Sonia Sotomayor is a hard-working woman. Her autobiography, My Beloved World, recounts her story of growing up in the South Bronx, achieving in school, getting into Princeton, then Yale Law School, being hired as a prosecutor by the DA’s office of the County of New York and then onto a private law firm before being appointed a federal judge, then an appellate judge and then achieving the highest honor of becoming a Supreme Court Justice in 2009.
Sotomayor’s display of intense focus and dedication to justice is almost exhausting to read. She meets every new encounter with appropriate trepidation combined with a curiosity and willingness to learn that propels her and her career forward.
She learned early on how to notice what skills she is lacking and how to ask the right person for help. In 4th grade she asked a fellow student she admired how she studied. The young woman taught Sotomayor about underlining and taking notes while reading, something Sotomayor had not been taught.
“Don’t be shy about making a teacher of any willing party who knows what he or she is doing. In retrospect, I can see how important that pattern would become for me: how readily I’ve sought out mentors, asking guidance from professors or colleagues, and in every friendship soaking up eagerly whatever that friend could teach me” (72).
Sotomayor has an amazing spirit and an ambition to match. Almost fearless, she makes her way from the housing projects as the daughter of Puerto Rican migrants to the highest position in the land, all the while remembering to be kind and caring of people, all people, and respectful and believing in the rule of law. It’s astonishing, truly.
It’s easy to see where her determination came from. Sotomayor’s mother is a force as well. She joined the U.S. Army Women’s Corps at age 17 and became a nurse. She believed in and fought for an education for her children, making financial sacrifices to send them to Catholic schools (considered better at the time). She took risks, moving her family to better living situations, able to see the up and coming neighborhoods before others. A mother who worked outside of the home, she supported her family as a practical nurse, returning to school when her children were in high school to become a registered nurse for better pay and work conditions. As she did all this, she also committed herself to taking care of people in her community, as nurse and neighbor. Sonia’s mother, Celina is a star as well.
Sotomayor was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at a young age and has lived with it all her life. This is the main reason why she chose not to become a parent. And yet, the issue is so much more complex, but one of the things she has been under constant scrutiny for.
“It’s interesting to me how, even after all the strides of the women’s movement, the question of whether we can “have it all” remains such a controversy in the media, as if the ideal can be achieved. Most women of my generation who entered professional life did not forgo motherhood, and many did succeed at both. But they paid a price, one still paid by most women who work outside the home(and men too, I believe if they parent wholeheartedly): a life of perpetual internal compromise that leaves you always feeling torn, neglectful by turns of one or the other. . . I have always made a point of running my chambers in such a way as to help mothers feel comfortable working there”(233).
Sotomayor’s Bronx neighborhood in the 60s and 70s was extremely dangerous and crime ridden. Observing the police officers, she wanted to become one but because of her diabetes could not. That is why she moved herself toward becoming a lawyer and eventually a judge where she believed her decisions and opinions would play out on a much larger social stage and hopefully help make things better for a larger population.
Along the way Sotomayor meets discrimination in all forms and yet finds a voice to address it that is level-headed and calm.
“I came to accept during my freshman year that many of the gaps in my knowledge and understanding were simply limits of class and cultural background, not lack of aptitude or application as I’d feared. That acceptance, though, didn’t make me feel less self-conscious and unschooled in the company of classmates who’d had the benefit of much more worldly experience. Until I arrived at Princeton, I had no idea how circumscribed my life had been, confined to a community that was essentially a village in a shadow of a great metropolis with so much to offer, of which I’d tasted almost nothing”(135).
Sotomayor was admitted to Princeton shortly after affirmative action laws were passed that opened the doors previously closed to minorities and underrepresented populations. This subject is charged and much has happened to disempower these programs that helped so many gain a previously elusive chance at the American Dream as promised by our constitution. She was attacked repeatedly for having benefitted from these programs.
“The Daily Princetonian routinely published letters to the editor lamenting the presence on campus of “affirmative action students,” each one of whom had presumably displaced a far more deserving affluent white male and could rightly be expected to crash into the gutter built of her own unrealistic aspirations. There were vultures circling, ready to dive when we stumbled. The pressure to succeed was relentless, even if self-imposed out of fear and insecurity. For we all felt that if we did fail, we would be proving the critics right and the doors that had opened just a crack to let us in would be slammed shut again”(145).
In Being Brown Lázaro Lima warns us to not forget that Sotomayor’s achievements were largely propelled by these social advances which are under attack and have been sorely reduced by groups who are convinced that white males are being discriminated against by these policies. Sadly, the doors that swung open for Sotomayor are no longer open.
“Quite simply, the conditions under which Sotomayor could flourish as a beneficiary of affirmative action and reap the benefits of the American dream do not exist for the great majority of Latino citizens, cultural citizens, or aspirants to citizenship. What remains of “affirmative action,” as a social and educational policy to enfranchise those who have borne the brunt of historical discrimination, has simply been deracinated”(BB53).
Sotomayor herself was made to wrestle down racist comments and innuendoes thrown at her by those who assumed she had taken something from someone else by her own achievements. She comes to the conclusion that:
“I had no need to apologize that the look-wider, search-more affirmative action that Princeton and Yale practiced had opened doors for me. That was its purpose: to create the conditions whereby students from disadvantaged backgrounds could be brought to the starting line of a race many were unaware was even being run. I had been admitted to the Ivy League through a special door, and I had more ground than most to make up before I was competing with my classmates on an equal footing. But I worked relentlessly to reach that point, and distinctions such as the Pyne Prize, Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude, and a spot on The Yale Law Journal were not given out like so many pats on the back to encourage mediocre students. These were achievements as real as those of anyone around me”(191).
