Hostos Assistant Professor Nelson Torres-Ríos, Esq., (right) testifies before the United Nations on June 24 as the President of San Juan’s legislature Marco Antonio Rigau looks on.
For Hostos Assistant Professor and attorney Nelson Torres-Ríos, Esq., teaching about the law at Hostos has special meaning. With many students, faculty and staff having relatives in Puerto Rico, or families who identify with Latino and Hispanic culture, the modern-day issues facing these populations hold many lessons.

Born in the Bronx and raised part of his life in Puerto Rico where his family is from, Torres-Ríos has become a well-respected authority on the issues facing the island, including citizenship, constitutional law, and decolonization, as well as the many obstacles dealt in the aftermath of Hurricane María.

“Part of being an educator, particularly in a school that bears the name of El Gran Ciudadano de las Américas, Eugenio María de Hostos, is to expose our students to the political and legal process of creating much needed change in oppressed communities,” Torres-Ríos said. “My goal is to introduce students to various areas of the law, predominantly constitutional law because of its impact on federal and state policy and, most importantly, to explore the concepts of equal protection and due process. We are living in very tumultuous times where precedent and contemporary social movements are testing the founding principles of our constitution. Moreover, it is essential that students understand that the power of our government comes from us, the people. The changes that we seek as a society begin with conversations that stem from our local communities and eventually become part of the national conversation.”

Having taught at Hostos since 2006, Torres-Ríos hopes his lessons resonate with his students, no matter where they are from.

It has been a busy year for Torres-Ríos, who teaches for the Criminal Justice and Paralegal Program in the Public Policy and Law Unit of the Behavioral and Social Sciences Department at Hostos. Sworn in as an attorney in 2013, he was sworn in as a bar member of the United States Supreme Court on May 13, 2019 — a step that enables him to practice law before the Supreme Court of the United States.

While Torres-Ríos believes it is unlikely the U.S. Supreme Court will revisit an issue regarding Puerto Rico anytime soon, he would be interested in participating in a case related either to the island’s debt crisis and/or political status and is already laying the groundwork in the event the opportunity presents itself.

His years of research and advocacy for issues central to the Puerto Rican community earned him an invitation to testify before a United Nations Decolonization Committee on June 24, 2019, where he and other Puerto Rican officials and scholars debated the need for self-determination. 

“After my testimony at the United Nations, the President of the San Juan Legislature Marco Antonio Rigau requested a copy of my research and has expressed an interest in working with me in the future,” Torres-Ríos said. “My written testimony laid out a legal argument to challenge the island's debt, with specific citations to U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

Other notable career highlights include:
2015: presented at a panel in Florida about the Puerto Rico Debt Crisis, the first and only attorney at the conference to bring up the Supreme Court case of Litchfield v. Ballou, which argues that debt incurred in violation of the constitution is illegal.
2015:  presented for Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños’ 100 Years of the Jones Act Conference at Hunter College. The presentation focused on the legal question of natural born citizenship and the limitations of territorial citizenship under the Jones Act.
2016: attended two Supreme Court cases in Washington D.C. where the political status of Puerto Rico was an essential issue.
2018: published "Limitations of the Jones Act: Racialized Citizenship and Territorial Status," his analysis of a series of cases.
2019:  discussed race and the law as a panelist at the Thurgood Marshall Pre-Law Society annual conference in Binghamton, New York.

Torres-Ríos remains active in Puerto Rico. Having traveled there for recent massive demonstrations on the island, he believes there is so much more to teach and learn.

“No one can doubt the power of the Puerto Rican people,” Torres-Ríos said. “It was the people of Puerto Rico that ousted the U.S. Navy out of Vieques and Culebra. It was the power of our people that prompted the release of the oldest political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera. It was the power of our people that created our beloved institution Hostos Community College as well as bilingual education in New York City. Hurricane María, the imposed fiscal board, and the debacle of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has led to the largest protest the island has ever seen.

“The sea of flags, the music, and the solidarity of our people could be felt in every square inch of the capital. Hugs and handshakes among people, who only met through this exercise of free expression, show signs of hope for the future. Now, after marching, chanting, and singing along my brothers and sisters on the island, the governor announced his resignation. A new day for Puerto Rico is on the horizon.”