unable to complete high school. However, she later earned her GED. At the age of fifteen, María Guevara married Abel Gomez Cárdenas in San Angelo on November 2, 1950. The couple had six children and were divorced in 1977.
María Cárdenas spent most of her adult life in the Rio Vista neighborhood of San Angelo, where she first became involved with the community through the local Parent Teacher Association and other neighborhood organizations. Inspired by the rise of the Chicano Movement, Cárdenas’s interests became increasingly political by the late 1960s. During this time, she often wrote letters to the editor of the San Angelo Standard-Times to voice her opinion about the discrimination that minority children faced at school and the city government’s neglectful attitude toward neighborhood improvement. Cárdenas expanded her political activities as a member of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the Raza Unida Party (RUP).
In the early 1970s she joined the Rio Vista Consejo del Barrio (“neighborhood council”), a local affiliate of the Education Group Action Project initiated by Texans for the Educational Advancement of Mexican Americans (TEAMA), and later became chairwoman of a statewide advisory board for TEAMA. In 1972 Cárdenas attended the RUP’s first national convention in El Paso as a voting delegate for Tom Green County. After the convention she campaigned on behalf of RUP gubernatorial candidate Ramsey Muñiz. She also associated herself with Mujeres Por La Raza Unida and the Texas Women’s Political Caucus, and in 1977 she attended the National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas. By the late 1970s she joined the Democratic party and served on the board of the Tom Green County Democratic Club. Cárdenas’s membership with these political organizations provided her an outlet to fight for race, gender, and class equality within and outside San Angelo. Aside from Cárdenas’s political motivations, she realized that earning an education would help her advance in society. In 1975 she enrolled at Angelo State University, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1983.
In 1976 Cárdenas spearheaded a successful campaign to create a single-member district voting system for the San Angelo city commission. The proposed city charter amendment challenged the at-large voting system that the city of San Angelo traditionally used. The change to single-member districts allowed marginalized residents to elect members of their own neighborhood onto the city council. After the measure was overwhelmingly approved by voters in April 1976, Cárdenas was named to a special advisory board tasked with drawing up the boundaries for the newly-created districts. On May 13, 1978, the Rio Vista neighborhood elected Cárdenas to represent District 3 of the San Angelo city commission; she was the first Mexican American woman to serve in this capacity. She eventually served on the city commission (known as the city council since 1979) for three consecutive terms. During that time, Cárdenas pushed for improvements to basic services in her previously-underrepresented district such as paved roads, street lights, and a monthly blood pressure clinic for barrio residents. She was also instrumental in convincing the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development to fund construction of a public housing development for low-income seniors living in the Rio Vista neighborhood. Additionally, in 1981 she coordinated efforts between LULAC, the American G.I. Forum, and Texas Rural Legal Aid to challenge a Tom Green County redistricting plan that threatened to weaken minority voting power. The San Angelo city council unanimously elected her to serve as mayor pro tem for the 1982–83 term.
In 1984 Cárdenas attempted to move into county politics and ran for the Tom Green County Commissioners Court Precinct 1 seat but lost to retired policeman and former legislative staffer B. C. Domínguez. After the loss, Cárdenas decided to retire from politics. In 1985 she was appointed to a position on the San Angelo Public Housing Authority by Mayor Thomas Parrett. She remained active in local grassroots organizations until her death in San Angelo on May 29, 1993.
Cárdenas’s contributions to the city of San Angelo were recognized on a number of occasions. In 1980 she was the only woman included on a list of the twenty-five most powerful San Angeloans. A panel of local judges selected the list. In 1983 she was named the most powerful woman in San Angelo in a poll conducted by the San Angelo Standard-Times. In 1984 she was nominated for induction into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame by the Governor’s Commission for Women, and in 1993 she was recognized by the Hispanic Development Division of the San Angelo Chamber of Commerce at their annual “Quest for Success” luncheon. In November 2001 the San Angelo city council named the María Cárdenas U.S. 87 Pedestrian Overpass in her honor. The overpass, which allowed children attending Rio Vista Elementary School to safely cross a major thoroughfare, was built largely due to her efforts. A plaque located by the bridge entrance reads, “The key to her success was her vision, sincere belief in the voice of the people, perseverance and devotion to her cause that gained her the respect and admiration of many.”