Working to build a more inclusive Arlington through civic engagement

Londy Ramirez, Arlington Sentinel News


ARLINGTON, Texas—Just under a year ago, Jo Anna Cardoza helped to unveil a street sign topper that she, Luis Castillo, Richard Gonzalez, Javier Najera and community leaders from the Asian and Muslim committees had been working on for years to honor Dolores Huerta.

Huerta served as a highly successful union leader and an advocate of women’s and farmworkers’ rights. To encourage agricultural laborers to band together for a better living for themselves and their families, she created the motto “Si Se Puede,” which translated to English means “Yes We Can.”

The May 27, 2023, street sign topper unveiling was the culmination of a series of events that began when Cardoza learned that Arlington was looking into the idea of honoring cultural heritage and that there might be an opportunity for the Mexican-American community to get a street topper.

At first, Cardoza and Castillo submitted documents for Cesar Chavez, but when Gonzales got involved, he suggested a woman. Cardoza said she agreed right away because she said she had always wanted Huerta.

Female representation important

“We ended up submitting Dolores Huerta because we didn’t have any female representation on that street in regards to street toppers,” Cardoza said. “If you look at her background, she was a teacher, and one of the reasons why she got involved in what she did was because her kids [students] came to school without shoes. She started seeing [what] the conditions the former farmworkers were in the community, and so she started becoming an advocate.”

Cardoza added, “East Arlington is kind of the same because it’s a tight Latino, lower-income area, and one of the biggest things that I’m always advocating for is more resources for our schools and that community, so I thought she was perfect.”

Amanda Arizola is the North Texas Program Officer for Asset Funders Network and also the first Latina board member for John Peter Smith Hospital. She gave a speech at the unveiling.

Her speech was about when she was a student at the University of Texas in Austin and she met Huerta.

Arizola and Cardoza met when Cardoza was launching her campaign to run for city council. They have been keeping in touch since then.

When Arizola knew about the project and that it was going to have Huerta’s name, she said the news made her happy.

“It was awesome because the one thing that we have to always talk about—and one thing I always talk about—is representation matters,” Arizola said. “There’s an elementary school. Family that’s in a minivan or in a car, they’re in a car seat, they’re waiting and they’re out there and they see Dolores Huerta. It’s a little thing, and that may be idealistic, but it has a big impact. Really proud of the work that they’ve done.”

The topper is located on Pioneer Parkway at the Sherry Street, Carter Drive and Watson Road intersections in East Arlington.

The street sign topper honoring Dolores Huerta is located on Pioneer Parkway at the Sherry Street, Carter Drive and Watson Road intersections in East Arlington.

Humble beginnings

 Cardoza said a friend prodded her to get involved in Arlington civic life. She said she never thought she would become the first Latina to run for Arlington City Council in 2020.

Cardoza is a first-generation Texan born in Houston. Her parents emigrated from San Luis Potosi, Mexico. When Cardoza was about 6 years old, the family moved to Arlington.

Cardoza said she grew up in poverty in East Arlington. Her dad used to work in construction, and when the family moved to Arlington, the first house they lived in was one that her father was working on. It was still under construction.

Cardoza used to move a lot and went to different elementary and high schools growing up. Her parents split, so her mom became a single mother who had five children to care for.

Cardoza’s mom, Felipa Mezomo, used to take her to work to keep an eye on Cardoza. She said her mother worried she was hanging out with friends who could get her in trouble.

That’s where Cardoza the then-owners of four Jack In The Box restaurants, Elio Porras and Bassam Odeh.

When Cardoza was of age, she started working in the same Jack In The Box as her mom as the drive-thru cashier.

“Those two men…gave me an opportunity to grow with their company,” Cardoza said. “I am forever grateful to them because I don’t think I would be where I am if I didn’t have them in my life and if they didn’t give me that opportunity.”

Cardoza is now the vice president of marketing for Odeh Restaurant Group.

The Odeh Restaurant Group owns several Jack In The Box restaurants in Arlington and Grand Prairie, the Qdobas in the DFW market and some restaurants inside the airport.

The importance of curiosity

 Cardoza said that she has always been curious, so when she started working at  Jack In The Box, she started inviting herself to the management meetings. The owners took notice of her curiosity.

“When it was time for him to start growing, he looked up to me and another lady, who is another good mentor of mine, Olivia Redondo, to help him grow his company,” Cardoza said. “When you start growing, you really need a foundation, you need people that are committed and that are really good at what they do.”

A career that began with work as a drive-thru cashier blossomed into much more. Cardoza has helped run operations and has assisted the owner with remodeling existing stores and building new ones.

“My curiosity always allowed me to learn and grow, and I kept growing within my position as well,” Cardoza said. “One thing that I advise to people is, if someone gives you an opportunity, never say no, because that’s how I ended up getting more and more responsibilities and learning a lot of stuff, too.”

Cardoza met her husband, Sergio Cardoza, while working at Jack In The Box. They have now been together for 27 years. Her husband is from Durango, Mexico.

