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Sharply-dressed attorney Rafael Santiago sat on a bench in Hartford, Conn.’s Bushnell Park one sunny day recently — the only Hispanic in the predominantly white business crowd. Not seeing any Hispanics in the white-collar world is nothing unusual for Santiago. Hispanics are often unfamiliar faces on court benches and in law firms and law schools. But, as the soon-to-be seated president of the Hispanic National Bar Association, the astute and engaging Santiago envisions a change in the color of the legal landscape. “It’s very important that people know what we can do and how we can be a part of the system,” said Santiago, as the sun beamed behind him. “There’s a lot we have to offer.” Santiago, 50, takes over as president of the HNBA in October. He is the first New England attorney to head the group. Santiago seems an ideal choice to lead the national association. A San Juan, Puerto Rico native, Santiago has the brains — he is a business law attorney and an electrical engineer, the vocation of his previous career. But what makes Santiago special is his easy-going nature and practical wisdom, said Angel G. Gomez, who chairs the HNBA’s upcoming 25th anniversary convention in Chicago. “He’s extremely pragmatic,” he said. “That’s something the association is looking forward to having.” “People talk about theories and philosophies,” Gomez added. “Eventually you have to go to Washington and talk to the people [congressional representatives] there about pragmatics. You have to go to the local bar associations and talk to them about pragmatics. Raffie knows does that well.” Although Santiago downplayed his career ascension, he said he hopes his accomplishments set an example to his Spanish-speaking brethren. “As a Hispanic attorney you are a big role model for other Hispanics,” he said. “Many times we don’t realize it, but it’s a function we serve. If I can change one person’s life, that’s great.” A LONG ROAD Santiago comes from a close-knit, middle-class family — he has two sisters and a brother. His parents made education a No. 1 priority for their children. Santiago’s father, Vicente, became a lawyer in his mid-50s after owning a profitable construction business. Santiago’s mother, Lila, was an assistant principal at a private school. Santiago left Puerto Rico when he was 21 years old — in 1970 — to complete his engineering degree at Tufts University in Massachusetts. Santiago wanted to be an engineer because he was excellent in math and science, he said. “I like technical things,” he said. Santiago graduated from Tufts in 1973. After working several years as an engineer, Santiago tired of the travel — he worked everywhere from Texas to Tarrytown, N.Y. — and contemplated a career change. In 1980, while driving through Hartford, he noticed a sign for the University of Connecticut School of Law. Santiago drove past the sign, but turned his car around and drove onto the campus. He met with the dean of admissions and filled out an application. With the support of his wife, Robin, a dentist, Santiago earned his law degree in three years. “You make a lot of decisions in life,” Santiago said. “That was a very good decision.” Santiago makes a comfortable living now at Robinson & Cole, where he works in the Corporate, Institutional Finance and International practice group. He handles cases involving national and international commercial transactions. The firm has made great strides to diversify its staff of attorneys and has supported Santiago’s HNBA work, he said. But only two out of the approximately 170 attorneys at the firm are Hispanics, Santiago pointed out — although he emphasized that most firms have low percentages of Hispanic attorneys. ON THE GO Santiago’s already busy schedule will intensify once he takes over as president of the HNBA. In October, he will be sworn-in at the HNBA annual convention. The organization has grown dramatically since its inception in 1972. There are currently about 25,000 Hispanic attorneys, judges, law professors and law students from the United States and Puerto Rico in the association, Angel Gomez said. In 1993, a small group of Hispanic attorneys joined forces to create the Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association, Santiago noted. By 1994, the organization had earned affiliation with the HNBA. One of the HNBA’s ongoing missions is to sponsor programs that will increase the enrollment of Hispanics in law schools. The Hispanic National Bar Fund provides thousands of dollars in scholarships to Hispanic law students, according to HNBA informational literature. The association has also steadfastly promoted the nominations of Hispanic attorneys to judgeships. Furthering the association’s efforts in those areas is a significant part of Santiago’s agenda as the new president, he said. The HNBA’s judiciary committee was instrumental in promoting the recent appointments of Julio M. Fuentes to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Richard A. Paez to the 9th Circuit, Santiago said. President Clinton nominated Paez three times for the post, Gomez said, but Paez languished as a candidate for six years until his appointment last year. The diligent lobbying efforts of Santiago and other Hispanic bar leaders were instrumental in Paez finally getting the nod, Gomez said. “We have encouraged attorneys to apply and to go through the process,” Santiago said. But the association has unfinished business — it has made a serious drive to promote the appointment of a Hispanic lawyer to the U.S. Supreme Court, but hasn’t yet succeeded. Second Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Jose A. Cabranes was one of six candidates that the HNBA has nominated for the post in the past. “It’s important for the country, not only for us” to have a Hispanic judge on the high court, Santiago said. More Hispanic law clerks are also needed, he said. While stopping short of alleging that Hispanics are the victims of discrimination in hiring decisions, Santiago said, “the system needs to be re-evaluated. “It’s so ingrained,” he said. “Do they discriminate against Hispanics and other minorities? I’m not saying that, but it’s time for people involved to re-evaluate it.” Santiago is wary of the argument that the reason there are not many Hispanics in clerkships is that there are not enough applicants for the position. “We asked the judges to review the process,” he said. “We asked them, ‘What are you scanning for’ on the resumes,” he said. Judges need to look beyond academic achievement in assessing a candidate’s qualifications, he said. “They need to look beyond Law Review,” he said. Santiago has been active in integrating the HNBA’s law student division with the association’s lawyer division, Gomez added. There was some concern among law students in the association that they would be afforded less input in the HNBA’s mission. But Santiago quelled those fears. “Raffie extended a hand out to the law students,” he said. Extending a hand is what Santiago is all about. Caring for the Hispanic cause is a reflection of his Puerto Rican heritage. “It’s very exciting because it ties in with my background,” he said. “It’s a sense of pride. Whether you like it or not, you are a role model.” By John C. Turner This article originally appeared inThe Connecticut Law Journal.

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