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Mounted on an easel in a reception area of Chicago’s Westin Hotel, an enlarged black and white photograph captured the attention of guests at the Hispanic National Bar Association’s Convention 2000, urging them to “find the president.” In the photograph of about 15 kindergartners at Puerto Rico’s Josefita Monserrate De Selles, a private school, a boy is looking down at the floor as his classmates smile brightly for the camera. Most of the guests at the convention knew right away that the only youngster looking away from the lens in the photograph was none other than Hartford, Conn., attorney Rafael Santiago — the man soon to be sworn in as the newest president of the HNBA. Those who know Rafi, as many affectionately call him, could pick him out of the photograph easily. His sense of humor, gentleness and quiet ability to get people to take notice are traits that have remained with him since the 1950s photograph. “He is tremendous,” Jose Martinez, a sole practitioner from Brookfield, Conn., said about Santiago before he was sworn in Oct. 7. “He is going to be the best president we’ve ever had. He is family-oriented, a people person, and he has the ability to motivate others.” More than 600 members of the HNBA attended the four-day convention held in Chicago to honor Santiago, to take advantage of workshops, networking opportunities, influential speakers, and to celebrate the association’s 25th anniversary in style. The new HNBA president took full advantage of the busy schedule of events. He talked to many about promoting strength among Hispanics in the organization, discussed strategy for increasing the number of minority law students, and pledged to tackle an aggressive educational campaign aimed at putting the first Hispanic on the U.S. Supreme Court bench. As Santiago, an attorney with Robinson & Cole in Hartford, closed his presidential speech in front of a crowd dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns during a gala dinner held in his honor at the Westin Hotel, one last phrase spoke volumes for the future of the crowd. “Ahora!” Santiago said in Spanish and drawing a standing ovation from the group. Simply translated, “ahora” means: “the time is now.” THURSDAY LATE AFTERNOON: CATCHING UP WITH RAFI Upon the dizzying turnstile doors leading into the popular Westin Hotel near North Michigan Avenue, several signs denoting a “Celebracion!” led guests up a magnificent winding staircase to a wing of events and parties for members of the HNBA. Santiago is not an easy man to find among the many attendees, and given his reputation for always being on the move, catching him proved to be an even harder task. But at the other end of the hallway, Santiago is talking with a large group of people. “Will you excuse me for a moment?” Santiago asked, and briefly hurried off. “Did you find Rafi?” asks Angel Gomez, president-elect of the HNBA and organizer of this year’s convention. Santiago is one of his closest friends and a mentor. “Above all else he [Rafi] is a pragmatist,” Gomez said. “He believes in getting things done. … In fact, that is his motto: ‘just get it done.’ Gomez speaks proudly of how Santiago, who joined the HNBA in 1995, has helped increase the organization’s presence in Congress and reactivated some dormant committees such as the group’s communications division. He pointed out that Santiago helped revitalize one of the HNBA’s most important groups, the U.S. Supreme Court Committee, responsible for providing a short list to Congress of Hispanic judicial candidates for consideration for the Supreme Court. At the other end of the second-floor corridor, a reception area for many of the days’ coming events, guests start gathering for the evening’s Past Presidents Reception. A moderator calls for the attention of the crowd to introduce speaker Louis Caldera, the U.S. Secretary of the Army and a Harvard Law School graduate. After reciting Caldera’s extensive list of credentials, the moderator mentions he is also a member of the HNBA, an oversight that draws a loud chuckle from Santiago. Highlighting the need to further develop international legal channels, not only as Hispanics but as American lawyers, Caldera advises the HNBA to keep a keen interest in the activities of Latin America by using its many talents to forge new frontiers in the area of international law. FRIDAY MORNING/AFTERNOON: NON-STOP SANTIAGO On Friday morning Santiago is somewhat easier to find, consulting with his longtime friend and former boss William Barnett in a seminar room. Barnett, a former Hartford attorney who now practices in New York City at Herrick, Feinstein, was helping Santiago set up for a seminar that they were conducting on Uniform Commercial Code updates, when he recalled how the two originally met. “We were being very, very picky,” Barnett said about meeting Santiago while searching for job candidates in Connecticut. “We were looking for people who had commercial backgrounds, people who knew the business world.” Barnett said he extensively questioned Santiago, who had just graduated from the University of Connecticut School of Law, about different business topics, and did not go easy on him. “I was very impressed with his maturity,” Barnett said. “It was the beginning of a relationship that has become very close personally and professionally.” Barnett said he soon after got a taste of Santiago’s impeccable character when a client of theirs insisted on referring to Santiago as “Ralphie,” and Barnett suggested they correct him. “Rafael said to me, ‘It’s not important what he calls me but that he has faith rather in my ability as