Felipe N. Torres
Pathbreaking 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
A 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, he graduated from Fordham and was admitted to the New York State Bar in 1927. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 1940 from the City College of New York, which he attended at night while his wife, Inocencia “Censita” Bello Paoli de Torres, cared for their school-aged children. Censita, born in 1904, was raised in Ponce, Puerto Rico, and migrated to New York City with her widowed mother and siblings in 1922.
Professionally, Torres began his 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, Torres 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.
Among the other accomplishments of his assembly years are participation in both the founding of the Ponce de Leon Federal Savings Bank, which was established to address the lack of mortgage funding available to the area's growing Latino community, and the Puerto Rican Bar Association. Upon his retirement, he was succeeded in the assembly by his son Frank.
In 1963, he was named by New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner as the first Puerto Rican judge on the New York State Family Court, a role he held until reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70, in 1967.
After leaving the bench, Torres continued practicing law in the South Bronx well into his 90s. Censita, his beloved wife of 58 years, passed away in 1990. Torres died four years later at the age of 96, leaving an indelible legacy as a dedicated lawyer, legislator, and jurist.
Torres was survived by his five children, the late Frank Torres, New York State assemblyman and justice of New York State Supreme Court; Aida Torres Mora, retired New York City elementary school teacher; Velia Torres Crespo, retired administrator in the New York City Housing Authority and retired professional opera singer; Austin Torres, practicing attorney at Torres & Torres, Attorneys at Law, the firm started by his father; and Alma Torres-Warner, retired New York City high school assistant principal.
He was also survived by 11 grandchildren. Their fields of endeavor include law, education, banking, theology, marketing, soccer coaching, human resources, and theater. Judge Analisa Torres, the youngest daughter of Judge Frank Torres, followed both her father and grandfather’s footsteps onto the New York State judiciary. President Barack Obama appointed her in 2013 to the distinguished bench of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.