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TCL > July 2013 Issue > J. Frank Torres (1897–1992)

The Colorado Lawyer
July 2013
Vol. 42, No. 7 [Page  63]

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Six of the Greatest

J. Frank Torres (1897–1992)
by Michael J. Belo

About the Author

Michael J. Belo is a shareholder at Berenbaum Weinshienk PC, where he is a member of the Litigation Department. A graduate of University of Colorado Law School in 1977, he specializes in labor and employment law. He is on the board of directors of the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association—mbelo@bw-legal.com.


 
   

As a lawyer and judge in Southern Colorado, J. Frank Torres advocated tirelessly for equal rights for all persons, including the Spanish1 residents who, despite having lived in Colorado for generations, regularly encountered discrimination in economic, political, and everyday opportunities. Born and raised in the rural Purgatoire Valley west of Trinidad, he practiced law in the Trinidad area from 1929 until 1960, when he was elected county court judge for Las Animas County. He was one of the earliest Spanish judges in Colorado, and he served on the bench until his legal career was cut short by a stroke. A man of uncompromising integrity, Judge Torres held himself and everyone else to the same high standards of honesty, discipline, and hard work.

Growing Up in the Purgatoire Valley

José Francisco Torres was born on March 31, 1897, and grew up on the family farm near Weston, Colorado, upstream from Trinidad. He was descended from the original Spanish colonists who arrived with General Juan de Oñate in 1598, and was able to trace his specific family heritage in the United States, at minimum, through his great-grandfather, José Antonio Torres, who was born near Taos, New Mexico in 1795.

The Purgatoire Valley in the late 1800s was inhabited predominantly by people of Spanish descent. Torres did not learn to speak English well until he was 15 years old, teaching himself from a 1902 Spanish–English dictionary that is still in the possession of his daughter.2 He became highly literate in both English and Spanish. One of the difficult English words that Torres circled in red in this dictionary was "impecunious"—that is, habitually having little money—which described him aptly, as he grew up in a community poor in material goods, but wealthy in cultural heritage.

His father, Jesús or "Sus," worked the family farm and a variety of jobs, including coal mines in the Purgatoire Valley. In the early 1900s, the coal mines dominated the economic life of the area, which included a company town, Cokedale, built by the industry. The crude, unregulated working conditions in the mines were often dangerous, which resulted in terrible accidents, such as an explosion at the Primero mine in 1910 that killed seventy-five people.3

Torres did not enter school until he was 11 years old, but his teachers immediately recognized his inherent intelligence, and he graduated from the eighth grade three years later. Because the family needed him on the farm, he was unable to attend high school. His parents sent him at age 16 to the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Trinidad to become a priest. Although a devout Catholic throughout his life, Torres chafed at the unvarying routine of clerical discipline. He quit the study for the priesthood and returned to the Purgatoire Valley still searching for his mission in life.

 
José Francisco Torres (arrow) at age 14 in classroom.   Admitted to law school in 1922, he was known as
J. Frank Torres.

Teaching in His Own School at 17

When he was only 17, Torres set up his own private school in Weston, teaching kids of all ages—the oldest were his own age—for a fee of one dollar a month for a seven-month school year. After he turned 18, he studied at Colorado State Normal School, later known as Western State College, in Gunnison, Colorado.4 He passed the teacher certification test and taught in public schools in the Valley, ascending to principal. The people called him "El Profesor" because of his scholarly approach and insistence on discipline.

Torres grew increasingly rankled, however, by the rampant discrimination against the Spanish population in Southern Colorado. The Anglo community often referred disparagingly to his schoolchildren as "Mex kids" and belittled the abilities and achievements of Hispanic people. He knew that much of the Spanish community, including his own family, had inhabited Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico for many generations, preceding Anglo settlement of the region. However, they frequently were dismissed as "Mexicans" and denied opportunities to participate fully in economic, cultural, and political life. Like many who have followed his example, Torres believed that a career in the law would make it possible for him not only to compete individually based solely on his own abilities, but also to remedy the injustices visited on the Spanish community and to provide equal opportunity for all.

