Felipe N. Torres Papers
Scope and Contents
The Felipe N. Torres Papers help chronicle the long and dynamic career one of New York’s original Puerto Rican pioneros in the legal and political fields. Moreover, they help trace the origins of the Puerto Rican community in New York in the early decades of the twentieth century and its subsequent growing presence and influence in numerous aspects of political and civic life.
A historically rich collection, highlights of the papers include extensive correspondence with noted figures such as Luis Muñoz Marín, Felisa Rincón Gautier, Robert F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. and former New York Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr., files chronicling various facets of Torres’ professional life and materials on several seminal community and political organizations. In addition, contained is a large selection of photographs documenting Torres’ vibrant political and legal careers, as well as the lives of his equally as dynamic family.
The materials in this collection span the years from 1881 to 2004 with the bulk concentrating on the years 1920 to 1994. They consist of correspondence, memoranda, photographs, flyers, clippings, programs, videotapes, audiocassettes and artifacts. The folders are arranged alphabetically and the documents are arranged chronologically. The materials are in both Spanish and English.
Box 39 includes several accessions donated from his daughter Alma Torres Warner, inlcuding two pins, an invitation to Felipe N. Torres' swearing in ceremony for Judge of the Family Court, and a letter to Reverend Joseph P. Fitzpatrick.
- Creation: Majority of material found within 1920-1994
- Creation: 1881-2004
Conditions Governing Access
Open to researchers with some restrictions noted at the folder level.
Biographical / Historical
Felipe Neri Torres was the second Puerto Rican elected to the New York State Assembly and the first to hold the office from the Bronx. Serving from 1953-1962, Torres initially represented the 5th Assembly District of Bronx County and would go on to represent the 4th Assembly District for the rest of his years in office; both districts were located in the South Bronx. From 1963- 1967, shortly after the end of his terms in office, he also served as a Judge of the Family Court in the Bronx. A civic activist, Torres was extensively involved with the Puerto Rican community, supporting efforts to build organizations and becoming a founding member of several that continue to flourish to this day. His accomplishments both at the legislative level and as a civic leader contributed greatly to the building of the Puerto Rican/Latino community in New York City and are demonstrative of a pioneering spirit evident in many early arrivals from the island.
Born in Salinas, Puerto Rico on May 26, 1897 to Ezequiela Santiago and Francisco Torres, a respected cobbler and bodega owner, Felipe Torres was raised between Salinas and Ponce where his father regularly moved the family in search of work and better opportunities. Initially working as a clerk for his father, Torres learned at a young age the values of discipline, entrepreneurship and hard work. As a child, he and his siblings also benefited from their father’s love of music and learned how to play the violin, guitar and how to sing. Although only a teenager at the time, Torres became the head of his household after his father’s premature death in 1916 and was left to care for himself, his mother and his three siblings. Shortly thereafter, while still a student in high school, Torres was drafted into the armed services and subsequently attended the Third Officer Training School in San Juan. In November 1918, he was appointed Second Lieutenant of an infantry of the United States Army based in Puerto Rico. He was honorably discharged from service in December of that same year. Wanting to complete his studies and earn his high school diploma, Torres returned to Ponce High School and graduated in June 1919.
Unfortunately, the disruption in his schooling had a detrimental effect on his ability to qualify for entry into the University of Puerto Rico’s Law School and Torres was forced to seek educational opportunities in the United States, where he believed he could work and attend school at the same time. He moved to New York City in 1919 at the age of 22 with help from his uncle Tiburcio who cashed in a one hundred dollar Liberty Bond from the First World War to pay for the travel expenses. Arriving in New York City with just ten dollars in his pocket, Torres settled in an apartment on East 132nd Street, where he lived with a friend from Salinas who was a student at The City College of New York. He would continue to reside in different parts of East Harlem until the mid-1940s. Determined to complete his education, he supported himself while attending Fordham Law School in the evenings by working several jobs, including one as a dishwasher at the Commodore Hotel, and others at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he had operated a jackhammer, and the United States Post Office. Although an American citizen by recent Federal decree (1917), Torres felt discriminated against in his law classes, where he was often outnumbered by white students, due to his foreign appearance and distinct accent. As a result, he became close friends with many of the black students, whom he felt shared his viewpoint, struggles and outsider status. In 1926, Torres graduated with a Bachelors Degree of Law (LLB) from Fordham Law School and in 1927 he passed the New York State Bar, allowing him to practice law in the Court of the State of New York. In an effort to further solidify his own professional position as well as the financial well-being of his family, Torres managed to go back to college in the late 1930s, attending in the evenings and received a Bachelors of Science Degree from The City College of New York in 1940.
