Born in Santa Fe in 1930 on Sena Street to Francis Ortiz Lopez and Venceslao Serna, Cardenas is the granddaughter of Rita Ortiz (a direct descendant of Don Diego de Vargas) and Patrocino Lopez, whose family has also been in Santa Fe since the 17th century. Cardenas is the youngest of three siblings. Her brother, Ven Serna, a professor of humanities and languages at New York City University, died in 1981, and her sister, Esther Baca, died last year.
As a young girl, Cardenas decided on a career in Spanish dance. She credits her mother and the Sisters of Loretto for instilling in her a love of the arts. “I started studying tap dancing at the age of 5 with Elsie Hacke,” she said. “At 9, I began studying Spanish dance, tap and ballet with Marie Wilson, who was known as ‘La Gitana.’ My mother played the piano for my lessons and sewed my costumes. In school, the nuns had us read about the performing arts.”
As a teenager, Cardenas performed on the La Fonda rooftop during the annual Fiesta de Santa Fe with Billy Palou and his orchestra. After graduating from Loretto Academy in 1947, she left for Denver to study at Loretto Heights College. The school didn’t have a dance department so, after finishing her first year, she decided to return to Santa Fe. In the spring of 1948, she was chosen as the 16th La Reina de la Fiesta de Santa Fe, and was crowned by New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Daniel K. Sadler.
“The three-day celebration began with the burning of Zozobra, followed by my crowning ceremony, which was held at Magers Field,” she said. “The most memorable moments for me were the high Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi and the stroll around the Plaza that followed. ... It was all so simply elegant.”
After completing her duties as Fiesta queen, Cardenas moved to San Francisco at the urging of her brother, who was working on his doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley. It was there that she realized her dream of studying classical Spanish and flamenco dance at the San Francisco Ballet School with Spain’s Guillermo del Toro. Founded in 1933, the school’s ballet company remains one of the leading performing arts companies in the world.
By 1948, Cardenas was taking private classes with Elisa Cansino, who is actress Rita Hayworth’s aunt. (The Cansinos, from Castilleja de la Cuesta near the province of Seville, Spain, are well-nown to this day as remarkable flamenco artists.) Today, more than 60 years later, Cardenas still credits Cansino for teaching her the intricacies of flamenco.
In 1951, when Cardenas moved back to Santa Fe, she not only worked hard at her newly opened dance studio, but also volunteered as a dance teacher at St. Vincent’s Orphanage and traveled regularly to Taos, where she taught all forms of dance at the Taos Inn. In 1953, Cardenas married Robert Cardenas at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Her husband worked as an engineer for McKee Engineering Co. In 1969, when the family moved to Albuquerque, Betty Serna Cardenas cared for the couple’s five children. Robert Cardenas died in 1997.
Today, Betty Serna Cardenas, 83, stays busy with the Catholic Daughters of the Americas. She has been a member of the organization for many years. She also loves taking walks and spending time with her five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, who visit her often at her home in Los Ranchos, just outside Albuquerque. She continues to play castanets, stay in touch with her extended family, and read The Santa Fe New Mexican on her iPad.
She said, “I love my iPad because it keeps me up to date with what’s going on in my hometown.”