Rejection, Then Success in Law School

Torres moved to Denver in 1920 at the age of 23, took a course in banking, and waited tables at a restaurant to make ends meet. Expecting that opportunities in Denver would be better than in Southern Colorado, he was dismayed to learn that Hispanics in Denver also suffered from discrimination, denial of opportunities, and relegation to menial jobs.

Determined to go to law school, he went to the dean’s office at the University of Denver College of Law (DU Law) to talk to the dean about enrolling in law school. After waiting outside the dean’s office, he finally presented himself to the dean and stated that he wished to apply for law school. According to Torres, the dean dismissed him with the comment, "Get out of here; we don’t want any of your kind here." Although deeply insulted by this rebuke, Torres responded diplomatically, "All right, sir, but remember this: A day will come when I receive my degree from Denver University." This statement was to prove prophetic more than fifty years later.5

Rejected by DU Law, Torres applied for admission to Westminster Law School (Westminster). From 1912 until its merger with DU Law in 1957, Westminster was the third law school in Colorado.6 The dean of Westminster was far more accommodating to Torres. Instead of being put off by Torres’s Spanish accent, the dean assisted him in preparing a curriculum to study for the high school certification test.

When he was admitted to Westminster in January 1922, Torres dispensed with his Spanish names José Francisco, and henceforth adopted the English equivalent "J. Frank." The collegial atmosphere at Westminster allowed him to compete without regard to ethnic background. He graduated in 1925, ranking second in his class. During this time, he had two jobs, including waiting tables at the ornate Albany Hotel at 17th and Stout Streets in downtown Denver, which was frequented by legislators and wealthy businessmen.

Unfortunately, an almost terminal bout with tuberculosis delayed commencement of the practice of law. Near the time of his final exams in 1925, he contracted the highly infectious disease, which was prevalent and often lethal before the advent of antibiotics. After finishing exams, he returned home to the family farm in the Purgatoire Valley, where his recuperation lasted three agonizing years. Among other palliatives, every day he bathed in a tub of cold water, regardless of the weather. In the winter, when there was a layer of ice in the tub, he simply broke the ice to immerse himself in the cold water.

 
A 1925 graduate of Westminster Law School, Torres ranked second in his class.

Practicing Law in Trinidad

By 1928, Torres had recovered completely from tuberculosis and was ready to start his legal career. Rejecting an offer from a law school friend, Ralph Platt, to join Platt’s lucrative practice in Illinois, Torres wrote: "You take care of your part of the world, and I will see to improving mine." He opened an office in Trinidad, determined to right the wrongs of society, especially the wrongs directed at the Spanish community. He had a strong faith not only in Catholicism, but also in the power of the legal system to afford equal justice to all, including the disenfranchised. He believed—and put into practice—the precept that no one should be denied access to justice because of lack of means.

His civil and criminal practice extended over a broad region—west to the San Luis Valley and north to Walsenburg and Pueblo. Acutely conscious of the need to provide legal services to those who could not afford them, he regularly represented the poor and in some caes accepted a pig or a lamb as payment. He defended criminal cases, sometimes under appointment by the court, and prosecuted criminal cases on contract from the district attorney. For example, he defended a murder case in Trinidad and prosecuted a murder case in San Luis.

Once, he defended a 10-year-old Spanish boy who reacted to merciless bullying by bigger kids by bringing a pistol to school. The boy shot and slightly injured one of his tormentors. Torres convinced the jury that the boy had acted in self-defense. He also defended high-profile murder cases in which the defendant was Hispanic and the accusers and jury were all Anglo. Similar prosecutions were taking place across the United States at the time. In the South, for example, black defendants often faced charges brought by white accusers and were tried before all-white juries.7

Marriage Arrangements

 
  Torres family: sons Lawrence (left) and Frank, Jr.; wife Crusita; daughter Eva; and Frank, Sr.
   

Torres married Crusita Kimball in 1930. It started as an arranged marriage, which was consistent with an old custom in the Spanish culture. His parents also had an arranged marriage, but the practice was waning by the early 1900s.

The marriage originated when Torres decided to take violin lessons from Trinidad’s most esteemed musician, John Kimball. After several excruciating lessons, Kimball determined that Torres lacked any talent whatsoever for the violin. Kimball was impressed, however, by Torres’s character and intellect, and offered the hand of his stepdaughter, Crusita, in marriage.

