HISPANIC HERITAGE SERIES II OF VI
For more than half a century Latinos in Colorado and New Mexico needing help in the judicial system have always counted on one family for help — Los C de Bacas.
Most hispanos walking into the Sandoval County courthouse in Albuquerque in the 1930s could barely read the English signs for directions. Filled with anxiety like anyone needing to do business in those tall and empty hallways, they nevertheless carried with them something especial: “Anda aver a Don Vito. Él te ayuda”.
So before they conducted any business in that massive courthouse, hispanos went to see Don Vito C de Baca, officially the courts translator, and in time, the County Clerk. That visit was worth more than the services from someone who spoke their language. The services came with patience and understanding of their problems and a reality check of how those issues might be resolved.
It was in this environment that a young Armando C de Baca, now living in Denver and looking forward for his 80th birthday next month, grew up with. “I was always around my father. I always knew I was going to be a lawyer,” he says matter-of-factly.
It would be however, more than 30 years later before he would see his law shingle hang with his name on an office building on Delaware Street in downtown Denver. By then Armando was 42 with a family of five and a deep history of work in the Latino community that included teaching high school history, knocking on doors for the election of President John Kennedy, director of the county’s Youth Opportunity Act program, an executive of Denver’s War on Poverty program and deputy director of the Denver Health and Hospitals services.
The firm offered one important ingredient that other legal firms didn’t offer: “Hablamos español”. From traffic tickets to criminal cases to domestic issues, Armando wore out several pairs of shoes a year on his daily trips to the Denver courthouse.
Then, Armando received a call from the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). The league wanted to intervene in the Denver Keyes desegregation case on behalf of Hispanic children. His reward for the countless hours of legal maneuvers was that Denver neighborhood schools became a model for diversity in spite of its problems.
Of the three daughters who worked in the law office handling all of the administrative work, one , Celeste, was destined to carry the family’s legal tradition from a very early age. An essay she wrote on politics and the legal system in the third grade won citywide recognition. “It’s as if someone had planned out my career even then,” she mused.
And she found that politics was in her blood, much like her father and grandfather. On weekends she helped on the election of Steve McNichols for governor. She joined the high school debate team and took speech lessons. She was elected president of Central High School student body.
Celeste became the second member of her family to earn a law degree from the University of Denver. In the midst of a successful career, she felt uncomfortable knowing that few Latinos — and no Latinas — sat on the bench, so she joined the Hispanic Bar Association.
After Roy Romer became governor, Celeste was one of the lawyers from the Hispanic Bar who met with him to discuss the lack of Latino judges. Determined to attack this barrier, she applied for a district judgeship only to fail to win even an interview.
Federico Peña, Denver mayor in 1990, was not exempt from what Celeste calls the bar association “displeasure” with Denver County’s lack of Latino judges. Mayor Peña agreed to a meeting. Federico Alvarez was later appointed county judge. Unbeknownst to Celeste, a childhood family friend and an aide to the mayor, Tim Sandos, went to bat for her appointment.
And in March 1990, she became the Honorable Celeste C de Baca, Denver County judge — a post she held for ten years. She was the second Latina in Denver to be appointed to a county judgeship. In some years, she handled more than 11,000 cases, a good number of these involved juveniles and the country’s battle of find ways to help those with drug addictions.
She taught constitutional law at Metro State University and handled some 6,000 cases as an administrative law hearing officer. Her next call came from the Colorado Parole Board where she served as the only lawyer on the board.
That a Latina, Sonia Sotomayor, sits on the highest court in the land and that many other Latino and Latinas now preside over legal matters is due, in no small part, to the efforts of the Hispanic Bar Association and members like Judge C de Baca who champion diversity in the courts.