Her mom, dad and husband’s legal status made her an immigration activist. Cardoza said it’s not surprising that the person who pushed her to start getting involved in the Arlington community was someone who has been in the immigration process for 27 years.

Maria Robles was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, and at the age of 4, her mom moved her and her sister to California.

They started their journey to fix their immigration status in 1986 with the Reagan administration, but when she was about 11 years old, her mom sent her back to Mexico to take care of her grandfather.

“She sent me to Mexico, and I was there 11 months,” Robles said. “I left as a temporary resident and ended up staying 11 months. I came back and lived my life. I didn’t know that that would change my life.”

Her mom and sister adjusted their status within two or three years. Robles said her status was complicated by time in Mexico caring for her grandfather. Government officials would put a 12-month extension on her temporary resident card and tell her they were still working on her case.

A couple of years later she got a letter that notified her about an intent to terminate, and the notice said it was because she left the country, now she needed to show them what the emergent reason was that she left.

She showed them affidavits, medical records, hospital records and sent them in. She didn’t hear anything for about two or three years.

Robles learned in the mid-‘90s that her residency had been terminated because she abandoned it at the age of 11 to care for her grandfather. By that time, her mom and sister were lawful residents. Her mom filed for her under lawful resident that she has a daughter over the age of 21.

“They would give you a work permit for two years,” Robles said. “I went along with that program. Until 2018, renewing it, having to prove constant presence here in the U.S., filing taxes, couldn’t get in trouble, none of that. Then my mom became a citizen, and my priorities changed. When we thought that it was going to be faster, it still took a long time. Life went on, and I had a daughter that turned 21 and then she petitioned for me.”

Citizenship makes a difference

But it wasn’t until April of 2023 she became a citizen. Robles is now a constituent services representative for U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Texas.

Robles and Cardoza met at an event through League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, when Robles was still in the process of fixing her status. She saw that Cardoza had an advantage, which was being a U.S. citizen.

“I always wanted to invite her to different meetings and different community events,” Robles said. “I was also interested in her being more active in the community because she actually could vote. It’s really different when you have a person voicing their concerns and their opinions.”

Robles added: “There it’s different when they’re a citizen than when they’re not a citizen. I saw that she had a really good advantage to be the voice of those of us who couldn’t, I mean, we could speak but the weight wasn’t there. Because we couldn’t vote. That’s where we’re going to get her involved.”

The first committee Cardoza got involved in was the Arlington Tomorrow Foundation, which was created in 2007 by the Arlington City Council. It was established to guarantee that the money raised from the city’s natural gas drilling operations benefited Arlington and its residents for years.

Cardoza served for two, two-year terms.

“I learned a lot of what’s going on in the community in regards to a lot of the issues such as the unsheltered community and kids who are hungry,” Cardoza said. “There are a lot of organizations also working to address health disparities in our community, improve education in our community, and also a lot of things that are going on with the arts in the community.”

Cardoza said the experience was impactful to her.

“I was just very, very grateful that I was able to use my personal experience growing up in East Arlington in poverty to help guide how some of those grants should be awarded to nonprofits in our community,” she said.

She was also a member of the Hispanic Advisory Committee for then-U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas.

Barton had a committee to give him feedback on certain issues. Cardoza said that it was a bipartisan advisory committee on which people from different backgrounds could provide their perspectives and opinions about how issues would affect the community.

“We were able to give him feedback with regards to immigration policy,” Cardoza said.

City Council bid

In 2020, Cardoza ran for City Council in Arlington after many people asked her if she was going to.

“When the elections were coming up for 2020, I started getting a lot of people asking me the same question, like, ‘Are you running for city council?’ It was either a question or a comment,” Cardoza said. “That put that seed in my head and I really thought about it and I’ve talked to a lot of people but because you know, you are basically putting yourself out there, and unfortunately, lately politics have become very, very polarized in a lot of attacks.”

It was something new for her. She said she had to learn the process of how to run for office. She said the “why” of running for office was never a question for her—she said she wanted to be a voice to make decisions.

“You can serve on a lot of boards and committees, but in that position, you’re just advising the people that really make those decisions,” Cardoza said. “I felt like in order for me to really make an impact for my community I had to really consider about trying to get on the seat that makes the decisions.”

On Feb. 3, 2020, she filed papers making it official, and she said she did it that day because it was her daughter’s birthday.

“I wanted it to be on my daughter’s birthday because I hope to inspire my daughters to push themselves and to do things that are out of their comfort zone,” Cardoza said.

She also hoped to inspire Latinas to get more involved in the community.

Cardoza lost her election by less than 10% of the vote, but she said she learned she could do it.

Cardoza is still getting herself involved in more committees, one of them being the Arlington-Mansfield Area YMCA as part of the board of directors.

To listen to an audio story about the street sign topper honoring Dolores Huerta, click here.

Publisher’s Notes: “Working to build a more inclusive Arlington through civic engagement” was first published in The Arlington Sentinel News and was republished with permission.

Part of LNN’s mission is to amplify the work of others in providing greater visibility and voice to Hispanic, Latino communities.

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