The Hispanic Bar Association of Pennsylvania (HBAPA) is a prime example of America’s “melting pot” of cultures and people. With members of diverse cultures and backgrounds, the HBAPA’s history, while relatively short, has been lively and unique.
Latino lawyers came to Pennsylvania and the Delaware Valley area to attend law school and to practice law well before the creation of the HBAPA. One of the first Latinos admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar was Juan Silva, who was admitted in 1965. He, along with Silvio Sanabria admitted in 1969, served as mentors to rising Latino lawyers who, at that time, had no outlet for voicing concerns of the Hispanic community in Pennsylvania. Notably, before coming to Pennsylvania, Silvio Sanabria served as president of the Cuban Bar Association.
The HBAPA originated in the mid-1970s when the Philadelphia Bar Association recognized the growth of the Spanish-speaking community, and its need for quality legal services. The Honorable Nelson A. Diaz, the first Puerto Rican admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar, former Philadelphia City Solicitor, former judge and partner at Dilworth Paxson LLP, was appointed by the Philadelphia Bar Association to chair this committee. Through this committee, Judge Diaz promoted Hispanic civil rights issues such as ensuring the availability of translators in the Pennsylvania courts. Judge Diaz also recruited former classmates and friends, including Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte, who was the first Puerto Rican woman admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar, and who currently serves as the US Ambassador to El Salvador. Judge Diaz then looked to others such as Jose Lopez, now serving in the Veteran’s Administration in Washington, D.C., Rudy Arzon, Nazario Jimenez, and Miguel Leon and others outside the Delaware Valley to join him on this initial committee.
The original membership totaled no more than 15, and held its meetings in a room at the law firm of Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads LLP, the then firm of Gilbert Casellas, the first Latino chairman of the Board of Governors of the Philadelphia Bar Association. In 1983, this group decided to formalize the organization. The committee members drafted and passed the first by-laws that same year, establishing the HBA of Pennsylvania.
HBAPA Membership Through the Years
The greatest challenge the HBAPA faced was recruiting and increasing membership. With the mission of promoting the administration of justice and the social, economic, professional and educational advancement of Hispanics, the HBAPA began to address these goals and recruit membership. Professor Rafael Porrata-Doria, currently a professor at Temple University Beasley School of Law, served as the first president of the HBAPA. Membership remained low in the early 1980s as there were few Latino lawyers in Pennsylvania. Legend has it that the members waded through legal directories to identify and contact Hispanic attorneys in their recruitment efforts. Eventually, their efforts paid off and soon the HBAPA earned a seat on the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Commission on Judicial Selection and Retention.
The HBAPA takes pride in its many notable members including, but not limited to:
Secretary of State for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Pedro A. Cortes;
former Philadelphia City Councilman Angel L. Ortiz;
US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Judges Eduardo C. Robreño, Juan R. Sánchez, Nitza I. Quinones Alejandro, and L. Felipe Restrepo (recently nominated for the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit);
Common Pleas Court Judges M. Teresa Sarmina, Nina Wright Padilla, Giovanni Campbell, and Angeles Roca;
Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Nazario Jimenez;
former Philadelphia City Solicitors: Nelson Diaz, Romulo Diaz and Kenneth I. Trujillo;
former Philadelphia City Solicitor and Managing Director of the City of Philadelphia Pedro A. Ramos;
Deputy Mayor for Administration & Coordination and Managing Director of the City of Philadelphia Richard Negrin;
Philadelphia Department of Human Services Commissioner Alba Martinez; and
former Department Director of the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor and current Regional Administrator for the US General Services Administration's Mid-Atlantic Region, Sara Manzano-Diaz.
Many of these distinguished members are the first Hispanics to hold their respective positions.
HBAPA Now and the Future
The HBAPA works hard to meet the goals set forth by its founding members and to expand on their legacy. Today, the HBAPA sponsors and hosts mentorship receptions with area law students and community leaders. It also hosts continuing legal education courses, panel discussions with state and federal judges, and more. With these programs and events, the HBAPA not only addresses the Hispanic community’s concerns and needs, but also joins forces with other minority and affinity bars to ensure their mission of education and promotion of justice is attained throughout all communities.
The HBAPA has participated in the International Human Rights Committee, and the Minorities in the Profession Committee, as well as the Governor’s Judicial Reform Commission. The organization also hosted the Hispanic National Bar Association’s 26th Annual Convention in October of 2001. While the HBAPA has had a dynamic history, the future will provide more exciting and innovative ways for it to continue promoting its goals. The HBAPA looks forward to continuing to expand on its history and its impact on the legal community.