Torres’ nearly five year marriage to his first wife, Flérida Berrios, ended in divorce and resulted in two children, Frank and Aida. On July 11, 1931, he married his second wife, Inocencia Bello, a native of Ponce, Puerto Rico who had also settled in New York City. They were married for the next fifty eight years and had three children, Velia, Austin and Alma, whom they raised alongside Torres’ son Frank; his daughter Aida remained with her mother. As a father, Torres strongly encouraged the pursuit of education in his household, as well as the study and appreciation of music. After school and during family gatherings, his children could be found doing their homework, reading and playing an assortment of musical instruments, among them the piano, violin and cello. Indeed, several of his children went on to attend the Manhattan School of Music and one of his daughters, Velia, became a trained opera singer. Torres’ own love of music resulted in his studying the cello in the same music school as his children and in teaching himself to play the piano at age 75. Besides this focus on education and music, which also lead to all three of his daughters becoming educators, Torres and his wife placed great emphasis on teaching their children about Puerto Rican culture, encouraging them to speak and read Spanish from an early age and continuously instilling in them a sense of pride about their origins.
Torres’ early career as a lawyer was marked by struggle. After completing his law degree and being admitted to the Bar, he decided to open his own practice in the Knickerbocker Building on 42nd Street and Broadway. Unable to cultivate the professional networks needed to attract clients, due in part to his rookie status and what he considered the rampant racism of the period, Torres was forced to close the practice shortly after its initial opening. By the early 1930s, however, he had re-opened his own practice at a new location on the corner of Madison Avenue and 116th Street, taking on cases dealing with anything from divorce to personal injury, predominantly among Puerto Ricans/Latinos, in tandem with his work as a Notary Public and translator. He would subsequently move his practice to a third location on W. 116th Street in the early 1940s before making the move to the Bronx in 1952, where he and his family had been living since 1946. Torres would maintain a general practice in the Bronx, on 149th Street, for the rest of his life.
A well-respected and popular lawyer and civic activist, Torres became increasingly well-known within the community and was, by the 1950s, looked towards as a leader and advocate for the ever growing colony of Puerto Ricans in New York, in general, and the South Bronx, in particular. In 1951 there was an attempt to appoint Torres as Justice of the Municipal Court in the First District, Bronx County by then Mayor Vincent R. Impellitteri. Additional support for this appointment came from many local community organizations, such as Comité Hispano Americano del Bronx and the Spanish Grocer’s Association, Inc., local newspapers, such as El Diario de Nueva York and La Prensa, as well as politicians from the island, including Felisa Rincón de Gautier. In 1952, there were also moves to get Torres appointed as Assistant District Attorney in the Bronx.
Although these bids for local office proved unsuccessful, Torres was subsequently nominated in 1953 by the Bronx County Democratic Executive Committee to fill a vacant State Assembly seat in the 5th District. A reluctant politician, Torres nevertheless recognized the need for Puerto Ricans to advocate for themselves and assume positions of power, given their increasing presence in New York, and was willing to take on the role if it meant that Puerto Ricans would be getting more adequate representation in New York City and State politics. Torres’ eventual victory in 1953 made him the second Puerto Rican, after Oscar García Rivera in 1937, to win a seat in the New York State Assembly and the first to represent any district in the Bronx. Initially representing the 5th Assembly District in the South Bronx (1953-1956), Torres was re-elected to represent the 4th Assembly District, which included parts of the re-districted 5th, in 1956, 1958 and 1960. During his nearly five terms in office, Torres campaigned for legislation to eliminate English literacy tests (at the time required for voting), advocated for the maintenance of New York City’s Rent Control law and for raising the minimum wage. He was also a member of standing committees on Civil Service and General Laws and Taxation and appointed to the Civil War Centennial Commission.
In 1962, he failed to gain the support of the party machine in the Bronx, which was more interested in filling the seat with a non-Puerto Rican, and was forced to run as an independent candidate. Alongside other Puerto Ricans in the area, he organized an alternative Democratic Club, the Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Association, Inc., that ultimately struggled to place his son Frank, then an Assistant District Attorney in the Bronx, on the ballot when his own candidacy became unlikely. Once this was successfully accomplished, Torres was replaced by Frank as New York State Assemblyman of the 4th District, a seat the latter was only able to hold onto for one term.
