In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we’ve compiled a list of five Latino/a attorneys who were truly the firsts of their time and made a huge impact on the legal profession. We owe a sincere debt of gratitude to these trailblazers who forever changed the lives of generations of attorneys to come.
Born and raised in New Mexico, Dennis Chavez was the ultimate trailblazer. Mr. Chavez took an early interest in politics and, at the age of 29, moved to Washington, D.C. to pursue a position as an assistant clerk in the United States Senate. As if that weren’t impressive enough, he attended George University Law Center at night while maintaining his full-time position. Chavez graduated in 1920 and moved back to New Mexico to start his own law practice. He began his political career shortly thereafter and in 1930, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1935, Chavez became the first Latino to serve on the United States Senate. He was re-elected several times thereafter and served in the Senate until his death in 1962.
In 1930, California native Manuel Ruiz became the first Latino student to graduate from the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law. Upon graduation, Mr. Ruiz started his own law practice and became heavily involved in community organizing and political activism. He served as Chairman of the Citizens Committee for Latin American Youth, a committee created by the LA County Board of Supervisors to improve quality of life for Latino youth. He represented numerous activist groups in key civil rights cases. In 1951, Mr. Ruiz became the first Latino lawyer to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court (Buck v. California). In 1970, he was appointed by President Richard Nixon to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Look up “icon” in the dictionary and you will find Reynaldo Guerra Garza’s picture. Born in Texas in 1915, Garza earned his law degree from the University of Texas Law School in 1939. He then went into private practice before enlisting in World War II. Upon his return from the War, he continued to practice privately and made quite a name for himself. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy appointed Garza to serve on the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, making him the first Latino federal judge in the United States. He served as Chief Judge from 1974 to 1979, and in 1979, was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. He was the first Latino appointed to any federal circuit court. Needless to say, he inspired generations of future lawyers who aspired to succeed in his footsteps.
In 1975, Miriam Naveira Merly became the first Latina to argue before the Supreme Court in her capacity as the Solicitor General of Puerto Rico (and yes, she was the first woman to hold that position). She was only just getting started – in 1985, she became the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico and in 2003, became that court’s first female Chief Justice.
In 2009, Sonia Sotomayor became the first Latina to serve on the United States Supreme Court. Her groundbreaking path didn’t just start there. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush appointed Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, making her the youngest member of the court and the first Latina to serve on a federal bench in New York. In 1998, upon her appointment by President Bill Clinton, Sotomayor became the first Latina to serve on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. At only sixty-five years old, something tells us this Nuyorican trailblazer will be forging new “firsts” for years to come.