After Crusita’s father offered her hand, Torres courted her for several months, determined to win her affections on his own. Their marriage flourished as a partnership of equals. Although Crusita was twelve years younger than Torres, she complemented the impatient and occasionally doctrinaire brilliance of Torres with a deft sense of humor and appreciation of social nuances. They had three children, Lawrence, Frank, Jr., and Eva.

Fighting for Social and Economic Progress

Torres combined the practice of law with social and political activism. In 1928, he ran but lost in the Republican primary campaign for state representative. He was an outspoken opponent of the Ku Klux Klan, a powerful force in Colorado during that era. For example, the Klan had engineered the election of a governor in the 1920s.8 Because of his opposition to the Klan, Torres received anonymous threats that he would be "tarred and feathered." Disenchanted with the Republican Party’s failure to disavow the Klan, he organized the Spanish Young Democrats in Las Animas County. He helped to organize the Spanish American Club of Colorado, an organization devoted to supporting equal rights, opposing discrimination, and encouraging voting among Spanish Americans.

In the late 1930s, Torres balanced his law practice with service as labor relations manager of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) for Las Animas and Huerfano Counties. Created by the Roosevelt Administration in 1935 to combat the Great Depression, the WPA built numerous projects throughout Colorado, including Red Rocks Amphitheater. Among other projects, the crews managed by Torres built structures at Trinidad Junior College and at Monument Lake, upstream near the top of the Purgatoire Valley. The WPA projects brought desperately needed jobs to the struggling economy of Southern Colorado.9

Torres was active in the early credit union movement in the 1930s, attending the key national convention at Estes Park in 1934, which initiated a nationwide credit union confederation. He embraced the democratic, egalitarian principles of credit unions, believing that they would benefit the Spanish community and others who historically had lacked banking services. Always an advocate for strict financial discipline and accountability for one’s debts, Torres thought credit unions would foster disciplined financial practices and savings even among people of limited means.

February 1957, Colorado Credit Unions Board of Directors. President J. Frank Torres is third from left.

Torres founded the Holy Trinity Credit Union in Trinidad in 1938, and assisted in founding other credit unions in Southern Colorado. He managed the credit union in Trinidad for nearly twenty years with characteristic attention to detail: he insisted on reviewing every loan application, was uncompromising in his adherence to procedures, and refused to bend the rules for those who expected favors. He was president of the Colorado Credit Union League during the 1950s. When he was elected county court judge in 1960, Crusita took over management of Holy Trinity Credit Union.

 
  Torres in front of a replica of the Statue of Liberty at Las Animas County Courthouse.
   

Torres was active in the Boy Scouts of America for several decades, having organized his first troop when he was teaching in the Purgatoire Valley schools at Jansen, Colorado, in 1918. He believed that the ideals of the Boy Scouts—building character in boys by training them in the responsibilities of citizenship, and developing personal fitness while providing enjoyable educational activities—would lay the groundwork for success in life. In 1950, he received the highest award from the Boy Scouts of America for distinguished service to youth. A staunch patriot, Torres worked with his Boy Scout troops to raise money for a replica of the Statue of Liberty on the grounds of the Las Animas County Courthouse in Trinidad. The statue was dedicated in September 1950.

One well-intentioned venture did not fare so well. In 1933, Torres joined the Alianza Hispano-Americana (Alianza), a fraternal organization in existence from 1894 to 1965 that provided life insurance as its nominal product, but pursued the broader goal of building economic security and political power among Hispanics. By 1939, Torres had ascended to the position of general counsel, discontinued his practice in Trinidad, and moved to Alianza headquarters in Tucson, Arizona. The Alianza was rife with internal political struggles, including an effort by former Mexican president Elias Calles to use the Alianza’s resources and membership for advancement of his own political agenda of regaining power in Mexico. In addition, some members of the Alianza leadership engaged in questionable financial practices that garnered the attention of the Arizona attorney general. Torres resigned in 1942, crestfallen that an organization dedicated to the social and economic betterment of Hispanics had succumbed instead to self-interested dealing and political squabbling.10

Trinidad, 1940, Torres (on white horse) portrayed explorer Coronado in a parade reenacting the voyage to the New World.