During his years in political office, efforts continued in the community to get Torres appointed to a leading position in the City’s court system. Besides the above mentioned attempts in 1951 and 1952, Torres garnered wide support to fill the seat of Magistrate of the Court in the Bronx in 1957 and was one of three candidates proposed to then Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Torres was finally appointed Judge of the Family Court of the City of New York by Wagner in 1963. It was in this position that he would be most influential, working closely with issues affecting local families. Upon retiring from the bench in 1967 at the age of seventy, Torres continued to practice law with his youngest son, Austin, at the family firm Torres and Torres Attorneys At Law, which he had originally founded with his son Frank in 1957. In addition, in 1970 he began serving as a Trial Examiner with the New York City Board of Education and, in 1984, he was appointed as a Judicial Hearing Officer in the State Supreme Court. He was also a member of the Committee on Character and Fitness of the Appellate Division, First Department, from 1971 through the early 1990s. This committee evaluated the qualifications of candidates to practice law in New York. Torres was admitted to practice law in the Supreme Court of the U.S. in 1966.
Among his many accomplishments was the establishment of the Puerto Rican Bar Association. As the number of Spanish speaking lawyers increased, Torres and several of his colleagues felt the need for an association that addressed their specific goals and objectives. Although there were some objections to the creation of this organization from those who thought that it was unnecessary given the existence of Bar Associations on the City and County level, Torres and the other founding members were of the opinion that they and their colleagues needed a place that could serve as a forum for the exchange of professional knowledge and as a tool for networking. The Association continued to flourish in subsequent years and to this day serves as a necessary forum for Puerto Rican lawyers citywide. In his honor, the Association established the “Felipe Neri Torres Award,” which annually recognizes an individual of Puerto Rican descent who has achieved significant accomplishments in the field of law. In addition, Torres and several other community leaders founded The Ponce De Leon Federal Savings and Loan Association, now known as Ponce De Leon Federal Savings Bank. At a time when Puerto Ricans/Latinos found it difficult to establish credit and/or find ways to obtain a bank mortgage to buy a home in New York City, Torres and his colleagues established the bank in an effort to provide these services to their underserved and overlooked communities. Besides serving as Director, Treasurer and member of the Board of Directors, Torres played an important role as the institution’s Director Emeritus.
As a member of several distinguished clubs and organizations, Torres was highly respected by his colleagues and was often elected to leading positions in many of the organizations in which he took part. In the early 1950s, he served as both Second Vice President (circa 1951) and President of the Harlem Lawyers Association (1954). In 1953, he was made Vice-President of the Pondiac Democratic Club. He was also on the Board of Directors for the Bronx County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Prospect Little League in 1956. He was a member of both the Bronx County Bar Association and the New York State Bar Association. From 1958 to 1959 he was also the President of the Citizens Committee for the Feast of Saint John the Baptist in New York and that same year he was elected Vice-President of the National Conference of Christians and Jews in the Bronx (1958). In 1960, Torres served as Honorary Co- Chairman of the National Viva Kennedy Clubs which sought to promote the presidential candidacy of John F. Kennedy among Puerto Ricans and Latinos nationwide.
Among the many honors accorded to him include the awarding of an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the City University of New York in 1982, being named as “patriarch” of “The Family of the Year” at the 25th Annual Puerto Rican Day Parade in 1983, having a street named after him in his hometown of Salinas in the summer of 1987 and being chosen as the focus of a documentary film, distributed to New York City public schools, chronicling his accomplishments and contributions to the Puerto Rican community entitled, “Where There’s a Will…There’s A Way: The Story about Judge Felipe N. Torres.” In April of 1990, several days after the death of his wife Inocencia Bello, El Instituto de Puerto Rico honored the couple as the “Fundadores, Familia Ejemplar ’90” and on June 15, 1991, Torres was made an honorary member of Puerto Rico’s Bar Association, El Colegio de Abogados de Puerto Rico, an association that he had hoped to join during the early stages of his career. In 1993, he was honored with the Dean’s Medal of Recognition from Fordham University Law School, his alma mater.
Felipe Neri Torres died on April 3, 1994 at the age of 96, leaving behind five children, eleven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, many of whom became successful and well respected professionals in their own right. Throughout his long, dynamic and productive life, he would be honored not only for his dedication to the rights of minorities, contributions to the Puerto Rican/Latino community and vast accomplishments, but also for forging a path in the fields of law and politics for other Puerto Ricans and Latinos who followed in his footsteps.
Sources / Fuentes:
Audiocassette, Interview, Torres, Felipe N., 1982
Navarro, Félix C., Historia de la comunidad puertorriqueña de Nueva York, 1971
Videocassette, “Where There’s a Will…There’s a Way: The Story about Judge Felipe N. Torres,” 1990
Note: Biographical information was also derived from the collection.
18 Cubic Feet
Language of Materials
The Felipe N. Torres Papers are an important resource for the study of early Puerto Rican political life in New York City, as well as about the contributions of Puerto Rican pioneros to law, politics and civic life. The materials in this collection consist of personal documents, clippings, photographs, speeches, certificates and correspondence.
