Vela, Filemon Bartolome (1935–2004)

By: Norman Rozeff

Type: Biography

Published: May 22, 2007

Filemon Bartolome Vela, jurist, was born on May 1, 1935, in Harlingen, Texas. He was the eighth of nine children of Maria Luisa and Roberto Vela Sr. His mother died when he was eleven years old. His father operated a small grocery store and was a notary public. Following his graduation from Harlingen High School in 1954, Vela enrolled in Texas Southmost College in Brownsville, an institution which five of his brothers were also to attend. He went on to the University of Texas at Austin but postponed his studies to serve in the United States Army from 1957 to 1959. After military service he entered St. Mary's University Law School in San Antonio, from which he received a J.D. degree in 1962. Returning home, he entered into the private practice of law and served on the Brownsville City Commission from 1971 to 1973. In 1975 he took office as a state judge in the 107th Judicial District for Cameron and Willacy counties. He served in this capacity for five years before President Jimmy Carter nominated him as a federal judge in 1980 to fill the seat vacated by Judge Reynaldo Garza. Vela retired and received senior status in 2000, yet continued to sit on the bench until 2004. He was characterized as "a fair but strict judge." Judge Vela taped more than 200 radio programs stressing the value of an education, encouraging children to stay in school, and promoting literacy programs. He also co-hosted "Despacho Juridico," a successful long-running radio program that addressed legal issues for listeners throughout South Texas and northern Mexico. He was a mentor to many in the legal profession. He was honored as a TSC Distinguished Alumnus in 1998 and by having a middle school in Brownsville named in his honor. Vela was a founder of the Esperanza Home for Boys and chairman of the board of the Rio Grande Marine Institute for Youth. He was a Catholic. He was once described as "a bear—a grizzly on the bench, but of the teddy bear variety in everyday life." Vela died of stomach cancer on April 13, 2004, in Harlingen. He was survived by his wife, Blanca Sanchez Vela, who for a period served as mayor of Brownsville; three children; and three grandchildren. He was buried in Buena Vista Burial Park in Brownsville. On June 29, 2005, President George W. Bush signed a bill designating the United States Courthouse and Federal Building in Brownsville as the Reynaldo G. Garza and Filemon B. Vela United States Courthouse.

Eduardo R. Rodriguez, Texas Bar Journal, June 2005. United States House of Representatives Bill H.R. 483, April 13, 2005, Reynaldo G. Garza and Filemon B. Vela United States Courthouse. UTB/TSC News Press Release, April 14, 2004.
  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Politics and Government
  • Judges
  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Norman Rozeff, “Vela, Filemon Bartolome,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 26, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 22, 2007

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