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  • Luminarias Legal History Project


    Depicted in majestic colors of blue and bronze and posed traditionally with the scales (or luminarias) of justice, Lady Justice was chosen to represent Luminarias - Latina lawyers licensed during the first 100 years of the 20th century.  The luminarias symbolize the act of Illuminating the Way for future generations.  Special thanks to lawyers Mercedes Sellek (Miami), Mary Hernandez (San Francisco) and teacher Simone Atencio-Ramos for their opinions and thoughtfulness in guiding the selection of this beautiful image.  Special salute to Elizabeth Baldwin, founder of The Pickle Group, Los Angeles, for capturing the essence and beauty of these American pioneers.


    The national legal history research project, Luminarias de la Ley | Luminaries of the Law™ was created by Visiting Scholar Dolores S. Atencio in 2015 to identify the first Latina law graduates and lawyers over a 100-year period from 1880-1990, and document their collective contributions to the country and U.S. jurisprudence through various mediums and publications.   Luminarias, Latinas / Hispanic females who were licensed during the first 100 years of the 20th century, represent a small percentage of the approximately 20,000 Latina lawyers in the country.  They were and are the country’s first Latina: 


    • Judges at all levels - from the municipal bench to the U.S. Supreme Court
    • State Attorney Generals and U.S. Attorneys
    • U.S. Ambassadors and Presidential Appointees confirmed by U.S. Senate
    • Law firm Partners and In-House Counsel
    • District Attorneys and Public Defenders
    • Civil Rights litigators and Legal Aid Lawyers 


    Collectively, very little is known about these Luminarias.  While individual Latina lawyers have been cracking the glass ceiling since their entrée into the legal profession in the early 1900’s, minimal national interest and no historical research or documentation existed until the Las Primeras and Luminarias projects. 


    Luminarias was the natural outgrowth of Las Primeras, a slide show created by lawyer Atencio for the Hispanic National Bar Annual (HNBA) Convention in San Francisco at the suggestion of San Francisco lawyer & Convention Chair, Mary Hernandez.  Las Primeras featured 21 of the country's earliest Latina lawyers dating back to 1940.  A year later, the slide show was converted into a 50-minute video documentary.  Las Primeras was revived in 2008 by Atencio as the first Chair of the HNBA Latina Commission (Commission).  Two events converged in 2009 that catapulted Latina lawyers onto the national consciousness:  the confirmation of Luminaria Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court and release of the Commission's national study Few and Far Between:  The Reality of Latina Lawyers, spearheaded by Atencio.   The obstacles documented in the Commission's study reaffirmed Atencio's resolve that the accomplishments of this super cadre of American women lawyers were highly significant and sorely underreported.  


    In 2013, Atencio affiliated with the University of Denver to complete the research started with Las Primeras, to identify the first Latina lawyer in the U.S.  As Scholar in Residence, she and her students researched the first two written pieces on the history of Latina lawyers, Abogadas Primeras - Una Historia (The First Latina Lawyers, A History, 2013) and Salute to Latinas in the 50 States (2014), printed and distributed in partnership with the HNBA Latina Commission.  By the end of 2014, the project evolved from identifying the first, to identifying all Latina lawyers from 1880 through 1980 ... from Primeras to Luminarias.   In early 2015, Atencio became the first DULCCES Visiting Scholar to complete the work started in 1993.  


    Las Primeras and Luminarias would not have been possible without the brain power and support of Latina lawyers and past HNBA female presidents, Mary Hernandez, Ramona Romero (responsible for creating the HNBA Latina Commission), Lillian Apodaca, Diana Sen and the Honorable Mari Carmen Aponte.  This project is a true reflection of the heart and soul of Latina lawyer leaders who coalesced to inspire a generational legacy.    




  • Album (To view content, click on information icon in the upper-left corner of picture)
  • Pictured are the first two Latinas licensed in Texas, Edna Cisneros (seated, consulting staffperson) and her sister, Diana Klefish Cisneros (seated across the desk).  At the age of 26, Edna became the first Latina elected District Attorney in Willacy County Texas and simultaneously, the first elected in the country.   Diana (the older sister) succeeded Edna as District Attorney and served Willacy County until her death in 1991.    

  • Phase I: Identifying Luminarias, 2016-Summer 2020

  • The Visiting Scholar has conducted original research to identify the earliest Latina / Hispanic female law graduates and lawyers.  Research consisted of reviewing and analyzing archived material and records of the 177 American Bar Association (ABA)-approved law schools in the study, as well as materials from national research institutions and bar associations.   Research trips were undertaken to specific law schools throughout the nation to view materials not digitized and/or too fragile for loaning.  At the suggestion of DU's Archives & Special Collections department, Dolores created the Luminarias Exhibit (see Exhibit Tab), the first exhibit on the history of Latina lawyers.    See Exhibit Tab for additional information.

    Currently, Visiting Scholar Atencio is completing analysis of the data and has begun drafting the law review article about the research process and results, planned for 2022 publication.   She has begun writing the Luminarias Children's Books Series and plans other scholarly works.

  • Phase II: Verifying Ethnicity, Bar Status & Tracking Careers, Fall 2022

  • By summer 2021, the Visiting Scholar substantially completed the identification of all potential Luminarias, Latina law graduates and lawyers over the 100-year period from 1880-1980.  The second phase of the study (in process) requires (1) verifying the ethnicity of those identified in Phase I; (2) confirming their bar admission and current bar status; and (3) tracking the career paths of the Luminarias, including documenting milestones achieved.

  • Phase III: Oral History Project, 2023

  • Latina lawyers licensed in the 1960s, today, are in their 80s.  Half of the Latinas licensed in the 1970s are retired, with the remaining half in the last years of practice.  Over the past 10 years, Luminarias have passed without their contributions being documented or recognized beyond their local communities, to the extent they were known.   Through the Luminarias Oral History Project, Visiting Scholar Atencio will document the life stories and career accomplishments of 50 Latina / Hispanic women lawyers whose admission to the bar and careers are historically significant.  Each videotaped Oral History constitute an individual educational unit; all 50 create a compedium of unique educational programming that will be made available to the public when completed. 



  • SURVEY CALL TO LUMINARIAS (Law School Graduates through 1980)

  • Luminarias who graduated law school through 1980, are invited to complete the Luminarias Survey (link below) to enable Visiting Scholar Atencio to confirm and complete verification of your ethnicity.  All responses are sent to the Visiting Scholar and held in confidence.  The Visiting Scholar may choose to feature you in upcoming writings but you will be contacted should that occur.  Thank you for completing!

  • Law School Album

This portfolio last updated: 02-May-2024 2:54 PM