Raised by a field worker who protested alongside Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and a factory worker who cared for nine children in South Los Angeles, Mary Zendejas and her siblings were taught generosity and compassion above all else.
From her late father especially, Zendejas learned the importance of civic engagement as a teen when he pushed her to help families apply for citizenship before they were citizens themselves.
Born in Mexico, Zendejas became a U.S. citizen right after high school and, later, so did her father. She said it was one of his proudest moments. He wanted to vote and pushed the rest of the family to do the same until his final days.
“He was the one that made sure we knew how important it was to be a Democrat, how important it was to be there for the community,” the 48-year-old said.
Now, in her bid to represent the 1st District on the Long Beach City Council through a special election Nov. 5, the longtime resident says she dedicates her campaign to her father, honoring his hard work.
A history of fighting for the community
While at Cal State Long Beach, Zendejas continued her civic engagement as a member of the student body government. It’s also where she met Mayor Robert Garcia and Councilwoman Suzie Price, both of whom she considers friends.
It was followed by decades of activism within the affordable housing and disability community, in large part because of her own experiences.
Stricken with polio as an infant, a disease that weakens muscles, Zendejas and her family came to the U.S. seeking better treatment and a better life. She began using a wheelchair full-time while in high school.
While in college she found an apartment that allowed her to walk into her bathroom while holding on to objects, but a slip and fall injury 10 years into living there meant she could never stand up again.
“I was in that apartment without being able to access my bathroom, without being able to even wash my hands in my bathroom for 10 years because I couldn’t find an accessible, affordable house for me, or apartment.”
Because of this experience her solution for the housing crisis is to build more affordable, accessible housing for all income levels.
“She doesn’t give up easily,” said longtime friend and fellow disability rights advocate Cynde Soto.
Soto, who is quadriplegic, met Zendejas when they were coworkers years ago at the Disabled Resources Center in Long Beach. Later on they worked together as Housing Long Beach board members at a time when redevelopment and gentrification was becoming prevalent, Soto said.
Her colleagues on the Long Beach Transit Board of Directors—who also support her campaign—described her as a passionate and compassionate woman.
“She shows this emphasis on access for anyone with a disability,” said board chair Colleen Bentley. “I think she’s opened the eyes of the transit board to people with mobility issues. She’s like a patron saint for access for everybody.”
Fellow board member Michael Clemson called her a pioneer in advocating for better bus stop conditions, including better lighting and shelter from heat and rain as well as safety conditions.
“I think that she just has an incredible amount of compassion and empathy for people in Long Beach and that would be a very good thing,” Clemson said.
Independence amid high-level endorsements
Now Zendejas is looking to help her community as a councilwoman in the 1st District, where she has been living for five years.
And while she has the support of many elected officials, including Garcia and state Sen. Lena Gonzalez (both former 1st District councilmembers), some believe, because of her endorsements and contributions, that she will go along with what the “Establishment” in Long Beach wants. She has raised more money than her competitors with more than $60,000 in contributions.
While insulted by these allegations at first, Zendejas said she has earned those endorsements “fair and square” after over 30 years of work in the city.
“I don’t think she has an agenda, I think her agenda is the community’s agenda,” said Josh Butler, who also worked alongside Zendejas as a fellow board member on Housing Long Beach and then as its executive director—a position from which he resigned this spring.
Butler described Zendejas as a tough person and someone to be taken seriously.
“I don’t think people should underestimate her; she’s nice and she wants to build consensus and work with folks but she’s not someone that could be pushed over,” Butler warned.
“There’s a lot of things where I will agree with the council, there’s a lot of things I already know that we won’t agree on,” Zendejas said. “But I will always be true to myself and to my word and to what I believe in.”