Carlos C. Cadena, pioneering civil rights attorney and judge, was born on October 11, 1917, in San Antonio, Texas, the youngest of seven children of Aureleano Cadena and Dolores Espinosa Larranaga, who had emigrated from Mexico in 1907.
Cadena's parents separated and his father returned to Mexico while he was still quite young. Cadena's mother, who spoke no English, supported her family by working as a housekeeper and laundrywoman. Years later, when his father asked his mother for a divorce so he could remarry, she agreed on the condition that he promise to send Carlos to college. Carlos attended elementary and high school at St. Henry's Academy in San Antonio and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Texas law school with an LL.B. degree in 1940, though with typical self-deprecation he later claimed that he only decided to become a lawyer after seeing the suave William Powell portray one in a movie. Cadena, the only Mexican American in his class, ranked third out of 117 law school graduates. As an undergraduate, Cadena was student editor of the Texas Law Review and a member of the Order of the Coif and Phi Delta Phi.
After graduating, Cadena worked as an assistant city attorney in San Antonio from 1941 to 1943, when he was drafted into the Army Air Force. He trained as a radio operator in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and as a gunner in Yuma, Arizona, before serving in the Pacific during the last days of World War II. He was stationed in Hawaii, Okinawa, and Manila, though he never saw combat action.
After his discharge from the military in 1946 Cadena practiced law with the firm of Goodrich and Dalton in Mexico City for a year. He returned to San Antonio to become a partner in the firm of Archer, San Miguel and Cadena from 1947 to 1950. During this period he won a restrictive covenant case that helped open the San Antonio real estate market to Mexican Americans. Cadena represented Abdon Salazar Puente, who bought property in San Antonio's Mayfield Park Addition despite the local practice that caused the forfeiture of title in the event of a sale to a Mexican American. Cadena was encouraged to take on the case by the Pan-American Protective Association (PAPA), whose executive secretary was the future congressman Henry B. González.
In 1950 Cadena returned to the University of Texas as a John Jay Whitney Fellow, taking additional courses in law, philosophy, education, economics, and government. He was a professor of law at St. Mary's from 1952 to 1954, during which time he handled perhaps his best-known case.
Cadena and the flamboyant Gustavo Garcia took on the case of migrant cotton worker Pete Hernández, who had been convicted of murder in 1952 in Edna, Texas. On January 11, 1954, Cadena argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that Hernández's 1952 conviction was unconstitutional because Mexican Americans were excluded from jury service in Jackson County. In Hernández v. State of Texas, Cadena and Garcia became the first Mexican Americans to win a case before the Supreme Court when the court ruled unanimously that the exclusion of Mexican Americans from juries in Jackson County was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and ordered a new trial for Hernández. Though this trial, too, ended in a conviction for Hernández, for the first time Mexican Americans began serving on juries in many parts of the state.
Also in 1954, with Maury Maverick, Jr., Cadena represented I. H. (Sporty) Harvey, an African American boxer, in a suit against the Texas commissioner of labor statistics seeking to overturn the state prohibition on fights between persons of different races. The Court of Civil Appeals in Austin ruled in Harvey's favor, ruling that the section of the penal code banning such fights denied equal protection to African American boxers under the federal Constitution.
Cadena served as city attorney from 1954 to 1961, and helped clear the way for the city to purchase on credit the A. B. Frank property that became the City Hall Annex on Dolorosa Street. In 1970 Cadena was one of the founders of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), of which he became the first national president.
Cadena received a number of honors during his long career. The Alba Club at the University of Texas named him the outstanding Latin American in Texas in 1957. He also won the Man of the Year Award from the Sembradores de Amistad for 1973–1974, the St. Mary's School of Law Gavel Award in 1976, the MALDEF Founder's Award in 1978, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Award for Meritorious Service in 1980, and the Justice Award from the Texas Rural Legal Foundation in 1988, among many others. In 1999 the Texas Bar Foundation named Cadena an Outstanding Fifty-Year Lawyer.
He was the Burke Professor of Law at St. Mary's from 1961 to 1965, when Governor John Connally appointed him to the Fourth Court of Appeals, the highest state court in San Antonio. Cadena earned a reputation as a challenging and unconventional professor, and later said that he preferred teaching to practicing law, because "when I was teaching, nobody could reverse me." In 1977 Governor Dolph Briscoe appointed Cadena chief justice of the Fourth Court of Civil Appeals, making him the first Mexican American chief justice in Texas. He retired in 1990 but continued to serve as a senior appellate justice. In 1996 he also agreed to act as of counsel to the San Antonio law firm of Charles Nicholson.
Cadena died of complications from lung cancer on January 11, 2001, in San Antonio. He was survived by his wife, Gloria Villa, and nine children. He was buried in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.