After returning to Trinidad, Torres resumed his law practice and hired an associate, Gilbert Sanders. The fact that Sanders was Jewish was immaterial to Torres, an astute judge of talent who had felt the sting of discrimination numerous times—and whose career in the law was inspired by the goal of eradicating it.

In 1950, Torres ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic candidacy as state representative. Again, he encountered the specter of discrimination; his opponent charged that he could not represent all Americans because of his "Mexican" accent. Torres retorted that he was an American first, and Spanish second.

During the 1950s, Torres served as president of the Southern Colorado Bar Association. Trinidad voters elected him to the city council, where he scrupulously resisted attempts by insiders to manipulate civic decisions for personal gain. In one colorful episode, Torres opposed an effort by a notorious businessman and local "character," previously suspected of ties to the Mafia, who pressured the council to approve a measure favorable to his business interests. The next evening, the man showed up on Torres’ doorstep, gun in hand, with the intention of changing J. Frank’s mind. Torres strode directly up to him and pushed the gun aside, saying, "If you are going to pull a gun on me, you had better be prepared to use it."

County Court Judge, 1961–66

Judge J. Frank Torres.
 

In 1956, Torres ran unsuccessfully for county court judge in the November election.11 In 1960, he mounted a write-in campaign against the incumbent judge, who enjoyed the support of the Democratic party machine. His opponent resorted to the tired old canard that Torres was a "Mexican" who did not understand the American way of life. Torres eked out a victory in the primary, and then trounced the incumbent in the general election, when the incumbent ran as the write-in candidate. Torres won re-election in 1964.

As a judge, Torres was compassionate but unwavering in his insistence on discipline and individual responsibility. Although he was inspired to become a lawyer as a means of redressing discrimination and injustice against the Spanish community, he was color-blind in dispensing justice. He was particularly concerned with youthful offenders, whom he tried to break out of the cycle of recidivism. He formed a close alliance with school principals, and impressed on young offenders that they must take responsibility for their actions. For example, he once sentenced a Hispanic boy convicted of shoplifting to repay the value of the theft by working odd jobs at the store on weekends. He reminded the boy that his Spanish ancestors had worked hard to make an honest living and respected their neighbors; to steal from them would have been unconscionable.

 
  The family dog: Judge Torres and Crusita dressed formally for an audience with Kaiser, their German shepherd, 1964.
   

Judge Torres was creative in imposing sentences, doing it occasionally in a way that might offend modern hypersensitivity. In one case, a mother had mistreated her children by incarcerating them in a pigpen. Torres sentenced her to spend a night in the pigpen.

In 1966, with two years remaining in his county court term, Torres ran for district court judge as a write-in candidate. He challenged the party hierarchy again, which had slipped in the inexperienced son of the incumbent, retiring judge through the primary without opposition. Torres wrote to the voters: "Any government, thus brought about is, in the long run, essentially weak and undemocratic. It does not make friends, does not inspire confidence and is fraught with a train of evils."12 The opponent’s well-financed campaign descended into personal slurs against Torres, mocking his vestige of a Spanish accent. Torres lost narrowly and prepared to return to his duties as county court judge—but his legal career would soon end abruptly.

Stroke Forces Retirement—On to Santa Fe

Fatefully, on the day after the election in November 1966, Torres suffered a severe stroke. His doctor advised him to leave the bench and quit the practice of law. Although he eventually recovered almost entirely from the stroke, he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1971, where he remained active in civic affairs. As an unofficial greeter at the famed La Fonda Hotel, he often gave visitors a lesson about La Fonda, the early Spanish families of Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado, and other Southwest history.

His prophecy to the dean at DU Law some fifty years earlier came true in 1975, when he received a juris doctorate degree from DU at a reunion for the Westminster class of 1925. Fittingly, given his lifelong opposition to discrimination, he refused to attend the banquet scheduled at a local country club that did not admit Jews to membership. The reunion committee moved the banquet to another country club.

Pictured here in 1975 at a reunion for the Westminster class of 1925, Torres (far right) received his JD degree from DU Law.

One of his proudest moments occurred when King Juan Carlos of Spain visited Santa Fe in 1987 and had a private audience with Torres, during which they spoke in Spanish. The King said they were both guardians of Spanish culture: the King in Spain and Torres in New Mexico.

