Two days before Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor swore in returning Vice President Joe Biden, she was paying a visit to El Barrio, or at least El Museo del Barrio, a thriving Latino art museum sitting at the edge of the rapidly gentrifying Spanish Harlem, to promote her new memoir, My Beloved Life (Knopf). She was greeted by a packed house of admirers, mostly Latino residents of New York, who came to be inspired by a woman whose exceptional achievements have made her a historical figure.
Wearing a purple ensemble and bathed in subtle lighting, with black-and-white photos documenting her life like a Facebook timeline projected behind her, Sotomayor immediately made clear to her interviewer, journalist María Hinojosa, why she was here.
"What gave birth to this book?" she responded with an introspective tone, "it was a question you asked me, María, in 2009: How much did I think my childhood happiness had contributed to my success? And I realized I had never really thought of my childhood being happy."
I'm not sure why Hinojosa chose to ask this question, but it's an understandable logical leap to take—most highly achieving and exemplary individuals like Sotomayor come from nurturing family backgrounds that can give a young Latina a safe space to develop and fulfill her highest potential. But the most striking thing about My Beloved Life is Sotomayor's revelations of her difficult upbringing, her marginal poverty and somewhat dysfunctional family whose father figure was plagued by alcoholism and died at 42.
The first several chapters read like a strange cross between a Nancy Drew detective novel and Piri Thomas' Down These Mean Streets—Sonia's childhood best friend becomes a heroin addict, her main role model abuelita was a séance-leading espiritista, and her family spent her formative years in the Bronxdale housing projects.
Sotomayor's mother had a responsible steady job as a nurse, but the family lived paycheck-to-paycheck, something Sonia herself did well into her early professional career, and hardly provided the kind of striving, middle-class milieu that many Latino professionals benefit from. "When I was a kid I didn't even know there was a Supreme Court," she announced, presumably because this wasn't clear from watching episodes of Perry Mason with her mother.
Herein lies the riveting message of the memoir, one that we can only hope continues to resonate and not fade into some kind of baby boomer irrelevancy: This is a woman who rose to become a Supreme Court Justice because she worked extremely hard, and took advantage of an affirmative action admission and scholarship to Princeton University to rise to the level of the competition she faced there, and later at Yale Law School. And all the while, she refused to turn her back on her identity and roots—you don't have to assimilate that way to succeed.
"No hay parte de mi vida que no es primero puertorriqueño," she said in Spanish, as if to prove a point. She had come a long way from the mild embarrassment she experienced with the Puerto Rican press a few years back, after having been asked how it felt to be speaking Spanish in the land of her ancestors, She merely smiled and left the room saying "Yo voy a comer mofongo." No, this Supreme Court Justice was waxing eloquent on the need for Latino couples to dance salsa frequently, and strongly reinforced the notion that we are nothing if not continuously engaged with familia.