NEW HAVEN — The two dozen firefighters who packed into Humphrey’s East Restaurant were celebrating a coming marriage, drinking and jawboning in the boisterous style of large men with risky jobs, but Lt. Ben Vargas spent the evening trying to escape the tension surrounding his presence.
During a trip to the bathroom, he found himself facing another man. Without warning, the first punch landed. When Lieutenant Vargas awoke, bloodied and splayed on the grimy floor, he was taken to the hospital.
Lieutenant Vargas believes the attack, five years ago, was orchestrated by a black firefighter in retaliation for his having joined a racial discrimination lawsuit against the city over its tossing out of an exam for promotion that few minority firefighters passed. (No arrests were made in the attack, and the black firefighter vigorously denies having been involved.)
When the Hispanic firefighters’ association and its members — including Lieutenant Vargas’s brother — refused to publicly stand behind him, he quit the organization.
Lieutenant Vargas, who posted the sixth-highest score on the exam, was ridiculed as a token, a turncoat and an Uncle Tom — all of which, he said, “made my resolve that much stronger.”
When the United States Supreme Court ruled this week in the firefighters’ favor, Lieutenant Vargas, 40, the son of Puerto Rican parents, found himself celebrating amid an awkward racial dynamic: As the lone Hispanic among the 18 plaintiffs who had challenged an affirmative action policy, he had also challenged an appeals court decision joined by Judge Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic nominee to the Supreme Court.
“She’s from Puerto Rico, and I’m from Puerto Rico,” he said. “She obviously feels differently than I do.”
The Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 decision is expected to have repercussions on employment discrimination law that go well beyond fire departments, where minority groups have been woefully underrepresented, particularly in leadership positions. On the steps of the federal courthouse in New Haven on Monday, a lawyer for the firefighters, Karen Lee Torre, said they had “become a symbol for millions of Americans who have grown tired of seeing individual achievement and merit take a back seat to race and ethnicity.”
For Lieutenant Vargas, the ruling will probably mean a long-awaited promotion to captain in a 350-member department that he has admired since childhood but that has been plagued for decades by racial tension and recriminations.
“I consider myself an American — I was born and raised here,” he said in an interview on the porch of his home in the wooded suburb of Wallingford. “I love my people. I love my culture. I love our rice and beans, our salsa music, our language — everything my parents raised us with. But I am so grateful for the opportunity only the United States can give.”
He grew up in the troubled Fair Haven neighborhood of New Haven, a complicated city known for Yale University but also for urban decay, high crime rates and failed prospects, roots he sees as similar to Judge Sotomayor’s in a Bronx public housing project.
His father was a factory worker, and his mother took care of the couple’s three children. (In addition to his brother, David, who did not respond to interview requests, he has a sister who now lives in Puerto Rico.) The family spoke Spanish at home, making his adjustment to school “traumatic,” he said.
Lieutenant Vargas decided to follow the path of an older friend, John Marquez, whom he looked up to. Mr. Marquez had worked his way out of the neighborhood by joining the Fire Department.
“I used to tell him, ‘You know where I came from — if I can make it, anyone can,’ ” Mr. Marquez, now a deputy chief in the department, said in an interview. “ ‘But don’t expect anything to be handed to you. Work for it.’ ”
But Lieutenant Vargas’s aspirations were stymied by a 1988 lawsuit, filed by black firefighters, that shut down hiring for years. The lawsuit challenged a written test that relatively few nonwhites passed. In 1994, the city agreed to disregard the test, over union complaints, and hire 40 firefighters — 20 white, 10 black and 10 Hispanic, according to The New Haven Register.
Lieutenant Vargas was among those hired. That later led some people to criticize him as trying to shut the door that welcomed him, though he maintained that it was impossible to know how he would have done under the old hiring process.
He was promoted to lieutenant in 2000, and he now leads a four-person crew at a red-brick single-engine firehouse not far from where he grew up. He also works part time as a consultant for a company that sells equipment for firefighters.
“When I leave the firehouse, I bring it home with me,” he said. “I read about it. Think about it. I love this job. I don’t think there’s anything else I could do better.”
In 2003, Lieutenant Vargas was one of 56 people in the department who passed a test for promotion; 15 were black or Hispanic. When city officials discovered that only two of those were likely to be immediately promoted, they decided to throw out the test, citing concerns that minority candidates might again sue, alleging discrimination.
Instead, a group of white firefighters sued. The results had been posted by race, without names, and when Lieutenant Vargas learned that a Hispanic firefighter had scored sixth among 41 lieutenants on the test to become a captain, he joined the suit. Only later did he discover that the score was his.
“I would have carried the load all by myself,” he said of filing the suit. “Luckily there were enough people out there who felt like I did that we could stand together.”
But Lieutenant Vargas bore more than his share of the criticism, said Lt. Matthew Marcarelli, who was among the plaintiffs and has known Lieutenant Vargas since they were classmates at the fire academy. “Why the other guys viewed him as a turncoat I really don’t understand. He did it because he’s principled and he thought it was the right thing to do. Benny’s nobody’s token.”
Chief Marquez said his old protégé was “an easy target because he didn’t fall in line.”
“It seems that if you’re not the right type of minority, you get hammered,” he said.
The president of the black firefighters’ group in New Haven did not return calls seeking comment.
Despite the ugly episode at Humphrey’s East shortly after the lawsuit was filed, Lieutenant Vargas said that little tension remained in the department, and that he was hopeful that the court decision would end the rest.
He noted that the Hispanic firefighters’ association reversed course in February, after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and publicly endorsed his position.
Gesturing toward his three young sons, Lieutenant Vargas explained why he had no regrets. “I want them to have a fair shake, to get a job on their merits and not because they’re Hispanic or they fill a quota,” he said. “What a lousy way to live.”