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Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month: Recognizing Hispanic Leaders in Law

By: Z Family Law


National Hispanic Heritage Month begins on September 15th and is a time to highlight, recognize, and celebrate the many contributions of Hispanic Americans to the advancement of society. Hispanic Heritage Month was first observed in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week, and in 1988, the celebration was expanded to cover a full 30-day period. In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month 2022, we’ve gathered a list of five influential Hispanic American attorneys who have shaped society and the legal field as we know it today.


Dennis Chávez 

Dennis Chávez was the first American-born Hispanic Senator to be elected to the Senate. Born in Los Chavez, New Mexico in 1888, he dropped out of school at the age of 13 to support his family, though he continued studying independently and in 1917, he passed a special admission exam and was admitted to Georgetown University Law Center. Chávez won a seat in the New Mexico state House of Representatives in 1922, and in 1935, he was appointed U.S. Senator for the State of New Mexico after the newly-elected Senator died in an airplane crash. He was re-elected in 1936, and served until his death in 1962. During his time in the Senate, Chávez worked tirelessly to advance civil rights, introducing several reform bills, including the Fair Employment Practices Commission Bill to end workplace racial discrimination. Chávez is recognized as the longest-serving Hispanic Senator. 


Mario Guerra Obledo

Mario Obledo is known as the “Godfather of the Latino movement” in the U.S., and was a civil rights leader who fought for Hispanic interests throughout his life. Obledo was one of 12 children, born to Mexican immigrants in San Antonio, Texas. He earned his law degree from St. Mary’s University in 1960, and served as a Texas assistant attorney general, before co-founding one of the leading Latinx legal civil rights organizations, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) in 1967. Obledo later became the Secretary of Health and Welfare of California in 1974,and in that position, held the title of highest-ranking Mexican American official of the time. Obledo also co-founded two other Hispanic rights organizations: the Hispanic National Bar Association, and the National Coalition of Hispanic Organizations. In the early 1990s, Obledo led many activism efforts, protesting anti-immigrant advertising, among other causes. In 1998, President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom for “having created a powerful chorus for justice and equality.” In 2010, Obledo passed away, but his legacy as a Hispanic trailblazer remains.   


Mari Carmen Aponte

Mari Carmen Aponte was born in Puerto Rico in 1945, but moved to the United States in order to pursue her education. She earned her law degree from Temple University in 1975, and upon her graduation, became the first Latina lawyer in the state of Pennsylvania. In 1979, Aponte was appointed a White House Fellow by President Carter and she served as a special assistant in the Office of Presidential Personnel. She went on to co-found one of the first minority-owned law firms, and was elected the first woman president of the Hispanic National Bar Association. In 2009, President Obama nominated her as the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, and in 2012, she was confirmed by the Senate, making her the first Puerto Rican woman to hold the title. She served until December 2015. On October 8, 2021, Aponte was nominated by President Biden to serve as the United States Ambassador to Panama. 


Miriam Naveira de Merly

Born in Puerto Rico in 1934, Naveira had a long career of groundbreaking firsts. After studying chemistry at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, Naveira earned her law degree from the University of Puerto Rico. In 1973, she became the first female Solicitor General of Puerto Rico. In that capacity, in 1975, she argued before the Supreme Court of the United States, becoming the first Hispanic woman to do so. Naveira was also the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, where she served from 1985 to 2004. In 2003, she became the first woman to serve as Chief Justice of the court. She was reportedly a “pragmatic and moderate jurist,” until she retired in 2004. Naveira’s many accomplishments paved the way for other Latina women who followed her. 


Sonia Sotomayor

Sonia Sotomayor was born in New York City to Puerto-Rican parents. Sadly, her father passed away when she was nine and she and her brother were subsequently raised by her single mother. In 1976, Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University, and three years later, she earned her law degree from Yale Law School. After graduating, she worked as an assistant district attorney in New York, and then entered private practice four years later. President Bush nominated her to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1991, where she served as a judge until 1997, when President Clinton nominated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Sotomayor became the first woman of color and the first Hispanic woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court when she was appointed in 2009 by President Obama after Justice Souter retired. Sotomayor has given many speeches on the topics of ethnic identity and the importance of diversity, and she is well-known for her impassioned opinions on issues of race, gender, and ethnic identity, a topic near and dear to her heart.


These are just a few of the Hispanic trailblazers who merit recognition during Hispanic Heritage Month, and all year round. Though these and other groundbreaking leaders have worked tirelessly to expand civil rights for Hispanic Americans, many Hispanic attorneys still have to overcome discriminatory practices, racism, and adversity to achieve the same level of success as their non-Hispanic peers. While these leaders serve as inspiration that change is possible, there is still a long way to go towards achieving equality and diversity for minorities and people of color in the field of law, and U.S. society more broadly. 

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