In, Being Brown Lima demonstrates that conditions have only become worse for the Latinx population due to an all-out assault from the right wing and misinformation that is being spread by current detractors.
“As recent polling shows, one out of three Americans inaccurately believes that all Latinos are undocumented, though over 64 percent of all Latinos are native-born U.S. citizens. How can this be? That Latinos have been in this geographical territory called the United States since before the arrival of the Puritans makes our present historical amnesia both shamefully telling, and it prevents us from apprehending how and why we have deprived ourselves of a significant part of our cultural history, our inescapable present and our inevitable future”(BB 52).
The Latinx population is struggling and this cross cannot be put on the shoulders of Sotomayor alone. We must all strive to right our thinking about this and bring back policies to help raise up our brothers and sisters who are lumped into this category and suffering.
“Latinos fail to graduate from high school more than any other ethnic or racial group, even though the U.S. graduation rate is at an all-time high. And of those Latinos who do graduate from high school, 18 percent enroll in college—an enrollment rate lower than that of any other ethnic or racial group. The graduation rate of Latino college students is equally disturbing. In 2010, for example, when Sotomayor completed her first year on the Supreme Court, the graduation rate for Latino college students age 25 to 29 was 13.5 percent, compared with 38.5 percent for whites, 19.4 percent for African Americans, and 52.5 percent for Asian Americans”(BB 53).
Sotomayor is Puerto Rican. As a country and U.S. citizens we all owe Puerto Rico and the Puerto Ricans an apology. Historically we have treated this population in extremely inhumane ways.
First of all Puerto Ricans are Americans. Not immigrants. And not undocumented. They have been Americans since 1917. Puerto Rico is not a state. It is an unincorporated territory. Though they are United States citizens they do not have the right to vote in U.S . elections unless they live in the mainland U.S. The island has its own government, however the US congress governs the territory ultimately. Puerto Rico has one seat in congress without voting rights. The situation is strange and bizarre and yet the arguments for and against Puerto Rico gaining full statehood are complex and I will not attempt to articulate them here. An interested reader can learn more by reading both of the books referred to in this post.
Puerto Ricans have suffered unthinkable racism, been labelled “subhuman” and were victims of systemic medical testing, experimentation and even enforced sterilization(BB 130-131). This is unconscionable. With the recent environmental disasters and the way the island and its residents are treated, it continues. Why does this situation persist? And how can we as a country allow it to?
Sotomayor’s favorite person was her Grandmother, Abuelita, a powerful matriarch.
Sotomayor recounts her grandmother’s home as the family gathering place, describes the food she prepared, the shopping trips they took together, her healing abilities and the (velada)séances she would host in her home.
With her recitation of poems and songs from Puerto Rico, her Abuelita enchanted and entranced her:
“Her long black hair is tied back simply and her dress is plain, but to my eyes she looks more glamorous than anyone trying to be fancy. Now her arms stretch wide and her skirt swirls as she turns, reaching for the whole horizon. You can almost see green mountains, the sea and the sky unfolding, the whole world being born as she lifts her hand. As it turns, her fingers spread open like a flower blooming in the sun”(22).
Sotomayor writes of her summer visits to her relatives in Puerto Rico, the beauty of the place so different than New York City, the difference in the culture, the family still living there.
“Barely out of the airport, we would stop at the food stands on the roadside, joining the traffic jam of people returning who couldn’t wait another minute for a first taste of home. The coconuts were big and green, not like the shriveled hairy brown things in boxes on the sidewalks of the Bronx. We would shake them and listen to find one that had a lot of liquid swishing around inside. The vendor would hack a piece off the top with a single swipe of a long machete and stick a straw in the hole”(32).
Throughout her career and life Sotomayor has been an active voice and force for the rights of Puerto Ricans and others in the Latinx population. In Princeton she joined Accion Puertorriqueña, a group partly dedicated to promoting positive representation of Puerto Ricans on campus not only in the student population but the faculty and staff as well.
Once a practicing attorney she joined the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Educational Fund (now LatinoJustice) and offered pro bono work as a citizen lawyer.
“I particularly welcomed any chance to work on issues such as economic development and education that were crucial to the community in which I was raised. I not only cared deeply about those people but also understood their needs from firsthand experience. As I made my way in the world, however, I was seeing more and more that no group is an island. Even the most cohesive (or the most marginalized) consists of overlapping circles of belonging, just as every individual’s identity is constituted of many elements. To do good ultimately meant seeing any particular interest in a larger civic context, a broader sense of community. The specific needs of people like those I grew up with would always tug at my heart, but increasingly the call to serve was beckoning me beyond the confines of where I’d come from”(217).
We are all lucky and blessed to have a woman of such wisdom as one of our Supreme Court Justices. Sonia Sotomayor is a #NastyWomanActivist.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2020
Lima, Lázaro. Being Brown: Sonia Sotomayor and the Latino Question. Oakland: The University of California Press, 2019
Sotomayor, Sonia. My Beloved World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013