J. FRANK TORRES
Crusader and Judge, An Oral History
“Ultimately, everything depends upon the quality of the individual.” So wrote the psychologist Carl Jung. That unassailable truism, almost lost in today’s world, finds reaffirmation in the gripping story of the life of Judge Jóse Francisco, “Frank,” Torres. For here was a man of humble origins, born into a working class family, who faced Mount Everest size obstacles and by force of character and the exercise of unyielding moral values achieved his heart’s desire.
In the Torres personal history, one encounters a superb example of what is noble and inspiring in the American tradition. The lessons this book imparts are no less valuable because they come from a corner of the nation--the Hispanic Southwest--that too often has been regarded as a cultural, economic, and political backwater.
Viewing the life long struggles of Frank Torres, we are reminded that courage and talent, combined with effort, truly can make a difference, proving Jung’s dictum, that individual character is what counts. As his story unfolds, the reader increasingly gains respect and liking for the idealistic young man with an iron will who obtains his law degree against all odds, battles back from a near-fatal illness, and faces down the Ku Klux Klan, just for starters.
In 1973, after a successful career as an activist lawyer and then a municipal judge in Trinidad, Colorado, Frank Torres retired and with his wife Crusita moved to New Mexico’s capital at Santa Fe. That same year, my biography, The Little Lion of the Southwest, A Life of Manuel Antonio Chaves was published by Chicago’s Swallow Press. Soon after that, Judge Torres read the book, appreciated what he called “my fair treatment of the Hispanic experience in the Southwest,” and wrote a letter inviting me to drop by his home on Santa Fe’s East Lupita Road, so he could meet me.
I did and that first visit marked the beginning of our friendship, which lasted until his death. My chief regret now is that I did not know the full scope of Judge Torres’s extraordinary career, as faithfully detailed in this book by his friend and neighbor Lois Franke. Our conversations chiefly revolved around history and philosophical ideas, and while the judge occasionally referred to some personal experience of his to make a point, the fascinating parameters of his life remained unknown to me. Not until years later, when I read Franke’s biography in manuscript did I fully grasp the magnitude of Judge Torres’s achievement.
Lois Franke, after gallantly laboring for more than a decade on this book, has produced a highly readable narrative. I consider it a significant contribution to the social and political history of the twentieth century Southwest.
It was Judge Torres’s great wish that the chronicle of his life be published, not out of vanity, but rather because he thought that what he had suffered and accomplished in his pursuit of high ideals might prove instructive to others. It was that hones motive that led him to spend countless hours dictating his recollections to Lois Franke. I heartily approve of her book and hope he would, too.
When first I met this unique man, the farthest thing from my mind was that I would write a book about him. Our driveway in Santa Fe runs down the side of the property and, in the early 1970s, this provided the avenue to my acquaintance with the neighbors who just had moved in next door.
Frank Torres introduced himself to me one sunny morning over the fence that separated our lots. The tall, silver haired gentleman projected a courtly manner and smiled at me with open, friendly, intelligent interest. A few minutes spent chatting and exchanging basic information established a tentative neighborliness. As the months passed, we visited frequently over the side fence, sometimes spending half a leisurely afternoon just talking, gradually becoming friends. We spoke about where we came from, what we thought. The judge was pleased to find that I was from Colorado, and searched his mind for common acquaintances we might have had.
His story, which carried the sweep of history, fascinated me. Retired from the bench for health reasons, he was forced by his family to, as he put it, “behave himself,” although nothing of the problem that had imposed this family fiat was apparent in neither his speech nor movement. Since I taught high school, our contracts periodically required taking a few hours of college credit “professional growth” classes. A year or so after I became acquainted with this wonderful old judge, I enrolled in a Southwestern History class for the purpose of raising my education consciousness another notch. This one chanced to be taught by a new Ph.D. in Southwest Studies fresh out of an upper Midwest university.
During the first class session, the fledgling professor stood before us and, with self-assured authority, intoned: “We all know that Hispanics historically have been under motivated, under educated and under achievers.” After some thirty years of living in Santa Fe, this fell on my ear as absolute graceless misinformation. The instructor then assigned a ten-page term paper to be done on anything in Southwest History that interested us.
The temptation to set him straight was overwhelming. In the next visit over the side fence, I asked the judge if he would object to my doing the paper on him. As I explained the preconceived notions of the professor, there was an amused twinkle in his unusual gold colored eyes when he replied he would be happy to help me.
Pulling together a broad sketch of what Judge Torres told me about himself, I handed in a twenty page overview of hardship, discrimination, ability, determination, education, hard work and significant achievement. I also gave the judge a copy. Driving in from an errand a week or so later, he came over to the fence to hail me as I parked the car. We exchanged generalities for a bit and then he gave me a conspiratorial, boyish grin and announced, “People have told me for years I should do a book of my memoirs, and I like the way you write. You and I are going to do the story of my life!”
My first astonished reaction was that it couldn’t be done. I already had more to do than I could keep up with. But somehow he caught me with the idea. His story needed to be told.
In receiving Judge Torres’ oral history, I gained not only what happened but how he assessed the persons and situations he talked of and what he felt about the society he lived in. The reminiscing and recollections proceeded as our free times coincided. Sometimes he came to my house, sometimes I went to his. The judge’s wife and their son Lawrence, who lived with them, graciously accepted my being around as giving the judge a project he entered into enthusiastically.
An unshakable idealist from his first breath of life, the years had given Frank Torres a perspective from which he judged events and people with dispassionate honesty. That he and his forebears lived with blighting injustice and discrimination is evident in the chronicle of their lives. From this negative experience, he revealed no personal rancor, but rather demonstrated a life spent in total commitment to the concepts of equality and justice, come what may.
Torres had lived his life in a hurry, occupied at all times with concurrent, immediate objectives and long term goals involving a wide variety of causes. Focused on the rightness of what he was doing and indifferent to his image in the middle of it, he had saved little personal correspondence, news stories about himself, or the texts of his speeches. However, even a cursory examination of the man and his life shows him to have lived and worked with unswerving commitment to causes and courses which helped shape the American Southwest where he lived.