Manuel Barbosa, pioneer federal judge from Elgin, dies at 72

Manuel "Manny" Barbosa, a pioneering former federal court judge from Elgin, died Monday after a short battle with pancreatic cancer.

Barbosa, 72, served for 14 years on the federal bench after becoming in 1998 the first Latino bankruptcy judge to serve in the U.S. Northern District of Illinois. Friends and family remembered him for his sense of humor and dedication to service.

"He was very caring. He served on too many boards to remember," said his older sister, Jane Barbosa.

Among them was the advisory board of Centro de Informacion in Elgin, whose executive director Jaime Garcia first met Barbosa in 1970. "He was an engaging and accomplished man," Garcia said. "He was just fun to converse with."

Barbosa recently celebrated 45 years of marriage to his wife, Linda Kupfer, with whom he had three children - Maria Elena, Cristina and Vincent - and eight grandchildren.

One of seven siblings, Barbosa came to the United States from Mexico when he was just 2 months old. His family first lived on a cotton farm by the Texas border, then migrated to Nebraska and eventually settled in Elgin when he was 10. He attended St. Edward High School in Elgin, the former St. Procopius College - now Benedictine University - and The John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

"He was always good to my parents," his sister said. "At an early age he started working and he was very studious. He loved to read."

Before becoming a judge, Barbosa worked as an assistant state's attorney in Kane County and as a private practice lawyer, and served for 18 years as chairman of the Illinois Human Rights Commission. He also was a board member for Metra and the Northern Illinois University Law School and founded the Club Guadalupano of Elgin scholarship program for college-bound Latino students.

As a federal judge, he never lost sight of the fact that bankruptcy court could be about real, human suffering, he told the Daily Herald when he retired in 2012. His courtroom was particularly busy during the foreclosure crisis that hit in 2008, which disproportionately affected Latinos, he recalled.

After his retirement Barbosa wrote and published an autobiographical book, "The Littlest Wetback: From Undocumented Child to U.S. Federal Judge."

This summer Barbosa was reappointed to the Illinois Human Rights Commission, but had to step down shortly after because of his health, his sister said.

He was diagnosed in September with pancreatic cancer, she said. "We are very sad, but we're kind of relieved he's not suffering anymore."

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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