Judge Faviola Soto, the first Dominican judge in New York and the first Hispanic to sit in the Court of Claims, was born and raised in Hamilton Heights. Her parents, Ana and Rafael, were born in the Dominican Republic and emigrated to New York City in the late 1940s: Ana to escape the dictator Trujillo and Rafael brought at age 14 by his mother who was escaping domestic violence. Ana and Rafael met in New York as workers in the garment district and married after he returned from his service in the Army during the Korean War. Judge Soto attended schools in the New York City public school system, graduating from George Washington High School in 1970. She received her B.A. degree from the City College of New York in 1975, with a major in Economics and a minor in Mathematics. Judge Soto received a full scholarship and obtained her law degree from New York Law School in 1978. She was admitted to the Bar of the State of New York in March, 1979.
Judge Soto began working at Bronx Legal Services in 1978, providing free legal services to indigents. She entered into private practice in 1980 and continued as a solo practitioner in 1982, running a general civil and criminal practice in Manhattan and the Bronx. During that time she also presided over Child Support cases as a Hearing Examiner in Family Court. For almost ten years she specialized in the areas of Family Court working as an 18B attorney. In 1993 she was selected to run for a judgeship in the 7th Municipal District, which is composed of Hamilton Heights, Washington Heights and Inwood, and was elected to the Civil Court of the City of New York. She was re-elected in 2003, serving until 2006; she also served as Acting Justice on the Supreme Court of New York County, appointed by Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman, from 2002 to 2006; and has served on the New York State Court of Claims, to which she was appointed by Governor George Pataki, since 2006. Justice Soto is the proud mother of six children and grandmother of seven grandchildren.
Judge Soto believes her Dominican background has featured as an important strength throughout the course of her professional development and continues to do so now, both in making a contribution to positive changes in public perception of the justice system and also through her own ability to empathize with others. "When I first became a judge I was assigned to criminal court, so I think I was put there by the court system based on the fact that I was Dominican and it allowed a lot of the defendants and the people who use the criminal court system to see somebody on the bench that actually looked like them, that knew their language, that had a familiar-sounding name, and I thought that gave a lot more credence to the court system because the judges should look like the population that they're actually serving.
"As a Dominican woman, I try to treat everybody the same. My patience extends to everybody, to society as a group, including the mentally ill, the homeless. My spectrum of sympathy extends much further because Dominicans look like everybody. We are everybody."
The evolving Dominican experience in the US and the changing self-definition of Dominican identity have naturally shaped her personal history in some interesting ways, Judge Soto revealed.
"I was raised by a single mother. My parents met each other in the United States. My mother came from Altamira and my father came from Barahona. So I don't think they would have met if they hadn't come to the US. They met in the garment industry. I started working as a child, from 12 years old, cutting little threads for dresses, going with my mom to work.
"If you were a white Dominican you were considered Puerto Rican. If you were dark Dominican, you were considered African-American. I have two sisters who are much lighter than I am, so they were Puerto Rican and I was African-American. It wasn't until I got older and the community became more Dominican that I felt more camaraderie with my community and really felt I was a part of something."
Asked what advice she might offer young people in the community who look up to her as a role model, particularly to those interested in making a difference, Soto is unhesitant in her reply."I believe that education is the key. If it had not been for City College, I might not be in the position I am now. I grew up a few blocks from City College. I remember seeing people get out at the 137th St. train station going to this institution of higher learning and dreaming about being a student there one day. I remember going to school and not having to worry about tuition or even car fare since I could walk to school every day. And I'm just so grateful for the opportunity and I think young people should take every opportunity they can to educate themselves, to study hard, to not waste time. Every day counts, and that's how I live my life, still today."