Doing Her Part
Childhood struggles directed Sylvia Cardona toward the law—as well as public service
Published in 2022 Texas Super Lawyers magazine on September 20, 2022
Getting a class action notice in the mail is not usually a frightening thing—unless you’re new to the country or speak little English.
Sylvia Cardona’s father, a Mexican immigrant, received such a letter when she was in middle school. Nobody knew what it meant, and Cardona remembers the anxiety that crossed her father’s face. He had her call the 800 number to make sure everything was OK. The representative at the other end said her father didn’t need to do anything if he didn’t want to, which was good news to him. She believes it was a vehicle products liability case that her father chose not to pursue.
“It was very humbling,” Cardona says. “That’s when I first realized the strength of legal documents and the effect they can have on people who are not familiar with the law.”
Growing up Edinburg, a Texas border town in the Rio Grande Valley where the average income was low, Cardona didn’t know any lawyers. Mexican and American cultures merged, and many children, including Cardona, came from Spanish-speaking homes.
Cardona’s parents had met at a young age as migrant farm workers. They followed the growing seasons across the country, taking jobs picking strawberries, tomatoes, carrots and cotton.
After Cardona was born, the family settled permanently in Edinburg to be near her mother’s family. Her father took up manual labor and her mother found a job at a paper company. Cardona remembers her working 12- and 13-hour shifts and coming home tired, with cuts on her hands. Because of their parents’ long work hours, Cardona and her older sister, Sandra, pitched in at home, doing cooking, cleaning and other chores.
“I like to say we lived paycheck to paycheck, but honestly, there were times the checks didn’t go far enough,” Cardona says.
But her parents didn’t lose hope. Her mother’s favorite saying: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Cardona made good grades and paid her way to college with scholarships, jobs and student loans. At the University of Texas at San Antonio, she attended classes for 12-hour days on Tuesdays and Thursdays and worked for a law firm—where she found a job by chance—as a receptionist Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and half Saturdays. The firm helped people facing bankruptcy; the phone rang all the time.
Hard work earned her more responsibilities, and eventually Cardona handled client intake and assisted the legal team with petitions and pleadings. Many of the clients were Spanish-speaking, and Cardona saw what a difference her assistance made.
“Going through bankruptcy is very personal and difficult,” she says. “They could talk to me candidly because of where I’d come from. And speaking in their native tongue was huge. In most cases, there was an almost immediate trust.”
As she moved closer to graduation, she decided to make a career out of law. Cardona studied at the University of Oklahoma College of Law and earned her LL.M. from Georgetown University. She returned to Texas for a job in San Antonio.
As a young lawyer she wanted to learn two things: how to become an exceptional attorney and, remembering her own family’s struggles, how to become a public servant. She found the answer to the second by volunteering with the Texas Young Lawyers Association, which provides public service and education to help people understand their legal rights and responsibilities.
“I thought, well, that’s me, right? I grew up as one of those people, not knowing what the law was,” Cardona says.
In 2008 Cardona became the TYLA’s first Latina president. Over the years, she has continued to serve the community. She was a founding member of LEAD Academy, a program that helps women attorneys achieve promotions; and a trustee for the Texas Bar Foundation. She enjoys speaking to high school students about the importance of voting and getting an education.
“I don’t ever want to forget the troubles I went through, because I know somebody else out there is probably experiencing the very same thing,” she says. “And whatever we can contribute, collectively it makes a difference. So I’m just trying to do my part.”
Fond Memories of Growing Up in the Rio Grande Valley:
- The Hidalgo BorderFest and Charro Days
- Tejano music and folklórico dresses
- Elote—Mexican street corn
- Barbacoa—“Everybody ate [barbecue] on Sundays.”