Culture, Concussions and Community
Thursday, September 6, 2018
Posted by: Andrea Evans
José A. Cárdenas and Dr. Javier Cárdenas demonstrate the importance of work, the value of family, and the commitment to building community.
By Karen Werner
Dad is general counsel to Arizona State University and the host of a public affairs TV show. Son is a neurologist and director of the Barrow Concussion & Brain Injury Center. Together, they make a formidable father-son duo that is moving Arizona toward a brighter future.
Born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, José Cárdenas came from humble beginnings. His father had a sixth-grade education and moved to the U.S. from Mexico when he was in his 30s. José’s mother was born in a small town in northern Nevada to Mexican parents. Her mother died when she was 6 and she moved with her father and siblings to railroad housing in Las Vegas where years later she met José’s father. The two built a family that included three boys and one girl.
“Even though they didn’t have much education, they stressed education and the importance of having an honest job,” José said.
After his father was killed in a work accident when José was 15, the teenager wanted to drop out of school. His mother wouldn’t hear of it. Luckily, José also received emotional support from his childhood sweetheart, Virginia, a 5-foot-tall beauty he began dating in ninth grade who became the great love of his life.
“I started out as an engineering major at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas but couldn’t visualize in 3D,” José said. “Fortunately, I had a history professor who thought I wrote well and took an interest in me. He’s the one who suggested I consider law, even though I had never met a lawyer.”
Father Knows Best
After UNLV, José made his way to Stanford University with Virginia, now his new bride. There, their family began to grow with the birth of their eldest son, Javier. “I am in the Stanford Law School yearbook, though I was just a baby,” Dr. Javier Cárdenas said with a laugh.
After José completed law school, he got an offer from a big firm in Los Angeles. But the more the young family considered their options, the less appealing a big city was. José was interested in criminal law and moved the family to Phoenix in 1978 to work for the firm of Lewis and Roca (now Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie), where he stayed until 2009.
During those years, José and Virginia put down deep roots in the Valley. They welcomed two more sons, José Luis and Sergio, and became tireless community champions. “I can’t say that Virginia and I had this grand scheme, but we did try to model commitment to family, to community, to being honest and working hard,” José said. “I can’t say that I was a ‘Father Knows Best’ type of father with profound messages for my children. But I think Virginia and I both tried to model what we thought was good behavior.”
A Different Road
Their approach seems to have worked. Javier graduated from Chandler High School and went on to earn an education degree at ASU. He taught for a year at Tolleson Union High School, but an early career experience ultimately steered him down a different road.
As part of a student-teaching session, he went back to Chandler High to train in special education. He spoke with the parents of students he was helping, asking what it was like to raise a child with a disability. “Something that stuck with me is that their experience with physicians was poor. Either the physician would not speak to the child at all, or the physician would speak to the child in baby talk, or they would blame the mother for the child’s neurological condition,” Javier said. These conversations inspired him to move on from teaching and enroll in medical school at the University of Arizona.
From there he found his way to pediatric neurology where another chance encounter would solidify his path. A 7-year-old named Emily had been riding an ATV and suffered a brain injury from an accident. “It really had an impact on me,” Javier said. “So I thought that I would work to create a program to address brain injuries for those individuals who are discharged from the hospital or go to the ER and don’t have a place to have comprehensive care.”
As a result, Javier created the Barrow Concussion & Brain Injury Center, which is the nation’s most comprehensive concussion prevention, treatment and education program. The center works to address brain injuries in all forms, whether they’re from car crashes, sports or domestic violence. “We try to address these injuries in the most comprehensive manner we can. We have a team of neurologists, neuropsychologists and psychiatrists to help address the physical, behavioral and cognitive deficits associated with brain injury,” Javier said.
As director, Javier also created the Barrow Brainbook, which Arizona high school students must complete to participate in school sports. It’s the first mandated online concussion education and testing tool for student athletes in the country. More than 400,000 Arizona youths have completed the training since it launched in 2011.
Javier is proud of Arizona’s leading role in concussion education, legislation and policy. “We were one of the first states to restrict contact practices in football, and we remain the first to restrict the number of heading practices in soccer,” he said. “We came out with something called the helmet dislodgement rule, which means if the helmet comes off during a football game the athlete has to go to the sidelines and have it inspected. That was adopted nationally. So we’re doing some amazing things in Arizona as it pertains to concussion.”
Meanwhile, José is doing important things for the state in his own, well-spoken way. As host of the KAET Channel 8 weekly public affairs program “Horizonte,” he has introduced hundreds of notable artists, scientists and thought leaders to the community. And it all began with a missed meeting.
“The folks at Channel 8 convened a meeting to talk about how they might have better outreach to the Hispanic community,” José said. “I didn’t make it, but one of the things they talked about was a program modeled on ‘Horizon’ that would focus on the Hispanic community and Hispanic community issues. Several names were suggested to audition. Mine was one of them.”
Prospective hosts were called in to audition, an experience José didn’t exactly ace. “I was sure that they wouldn’t want me after that disaster,” he said. “But I was wrong.”
