Opinion: Sonia Sotomayor - An Ordinary Woman?

As a Bronx kid myself, I can vouch for the impeccable accuracy of Sotomayor's prose in painting a picture of intra-borough migration from tenement to housing project to middle-income co-op apartment, and her rendering of the street life and the magical interiors of these Boricua dwellings at times rival fiction craft smiths like Esmeralda Santiago and Julia Álvarez. But just as much as she is immersed in this world, she is strangely detached as well, and this is the paradox that seemingly explains how and why she was able to ascend to such lofty heights.

Oddly enough, the clue comes from her description of how her first and only marriage to childhood sweetheart Kevin Noonan disintegrated. True, different career paths had made them grow apart, but he appeared increasingly needy to her. "The truth is that since childhood," she writes, "I had cultivated an existential independence. It came from perceiving the adults around me as unreliable, and without it I felt I wouldn't have survived. I cared deeply for everyone in my family, but in the end I depended on myself."

So, for Sotomayor, while she fully appreciated and felt drawn to her familia's emotional expressiveness, what she really wanted to fall in love with was a philosophical interaction with a system that she felt expressed order and justice: what we call the law. The early mysticism of her childhood, and the visceral story of how she learned to administer her own insulin injections for her diabetes, which opens the book, gives way to turgid prose like this:

"Instead, becoming a lawyer required mastery of a new way of thinking, and not one that followed obviously from other disciplines. What's more, there was often recourse to distinct and not necessarily concurrent frameworks of jurisprudence, theories of law that our professors had devoted whole careers to exploring and elaborating."

While it's not fair to ask "how can you dance salsa to that?" there is a glaring example both in the book and her comments of how Sotomayor's pragmatism seems to distort her view of the kind of activism that made her success story possible in the first place. In the book, she speaks with relative disdain about campus Latino organizations, and unfavorably compares a "ragtag band of student activists" with the "committed group of highly skilled professionals" she found at the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education fund.

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