Nelson Diaz: The man who opened the door to Law for hundreds, if not thousands of Latinos
Philadelphia’s pioneer will be the recipient of the 2020 "Gus Garcia" Lifetime Achievement Award at AL DÍA’s 2020 Top Lawyers Forum.
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Judge Nelson Diaz’s life is one of "firsts."
He was the first Latino to ever attend and graduate from Temple Law School. While there, he co-founded the first Black and Hispanic law student association. In 1972, he became the first Latino lawyer in Philadelphia when he was the first to pass the Pennsylvania Bar Exam.
“There were no students that had graduated from my background in any of the law schools here. Whether it was the University of Pennsylvania or whether it was Temple,” said Diaz in a multimedia 2018 profile that appeared in AL DÍA when Temple Press published his autobiography.
Although alone in his field, Diaz took his platform seriously and has since opened the door to law for hundreds, if not thousands of Latinos across Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the U.S.
“I felt the responsibility,” he said.
That responsibility made Diaz the beacon Philadelphia’s Hispanic community turned to in the face of rampant discrimination.
In 1973, he was there when 14-year-old Julio Osorio was chased off the docks into the Delaware River by white attackers on his walk home from school. Two years later, Diaz was instrumental in getting justice for the Santiago family, whose house was firebombed because they were the only Puerto Ricans on an all-white block in Feltonville.
The fire killed the family’s three children, their mother and another child that was living with them. Detectives on the case had beaten and intimidated the suspects into false confessions to protect the real assailant, who had political connections. Diaz’s investigation into the case resulted in those same detectives being arrested four years later.
His fight for the community also involved saving its Bloque de Oro in Kensington, helping draft and implement the Fair Housing Act in 1988, and reforming Philadelphia’s court system.
Those efforts would continue to allow him to break barriers in his career.
Diaz was the first Latino judge in the state of Pennsylvania and served for 12 years before becoming the first Latino approved by the Senate to be general counsel for Henry Cisneros, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under the Clinton Administration.
Back in Philadelphia, he was also City Solicitor under Mayor John Street and most recently, ran for Mayor in 2015.
That career and history will be recognized at AL DÍA’s 2020 Top Lawyers Forum in the form of the Gus Garcia Lifetime Achievement Award.
It is named for famed Latino lawyer, Gustavo (Gus) Garcia, who argued alongside Carlos Cardena and John J. Herrera of LULAC and two other attorneys during Hernandez v. Texas in 1954.
The landmark Supreme Court case extended rights granted under the Fourteenth Amendment to all nationalities in the U.S.