Fifteen years—and many dozens of interviews—later, José relishes the platform as an opportunity to squash stereotypes and shift perspectives. For instance, he interviewed an internationally known cancer research specialist from the Mayo Clinic who was born and raised in Mexico. “We didn’t make a huge deal out of him being Mexican, but just the fact that he was sent the message,” he said.
Whether it’s spotlighting bright young DREAMers or talented artists, José knows the program is increasingly relevant today. “There are still a lot of negative stereotypes, especially in today’s climate. That’s really come to the fore, unfortunately,” he said.
They’re successful professionals, sure, but the Cárdenas family has also never forgotten their roots. Virginia spent most of her career working with recent immigrants or their children, first in the counseling department at Chandler High School and later at ASU, where she was an eighth-grade adviser in the Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program.
For his part, José is actively involved in the community and serves on the board of a number of organizations, including the CALA Alliance (Celebración Artística de las Américas), which promotes Latino culture. He is a trustee of the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust and served three governors as president of the Arizona-Mexico Commission. He also served on the board of Chicanos Por La Causa, the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Los Abogados Hispanic Bar Association.
Perhaps no service has been as personal as the couple’s longstanding work with Xico, Inc., an ethnic arts organization serving Latino and indigenous artists since 1975. “For well over 30 years we were both involved,” José said. “I’m no longer on the board but I still run their annual fundraiser dinner and art auction.”
Art, particularly Latin American art, is one of José’s driving passions, as it was for his wife before she died of cancer in 2012. Virginia chaired the Arizona Commission on the Arts for a number of years and was a longtime board member of Xico. In her honor, the organization now bestows the Virginia E. Cárdenas Arts Advocate Award.
A Monument to Love
The family’s heritage comes to life in José’s warm, welcoming home. Filled from floor to ceiling with meticulously placed artwork, the house is a monument to his love for his late wife.
“Virginia and I were both art lovers. We started collecting when I was in law school,” José said.
Most of the home’s rooms have themes, though that was somewhat accidental. The couple started arranging pieces and then friends would give them artwork as well. Today, there is a room full of Madonnas, one filled with angels, a room of crosses as well as a Frida Kahlo-themed entryway. There’s a political room, a hallway filled with Día de los Muertos figures, and a room that celebrates Mexico.
Virginia’s presence is everywhere, from the kitchen where she cooked to the bookshelves lined with her books in both English and Spanish. The patio where she entertained is dotted with colorful murals, including one depicting a smiling Virginia kneeling below citrus trees, holding a book.
“She loved to read and was a very good cook,” José said, pointing out framed photos of Virginia throughout her life. Here she is at her first Holy Communion. There, at her quinceañera. There is a shot of the couple on their first date and many of Virginia with her sons when they were young. Scores of photographs celebrate her life, and the family’s life together.
Javier and his brothers grew up in this home, absorbing their parents’ lessons. “My parents were always involved in the community, especially in arts programs,” Javier said. “We’d go to events that were largely community-driven and we enjoyed it. It didn’t dawn on me that my parents were volunteering. It was part of our regular routine.”
Along the way, the boys picked up some critical learning. “My parents always led by example, meaning that they were always involved in helping others, and especially our community, to make sure that everybody had the same opportunities that we did, and that our community was as healthy as we were as a family.”
Passing It On
Now, as the father of three children himself, Javier works to pass on the example to his own kids. In addition to his busy schedule at the Barrow Center, he sits on the National Federation of High School Sports Advisory Committee and is vice chair of the National Football League Head, Neck and Spine Committee. He volunteers for a number of community organizations and serves on the board of directors of the Arizona School for the Arts, where his children attend school, as well as Vitalyst Health Foundation, Arizona Community Foundation, Fiesta Bowl Charities and Chicanos Por La Causa.
When it comes to the values he hopes his children Sophia, 17, Dominic, 16, and Santino, 14, absorb, they are much the same as those his parents taught him: education, health and community. “My daughter is a good example. She’s already volunteered hundreds of hours for Girl Scouts and spent a good chunk of the summer volunteering at Camp Maripai,” Javier said.
For the Cárdenas family, much of their work can be summed up in that one word: community. “My community means everything to me,” said Javier. “I’m a very proud Arizonan. And I hope that’s reflected in our community work.”
A Troubling Time
Through all of their efforts, a love of Arizona and a respect for community shine through. That’s not to say that commitment is always easy. In his office, José has a framed complaint that his boss, ASU President Dr. Michael Crow, received from someone who thought it was unfair that Dr. Crow “hired a Mexican as his general Counsel.”
These are troubling times, José said. “I’m distressed. My assumption is that many Hispanics are as well about the demonization of immigrants. It’s saddening that more people aren’t as offended as I think they should be.”
So the family continues their efforts on the job, on the airwaves and in our community to champion the people and the state that they love. “My Arizona community is as diverse as my family,” Javier said. “There are opportunities we need to create that can have a significant impact on families and definitely benefit Arizona. Education. Work opportunities. All of these are ways in which our community grows. The state gets a bad rap, whether it’s our politics or something that’s said and done by Arizonans. But Arizona has much to be proud of.”