The collection is divided into the following series:
I. Biographical and Personal Information
III. Legal Career
IV. Political Career
VI. Subject Files
VIII. Writings and Publications
Book transferred to Library
Processed with a grant from a congressional directed initiative sponsored by Congressman José Serrano and administered by the Institute for Museum and Library Services. Funding was also provided by the Council of the City of New York.
Ida Torres material incorporated into the Felipe N. Torres Papers, March 13, 2008.
- Badillo, Herman, 1929-2014 (Person)
- Carrasquillo, Pedro, 1910-1963 (Person)
- Carro, John, 1927- (Person)
- Gerena Valentín, Gilberto, 1918- (Person)
- Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963 (Person)
- Medina, Harold R. (Harold Raymond), 1888-1990 (Person)
- Monserrat, Joseph (Person)
- León Montaño, Armando de (Person)
- Muñoz Marín, Luis, 1898-1980 (Person)
- Navarro, Félix (Person)
- Núñez, Emilio (Person)
- Rincón de Gautier, Felisa (Person)
- Ruiz, Israel, 1943- (Person)
- Torres, Aida (Person)
- Wagner, Robert F. (Robert Ferdinand), 1910-1991 (Person)
- Velázquez, Nydia (Person)
- Bronx County Bar Association (Organization)
- Instituto de Puerto Rico (New York, N.Y.) (Organization)
- Puerto Rican Bar Association of New York (Organization)
- Puerto Rican Community Development Project (Organization)
- Puerto Rican Legal Defense & Education Fund (New York, N.Y.) (Organization)
- Cohn, Roy M. (Person)
- Jones, J. Raymond (John Raymond), 1899-1991 (Person)
- Mora, George, 1923-2006 (Person)
- Martínez Torres, Velia (Person)
- Alvarez, Gabriel E. (Person)
- Bello, Orlando (Person)
- Bello de Torres, Inocencia (Person)
- Buckley, Charles (Person)
- Colón, Juanita, 1929- (Person)
- Crespo, John (Person)
- Cruz, Lucy (Person)
- Del Toro, Angelo (Person)
- Di Carlo, Joseph (Person)
- Díaz, Saturno (Person)
- Dollinger, Isidore (Person)
- Fusco, Louis (Person)
- Gómez, Manuel (Person)
- Hernández, Haydée (Person)
- Hernández, Juano (Person)
- Jiménez, Clara (Person)
- Klein, Martin (Person)
- Laureano, Sixto (Person)
- Mariño, Eugene A. (Person)
- Marrero, Víctor (Person)
- McGarvey, Francis (Person)
- Méndez, Raphael (Person)
- Méndez, Tony (Person)
- Merced, Rosita (Person)
- Miranda, Frank (Person)
- Neco, Luís (Person)
- Olmedo, Luís (Person)
- Procaccino, Mario (Person)
- Quiñones, Caesar (Person)
- Ramírez, Gilbert (Person)
- Ramos, Manuel (Person)
- Roque, Demóstenes S. (Person)
- American Youth Committee for the Election of Felipe Torres (Organization)
- Archivo de Documentación Puertorriqueña (Repository of Puerto Rican Record) (Organization)
- Asociación de Jueces Hispanos (Organization)
- Citizens Committee for the Re-Election of Felipe Torres (Organization)
- Desfile de la Raza (Organization)
- Harlem Lawyers Association (Organization)
- New York Hunts Point Lion’s Club (Organization)
- Pamela C. Torres Day Care Center (Organization)
- Parkchester Tenants Association (Organization)
- Ponce de Leon Federal Savings Bank (Organization)
- Pondiac Democratic Club (Organization)
- Prospect Little League (Organization)
- Puerto Rican Law Students Association of New York University (Organization)
- Puerto Rican Pioneers Association, Inc. (Organization)
- Puertorriqueños Para Mejor Educación (Organization)
- Ricans Organization for Self Advancement (Organization)
- Archer, Edward (Person)
- National Association for Puerto Rican Civil Rights (Organization)
- New York Puerto Rican Day Parade
- Political participation -- United States -- Puerto Ricans -- New York (State) -- New York
- New York (N.Y.) -- Politics and government
- New York (State) -- Legislature -- Assembly
- New York (State) -- Politics
- Felipe N. Torres Papers
- Kimberlly Irizarry and Mario H. Ramírez with the assistance of Sierra Freeman, Melisa Panchano, Nadya Rodríguez, Silvia Rodríguez and Diana Saenz
- April 2008
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Processed with a grant from a congressional directed initiative sponsored by Congressman José Serrano and administered by the Institute for Museum and Library Services. Funding was also provided by the Council of the City of New York.
- 2020: Revised by Pedro Juan Hernández.