Disabled Women Make History: Mary Zendejas

Posted by Stephanie Woodward in Life After Paralysis on April 18, 2022 # Disabled Women Make History

Councilwoman Zendejas wears a pink blazer and talks with constituents. “Being the first Latina wheelchair user elected to such an office comes with great responsibility to work hard every day.”

Councilwoman Mary Zendejas talks running for office, giving back, and serving the people of Long Beach, California.

“It was not easy running for office. I had a lot of self-doubt because I am a woman with a disability that uses a wheelchair, but I also do not come from money,” explained Councilwoman Mary Zendejas, the first Latina wheelchair user to be elected as a city councilwoman in the nation. “Once I decided to run for office, I knew I had to be aggressive in fundraising and in reaching my constituents. I knew I had to win and that there was no other option.”

Running for office would be hard work, but Councilwoman Zendejas is no stranger to doing hard things. Mary, who was born in Mexico, contracted polio when she was 8 months old. After her parents exhausted all options for her healthcare in their home country, they made a great sacrifice by leaving four of their children in Mexico in order to move to the United States with Mary she was five years old. Two years later, they were able to bring the rest of their children to the United States, and their family was reunited.

“Thanks to this decision, not only did I get access to better healthcare, but I also got an opportunity to go to school with other children. I was the first in my family of nine siblings to graduate from high school and go to college. At the age of 19 years old, I moved out of my home because I wanted to be independent,” Councilwoman Zendejas recalled. “I struggled both emotionally and financially, but I knew that this was the right thing for me to do. After graduating college, I held several jobs like, insurance agent, administrative assistant, program coordinator, and program director.”

In addition to working multiple jobs, Councilwoman Zendejas has also always been active in her community. In high school, she would organize workshops to help legal residents become citizens of the United States, and she spearheaded community clean-up days in her neighborhood. She has continued to get involved with more organizations and community activities ever since. In fact, today, she serves on many boards and is Vice President of Ms. Wheelchair America.

After decades of hard work and community service, Councilwoman Zendejas decided to run for office in a crowded field of nine accomplished, qualified candidates, including business owners and community activists. Despite her initial insecurities about being a disabled woman candidate and about fundraising, not only did she raise the most money out of all of the candidates, but on November 5, 2019, she also received the most votes and was elected to represent the 1st District of Long Beach, California.

Councilwoman Zendejas wears a cream suit and pink blouse while sitting by a pink flower bush. She smiles at the camera. “It was incredible to see the overwhelming support that I had, especially from the Disability Community,” Councilwoman Zendejas smiled, “and being the first Latina wheelchair user elected to such an office comes with great responsibility to work hard every day. I want to make a positive impact so that other people who are interested in going into politics also get motivated to do so.”

It’s important for Councilwoman Zendejas to motivate others to get involved in politics because, for a long time, she did not think that politics were for her.

“I was approached many times by friends and family to run for elected office, but in my eyes, I didn't think politics were for me because I was more of an advocate for my community,” Councilwoman Zendejas admitted, “Ever since I was in high school, I was very committed to helping out my community by getting involved with community service clubs. My greatest joy was when I had the opportunity to help others succeed. Even though I was always working full time, I still felt that I needed to give back to my community. Therefore, I got involved with many nonprofit organizations that advocated for equality, inclusion, and diversity. I was always willing and ready to give from the bottom of my heart to make sure that I was making a difference in someone's life in a positive way. It was not till later that I realized what others saw in me and why I should run for office.”

Now that Councilwoman Zendejas is in office, she’s just as passionate as ever about serving her community. She loves working for the people, and you can often find her dining restaurants in her district.

“My leadership style and personal brand is to be as accessible to my residents and my business owners. I lead with love and compassion and bring that into my policy-making continuously. I never thought that I would be in politics, but now that I am, I absolutely love being able to make a positive impact on the quality of life of the residents of the city of Long Beach. In addition, I feel that representation matters, and I am proud to be the only Latina and the only wheelchair user on our City Council.”

Speaking of representation, Councilwoman Zendejas knows that her influence as a disabled woman serving on City Council is making a real difference. “The impact is huge, especially in the way that the city is doing things now versus how they were doing things before I came onboard,” she shared. “The city as a whole has to think about the way they do things, and they seek my approval when making decisions that could impact the Disability Community. It also has had the greatest impact on people living with disabilities in the city of Long Beach. They tell me that they feel like they actually have a representative that is their voice now.”

Councilwoman Zendejas is an incredible public servant and representative for the people of Long Beach, and she is also a fantastic role model for anyone who wants to run for office – and especially for women and girls with disabilities. When asked what advice she has for disabled girls and women who aspire to be leaders, Councilwoman Zendejas didn’t hesitate to share these words:

“I would tell them to go for it! If it's something that makes you happy, then go for it and give it your best. Don't doubt yourself! Use your disability as a strength. Note that your disability is your superpower and use it wisely.”

Stephanie Woodward is an attorney and Executive Director of Disability EmpowHer Network, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering girls and women with disabilities. Stephanie is passionate about seeking justice for marginalized communities - and has an arrest record to show for it. As a proud disabled woman and civil rights activist, Stephanie is committed to bringing more women and girls with disabilities to the forefront through mentoring and activism.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.