Opinion: Sonia Sotomayor - An Ordinary Woman?

PHOTO: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Elana Kagan arrives on the West Front of the Capitol in Washington.

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.

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.

At El Museo she inveighed "You don't have to march in the streets…the obligation you have is to participate in making the America you want," as if organized protest was not doing just that. You kind of wish she'd just said, well that's their thing, and my thing is practicing law without political affiliation and we all have roles to play and leave it at that.

Still, this is a brave, passionate, intelligent and generous woman that we should all look up to. Her devotion to the practical activity of law and the desire for justice has allowed her to "build the bridges" she set out to, and despite her relentlessly academic way of proving her points, she does not come off as arrogant in any way. One of the more moving moments in her appearance at El Museo were her congratulations to Jenny Rivera, a CUNY Law School professor and one-time clerk for Sotomayor, recently nominated by Governor Andrew Cuomo to the New York State Court of Appeals. And, of course, she heaped praise on Antonia Pantoja, legendary founder of the Puerto Rican education advocacy group Aspira, as one of her enduring heroines.

In Sotomayor's own words, My Beloved World is the story of how an "ordinary Latina" rose to one of the highest positions in the legal profession in the U.S. But it's also the story of how even the ordinary woman carries the seed of something extraordinary, and how our country's drive to reinforce privilege and elitism is in danger of resulting in a massive waste of Boogie-Down Bronx talent.

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