a commercial lawyer,’ ” Barnett said. “ That is always the way he approached the practice, and that says something about him. It was not that he was unwilling to stand up for his heritage; it’s that he wanted to pick his spots.” As Barnett began the UCC presentation, Santiago excused himself to meet with the regional presidents of the HNBA, and returned to the seminar 15 minutes later. Later, as Santiago shuffled through paperwork and restlessly twirled his pen between his fingers, it was easy to see he is a man who is not used to staying idle for long. After the two-hour discussion, Santiago took a cell phone call from his son David, who was on his way to the convention from college in Vermont. His wife Robin, sons Jonathan and Alex, and in-laws Dr. Howard and Sheila Mark, had arrived the night before. He was also expecting his oldest son Ari to arrive early Saturday. “I’ve been like this since yesterday,” Santiago said, apologizing while again using a hotel phone to reach his wife before a Latina Lawyer luncheon. Grabbing a miniature peanut butter candy on the way, Santiago quickly strode down the hallway, once again stopping this time for friends who wanted to introduce him to Ida Castro, chairwoman of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and keynote speaker for the luncheon. “Where did you go to law school — Bunkers, right?” Santiago said to Castro while the two conversed in Spanish and English. FRIDAY EVENING: IF THE BOAT IS ROCKIN’ … Before meeting his family in the lobby, Santiago stops at the convention registration floor to obtain identification name tags for everyone so they can get on the Odyssey II dinner cruise on Lake Michigan. Meeting up with three of his sons in the lobby, Santiago notices his shoes are not as neat and clean as his son Alex’s, with whom he had switched shoes because his son seemed to have outgrown his black dress shoes. “You could have cleaned them up a bit,” Santiago chastised Alex. Once on the boat, the night was dedicated to his family, as Santiago spent the evening talking with his sons and dancing to Salsa music with his wife, Robin. His son David said that his father taught him that hard work pays off and acknowledged that his father had “worked very hard to get where he is.” “Being a minority, he has had to work extra hard,” David said. “Being a Puerto Rican and a Jew is not the easiest thing in the world.” Even Alex, who obviously gained his father’s sense of humor, said his father had taught him many positive things. “Family and school are the priorities,” Alex said. “He always comes to our [sports] games.” SATURDAY: THE BIG EVENT Up at 6 a.m. Saturday morning, after a night of spirited dancing, including a fiery Conga line, Santiago did not look like he was running on less than five hours sleep. “There are not many people here,” he said later that morning, disappointed in the lack of attendance at a cultural show featuring Mexican dancers. After taking a break from a HNBA board meeting to watch the show, Santiago returned to the meeting, where New Jersey attorney Lourdes Santiago led the group discussion detailing plans for the HNBA’s next year. Lourdes and others outlined the need to meet more often with local bar leaders and affiliates of the organization, stating that the HNBA was not as well-known as it should be on local levels. After the meeting, Santiago headed for a special judges’ luncheon, featuring speaker Manus Cooney, chief counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose lengthy explanation of the legislative process in nominating judges didn’t go over well with some guests. “The numbers sound good, but three years ago they were sitting on the nominations,” Jackie Goff, president of the federal bar association, said after the luncheon. A few short hours later, Santiago was readily donning his tuxedo and waiting for his family in the reception area before being sworn in as HNBA president. “This is it man — you have 30 minutes to back out,” Andres Lopez, an attorney from Puerto Rico, said to Santiago. As Angel Gomez announced Santiago to the podium before the dinner ceremony, the crowd chanted “Yeah, Rafi,” and “Go, Rafi,” before he made a short speech to the crowd. Thanking his wife and “best friend for 30 years,” Santiago introduced his family and then said a special thanks to his late parents Vicente and Lila Santiago. “I want to dedicate this day to my dad,” Santiago said choking up over the honor and telling the crowd how his father graduated from law school at the age of 55 and was the first member of his family to attend college. Also thanking his law firm, Robinson & Cole, for supporting him and sponsoring a portion of the convention, Santiago said the firm was “a good example of what other firms could do to support and strengthen the HNBA.” During his formal induction speech, Santiago said that as Hispanic law professionals, the members of the HNBA had been endowed with a great and powerful trust, one that demanded the “highest degree of civic, professional and moral duty”. Santiago urged the crowd to become providers of legal information for Latinos of all ages and advised them to build better relationships with law schools in making sure that Hispanics are able to realize their goals of becoming attorneys. He garnered an enthusiastic round of applause as he ended his speech by saying he hoped to be sitting next to the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice at the next convention. Said Santiago, “I challenge all of you to lift our voices on behalf of the [Hispanic] community. The time is here. … The time is now. Ahora.”

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