Torres passed away in 1992 at age 95. In 2008, Representative (now Senator) Tom Udall of New Mexico honored him in the U.S. House of Representatives. Recounting his achievements as a lawyer, judge, and citizen, Rep. Udall said, "Judge Frank Torres was a crusader for civil rights . . . [who] practiced and taught good citizenship throughout his life."13

A Quixotic Quest that Succeeded

Judge Torres died in Santa Fe, but left his legacy in Southern Colorado. An irrepressible idealist, he believed in the supreme value of education to provide opportunity for betterment, regardless of financial means. He believed in the power of the American legal system to provide equal justice regardless of race, color, or other irrelevant characteristics. One of his favorite books was Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, which he read in the original Spanish. The movie version disappointed him, because he thought it depicted the relentlessly idealistic Quixote as a buffoon. Judge Torres said, "An idealist is not a buffoon." He was right in this judgment, as he was in so many others during his ninety-five years of a life fully lived and fully realized.

Notes

1. The modern term "Hispanic" was not in use during the early 20th century. Judge Torres and many others in Colorado, who traced their lineage to Spain and early Spanish settlers in New Mexico dating from the 1700s, referred to themselves as "Spanish." The term "Hispanic" derives from the ancient word "Hispania," which denotes the Iberian Peninsula comprising Spain and Portugal. The modern usage of the term—which broadly encompasses people of Spanish, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central American, and other Latin American descent—is often credited to Grace Flores-Hughes, an employee of the former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare during the Nixon Administration. See, e.g., www.thehartfordguardian.com/2009/07/27/the-origin-of-the-term-hispanic.

2. This article would not have been possible without the information, contributions, and inspiration from the daughter of Judge Torres, Eva Aschenbrener of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Torres’s biographer, Lois Gerber Franke of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Anyone who wishes to learn more about this extraordinary man should read her fascinating book J. Frank Torres, Crusader and Judge: An Oral History (Sunstone Press, 2007).

3. See, e.g., www.usmra.com/saxsewell/primero.htm.

4. Founded in 1901, the college is now known as Western State Colorado University. See western.edu/about/history.html.

5. The author recognizes that the University of Denver (DU) College of Law has been a force for equal opportunity in the field of law, including its student admission practices and faculty hiring. In 2006, DU appointed its first Hispanic dean, José (Beto) Juárez, Jr. The incident depicted by Torres happened in the early 1920s, when Colorado, like most of the United States, was still benighted by discrimination.

6. See www.law.du.edu/index.php/about/du-law-history.

7. Racial selection of juries remains a vexing problem. See "Illegal Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection: A Continuing Legacy" (Equal Justice Initiative, August 2010), www.eji.org/files/EJI%20Race%20and%20Jury%20Report.pdf.

8. One historian wrote: "During the 1920s, Colorado had the largest and most influential Knights of the Ku Klux Klan following of any other state west of the Mississippi River." See ccpl.lib.co.us/history_old/kkk/kkk%20essay.html. Capitalizing on the prevailing antipathy toward minorities, foreigners, Jews, and Catholics, the Klan helped to elect Clarence Morley as governor of Colorado, 1925–27. Morley later was convicted of mail fraud and served five years in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. See www.colorado.gov/dpa/doit/archives/govs/morley.html.

9. One of his proudest achievements with the Works Project Administration was Monument Lake Lodge, an adobe-style structure reminiscent of Pueblo architecture in New Mexico. See digital.denverlibrary.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15330coll22/id/1949/rec/4.

10. Franke, supra note 2 at 122-23. See generally Briegel, "Alianza Hispano-Americana, 1894–1965: A Mexican American Fraternal Insurance Society" (PhD thesis, University of Southern California, 1974).

11. State judges were chosen in political elections until a 1966 constitutional amendment changed the procedure to appointments by the governor from a list of persons selected by judicial nominating commission. Colo. Const. art. VI, § 20. See generally Hobbs, "Colorado Judicial Merit Selection—A Well-Deserved 40th Anniversary Celebration," 35 The Colorado Lawyer 13 (April 2006).

12. "J. Frank Torres Starts Write-In Vote Campaign," Trinidad Chronicle (ca. Oct. 1966).

13. 154 Cong. Rec. E289-01, 2008 WL 582309 (March 4, 2008).

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