Alumni of Distinction

Class of 1926

Felipe N. Torres

Public Servant
First Puerto Rican Judge on the New York State Family Court
First Puerto Rican Assemblyman Elected from the Bronx
Founding Member of the Harlem Lawyers Association (now known as the Metropolitan Black Bar Association)
Founding Member of the Puerto Rican Bar Association
sepia tone picture of Judge Felipe N. Torres in his robe

pathbreaking Afro-Latino leader and legal trailblazer, Felipe N. Torres led a life of “firsts.” He was born on a farm in 1897, in the town of Salinas on the island of Puerto Rico. A year later, during the Spanish-American War, the U.S. military invaded and occupied Puerto Rico, displacing Spain as the island’s colonial ruler. The American government instituted sweeping economic and political changes, including an official campaign of “Americanization” of Puerto Rican children. Torres was a member of the first generation to attend the newly constructed schools where English-only instruction was imposed. In 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship under the Jones Act. After enlisting in the army and serving as a second lieutenant in World War I, Torres settled in New York City, becoming a pionero of the nascent Puerto Rican community. His path led him to Fordham Law School, where he earned his tuition by washing dishes at the Biltmore and Commodore Hotels. In 1926, Torres graduated and embarked on a law career in midtown Manhattan, later relocating to Harlem where he was named president of the Harlem Lawyers Association, now known as the Metropolitan Black Bar Association. After moving to the South Bronx, he ventured into politics and became the first Puerto Rican assemblyman to be elected from the Bronx, serving from 1953 to 1962. His advocacy encompassed challenging the English-only literacy test for voters, championing workers’ rights, fighting for equal pay for women, opposing discrimination in housing, and advocating for the right to counsel for criminal defendants. Torres also helped found the Puerto Rican Bar Association and the Ponce de Leon Federal Savings Bank, which addressed the mortgage needs of the burgeoning Latino community. In 1963, he was the first Puerto Rican appointed judge on the New York State Family Court, a role he held until reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70. After leaving the bench, Torres continued practicing law in the South Bronx well into his 90s. His wife of 58 years, Inocencia “Censita” Bello Paoli de Torres, died in 1990. Torres died four years later, leaving an indelible legacy as a dedicated lawyer, legislator, and jurist.