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Brooklyn Law School hosts exhibit featuring the First Latina Lawyers

November 22, 2016 By Rob Abruzzese Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Professor Dolores S. Atencio, a visiting scholar from the University of Denver, presented an exhibit at the Brooklyn Law School (BLS) that looks at the history of Latina lawyers in the U.S. from 1900 through 1980. Photos courtesy of Brooklyn Law School
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Brooklyn Law School (BLS) hosted a showing of and reception for “Luminarias de la Ley: An Exhibit of the First Latina Lawyers 1900-1980,” a pictorial timeline of the history of Latina lawyers in the U.S. in Downtown Brooklyn Friday night.

The showing and reception is an original research project by University of Denver visiting scholar Dolores S. Atencio, who gave a lecture prior to the reception. Despite its name, the exhibit began as far back as the 1873 case of Bradwell v. Illinois — in which the U.S. Supreme Court denied women admission to the bar — and it ended with Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s 2009 appointment to that same U.S. Supreme Court. In between, it tells the stories of 40 luminaries.

“We would not be here tonight if it were not for the creative inspiration and scholarly work of Professor Delores Atencio,” said BLS Dean Nicholas Allard. “I had the chance to walk through the exhibit earlier today. Not only is it artistically compelling, but it also serves as a fascinating timeline of the legal contributions made by the women of the Latin community.”

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One of the women featured in the exhibit was Irma Vidal Santaella, a graduate of BLS in 1961 who became the first Puerto Rican woman admitted to the New York State Bar and who, in 1983, was the first elected to the New York Supreme Court.

“Irma Vidal Santaella is emblematic of the Brooklyn Law School legacy,” Allard said. “Since our founding in 1901, our law school has been a gateway to opportunity for talented people of all backgrounds who may not been able to pursue a legal education at other institutions. We were pioneers in opening the doors to legal education to women, Hispanic Americans, African Americans, immigrants and others from diverse backgrounds.”

The research project started in 1993 when Atencio created a slideshow for the Hispanic National Bar Association’s (HNBA) annual convention in San Francisco which featured 21 of the country’s first Latina lawyers. A year later, it was turned into the documentary “Las Primeras” (“The Firsts), which was virtually forgotten about until 2013.

That year, Atencio continued the work and, with the help of her students, researched and wrote two pieces: “Abogadas Primeras — Una Historia” (“The First Latina Lawyers, A History”) and “Salute to Latinas in the 50 States,” printed and distributed in partnership with the HNBA Latina Commission. By the time they were done, the project became an identification and study of all Latina lawyers from 1900 through 1980.

Despite the outstanding progress Latina lawyers have made in those 80 years, Allard spoke of continuing the legacy at BLS of helping people of all backgrounds to rise up through education.

“We are proud of our history and legacy, but we do not rest on our laurels,” Allard said. “Today, more than ever, it is important for this law school to continue our leadership to make legal education accessible and affordable to talented and promising individuals from all backgrounds. We have much work to do to extend the blessings of liberty and opportunity to the generations to come. Let us be inspired by the vision of these luminarias and go forward together.”

From left: Professor Diana Sen; Queenie Paniagua, president of the Dominican Bar Association; Matthew Fernandez Konigsberg, regional president of the Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA); Eneida Roman, HNBA Latina Commission co-chair; Betty Lugo, president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association; and Carmen Pacheco, president-elect of the PRBA. 

From left: Andrea Scheer; Marvin Espana; Corina Lozada; Joseph Santiago; Ana Núñez; Jean Paul Stefan; Professor Dolores S. Atencio; Ernesto Slater; Stephanie Robayo; and José Andres Jaime.

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