The Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection of the University of Texas Libraries announces the opening of the personal archive of noted jurist, civic leader and education advocate Filemon B. Vela.
A native of Harlingen, Texas, Judge Vela had a distinguished legal career, and ultimately served on the federal bench. Through correspondence, legal documents such as court orders and opinions, historical clippings and audiovisual recordings, Vela’s archive records his illustrious career.
Vela attended Texas Southmost College in Brownsville and The University of Texas at Austin, completed a two-year stint in the Army and pursued legal studies at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. Vela opened his own law office in Brownsville, Texas, in 1963, and the following year was admitted to practice law before the Federal Court.
Vela represented clients in both civil and criminal cases and acted as local counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) in the 1970 civil rights case Lucinda Escalante v. La Feria Independent School District which proved to be key in establishing the pursuit of due process by governmental bodies.
In 1971, Vela was elected to the post of City Commissioner of Brownsville and served through 1973. One year later, he was elected judge of the 107th Judicial District Court of Cameron and Willacy counties, and was reelected in 1978. Shortly thereafter, U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas submitted Vela’s name to President Jimmy Carter as a candidate to replace the recently promoted Judge Reynaldo G. Garza. Vela was confirmed by the U.S. Senate and was sworn in as a federal judge of the Southern Region of Texas, Brownsville Division on July 3, 1980 in Harlingen, and served until his retirement in 2000.
As his archive documents, Vela was very active in his community outside of his legal and judicial work, supporting civic activities and organizations, in particular youth programs that encouraged students to stay in school and away from drug use. Vela’s public service also included co-hosting hundreds of Spanish language radio programs dealing with various aspects of the law, many of which are preserved at the Benson Collection.
In 2003, Vela established the Filemon B. Vela Pre-Law Academy, a two-week program for potential law school students at the University of Texas at Brownsville. In acknowledgment of his support for educational causes, the Brownsville School District named a middle school in his honor.
A detailed guide to the Vela archive, which includes more than 20 linear feet of material, is available online.
The Filemon B. Vela archive was donated to the Benson Latin American Collection by Judge Vela’s widow, Blanca Sanchez Vela.