Nelson A. Castillo: A Call to Serve
Throughout Nelson A. Castillo’s legal career, the Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA) has played an integral role in his life. From the first annual HNBA conference he attended as a St. John’s University law student, Castillo remembers feeling embraced by the association and overwhelmed by a strong desire to serve its members.
“The association is a vehicle that works both to empower those in the legal profession and to assist the Hispanic community,” says Castillo, who served as national president and chair of the Immigration Law Committee of the HNBA until his term ended in late August. “Through networking opportunities, annual conferences, and regional programs, the HNBA enables Latino attorneys, law students, and other legal professionals nationwide to grow professionally, and encourages them to speak for those in the community who would not otherwise be heard. For me, to have been involved in these activities and surrounded by other individuals who gave so unselfishly to the association and the community has been incredibly inspiring and rewarding.”
During Castillo’s term, the association was at the forefront of issues related to immigration reform, ultimately opposing two pieces of legislation proposed by Congress because they failed to address the reforms that are required in a fair, humane, and comprehensive way. In addition, the association made a commitment to nurture the next generation of Hispanic attorneys. Castillo visited more than 40 law schools across the country, imploring gatekeepers to break down the barriers that continue to prevent minorities from pursuing law degrees and working as law professors and administrators.
Castillo learned firsthand how flimsy those barriers can be. In 1981, 11-year-old Castillo came to the United States from his native El Salvador. He and his older sister joined their mother, who had arrived in New York seven years earlier to work as a housekeeper. Because he could not speak English, Castillo was pushed back two grades, and at 16, he dropped out of high school to pursue a series of minimum wage jobs: bus boy, gas station attendant, office cleaner. It was at a gas station that one of his regular customers changed his life.
“She drove a blue Chevy Caprice Classic,” recalls Castillo. “She asked what I was doing about school, and explained that I could still go to college if I passed the GED—the high school equivalency test. She even dropped off the books so I could study for the exam, and then I lost track of her.”
After getting his GED diploma, Castillo attended community college, and then transferred to St. John’s University in New York, where he graduated cum laude with a degree in finance. Inspired by the Surinamese/Puerto Rican American actor Jimmy Smits, who played a lawyer on television’s “L.A. Law,” Castillo went on to earn his juris doctorate from the university’s school of law.
When not volunteering his time, Castillo is the principal of the Castillo Law Firm, PLLC, a general practice law office in Roslyn Heights, N.Y. that provides representation in the areas of real estate, business organizations, and immigration and naturalization law. Even as a solo practitioner, Castillo continues to sit on the HNBA’s board as immediate past national president, eager to serve in an advisory capacity.
Because Hispanic attorneys are woefully underrepresented in mainstream bar associations, Castillo makes it a point to be active in these organizations as well, particularly the New York State Bar Association, where he is a member of the House of Delegates, the Executive Committee of the Real Property Law Section, and the Committee on Leadership Development and Diversity. His intention is for Hispanic attorneys to be comfortable, empowered, and in a position to lead bar associations across the board.
Through his service, Castillo has created many opportunities for Hispanics in the legal profession; undoubtedly he will create many more. DB
Patrick Folliard is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, MD.
From the January/February 2007 issue of Diversity & The Bar®