Carlos Cadena’s family came to San Antonio from Mexico in 1907. His father returned to Mexico when Cadena, the youngest of seven children, was still a child. His mother, Dolores Espinosa Larranaga, spoke only Spanish and supported her family by working as a housekeeper and laundry woman. She managed to extract a promise from her departing husband that he would help in sending young Carlos to college. Carlos received his early schooling at Saint Henry’s Academy on South Flores Street and attended the University of Texas at Austin. Cadena earned his law degree from the Austin campus in 1940, finishing third out of 117 graduates. He may have been the first Latino ever to serve as student editor of the prestigious Texas Law Review.
Carlos Cadena began his legal career as an assistant city attorney in San Antonio in 1940. When World War II broke out, Cadena left his job to serve in the Army Air Corp. He trained first as a radio operator and later as a gunner and served in the Pacific during the waning days of World War II. World War II ended in 1945 and Cadena returned to civilian life the following year. He worked for several private firms accepting legal cases in 1948 that established him as a champion of civil rights for Latinos. Dating back to the nineteenth century, Texas had permitted school districts to create separate schools for African Americans and Latinos. Cadena had worked with the famed civil rights attorney, Gus Garcia, a former UT Law classmate, on school desegregation cases. Their most famous school desegregation victory occurred in 1948 in Bastrop, Texas, where Anglo children were segregated from Mexican children using language as an excuse or reason. The claim that the schools were separate but equal did not convince the Federal judges from the Western District of Texas.
The Cadena and Garcia legal victory led to the desegregation of Latinos in Texas, an important victory for later school desegregation cases involving African Americans. One of Cadena’s first civil rights cases involved housing discrimination. In the years after World War II, the demand for housing grew as America entered its famed “baby boom” era. San Antonio’s housing market expanded significantly as builders and developers established new neighborhoods, many in the suburbs. For nearly fifty years local real estate companies in cooperation with neighborhood associations and builders, inserted restrictive covenant language in their sales contracts. To buy a home in their communities one had to agree never to sell that home to Blacks or Mexicans. These contracts basically denied minorities in San Antonio the opportunity to buy homes outside the poor income communities in the West and East side of the city. When a real estate agent informed Abdon Salazar Puente in 1948 that he could not purchase a home in Mayfield Park near present day Zazarmora and Loop 410, Puente retained the services of Carlos Cadena. The new homes in Mayfield Park had attracted many buyers because of their location in the southern part of San Antonio where low land prices made homes affordable. The courts agreed with Cadena that the law could not be used to discriminate against minorities. In 1954, Cadena teamed up with local attorney Gus Garcia in defending Pete Hernandez’s right to have a jury trial of his peers. Hernandez, a farmworker, had been convicted of murder by an all white jury. Cadena and Garcia appealed the decision on the basis that Mexican Americans had been excluded from jury selection.
Texas attorneys argued that Mexicans Americans were legally white and that as white citizens, they had not been excluded from jury selection. Cadena and Garcia argued that yes, Mexican Americans were white, but historically they had been treated as a “class apart” as evident in the local signs at restaurants and other public places proclaiming “No Mexicans” allowed. The Hernandez case went to the United States Supreme Court with Cadena and Garcia arguing the case. The Supreme Court and Chief Justice Earl Warren agreed that there had been systematic exclusion of Mexican Americans on juries in Texas for more than twenty-five years. The victory was a first for the Mexican American community in the nation’s s highest court. The walls of segregation were slowly crumbling.
In the early 1950s Cadena left private practice and returned to public law serving as head of the San Antonio city attorney’s office from 1954 to 1961. The test for equality in San Antonio came on March 16,1960 when Blacks entered the Woolworth downtown department store where lunch counters had long been segregated. Blacks were allowed to shop, but not to eat at the lunch counters. City attorney Carlos Cadena instructed the police chief not to arrest students engaged in peaceful demonstrations. The next day all six major department stores opened their lunch counters to Blacks. In doing so, San Antonio became the first city in the South to integrate its eating establishments. As a city official, Cadena contributed to making San Antonio a model for resolving segregation, a first for any city in the South. Cadena’s wisdom and courage in difficult cases won him an appointment as associate justice for the 4th Court of Appeals in Texas. In 1977, Governor Dolph Briscoe named him Chief Justice of this prestigious Texas court, a position Cadena held for 25 years. Cadena passed away in San Antonio in 2001, but his legacy lives on.