I will never forget that day in May 2009 when President Obama announced his nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. It was a victory—not only for women, but for Puerto Ricans and for anyone and everyone who has ever lived in the projects, who ever had to struggle and endure poverty, discrimination, and disability.
Over a distinguished career that spans three decades, Judge Sotomayor has worked at almost every level of our judicial system, providing her with a depth of experience and a breadth of perspective that will be invaluable as a Supreme Court justice.
It’s a measure of her qualities and her qualifications that Judge Sotomayor was nominated to the U.S. District Court by a Republican president, George H.W. Bush, and promoted to the Federal Court of Appeals by a Democrat, Bill Clinton.
Walking in the door, she would bring more experience on the bench and more varied experience on the bench than anyone currently serving on the United States Supreme Court had when they were appointed.
Judge Sotomayor is a distinguished graduate of two of America’s leading universities. She’s been a big-city prosecutor and a corporate litigator. She spend six years as a trial judge on the U.S. District Court, and would replace Justice Souter as the only justice with experience as a trial judge — a perspective that would enrich the judgments of the court.
For the past 11 years, she has been a judge on the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit of New York, one of the most demanding circuits in the country. There, she has handed down decisions on a range of constitutional and legal questions that are notable for their careful reasoning, earning the respect of colleagues on the bench, the admiration of many lawyers who argue cases in her court, and the adoration of her clerks, who look to her as a mentor.
During her tenure on the district court, she presided over roughly 450 cases. One case in particular involved a matter of enormous concern to many Americans, including me: the baseball strike of 1994 and ’95.
In a decision that reportedly took her just 15 minutes to announce — a swiftness much appreciated by baseball fans everywhere…
… she issued an injunction that helped end the strike. Some say that Judge Sotomayor saved baseball.
I remember being furious when the attacks immediately exploded from right-wingnuts, and being almost as angry at some white male lefty legal pundits, like Jonathan Turley, who instantly started dismissing her “intellectual depth.”
Latina Magazine reported on just a few examples in “Limbaugh Wants Sotomayor to Fail, and Huckabee Calls Her ‘Maria.’“
Today’s historic nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the United States Supreme Court from the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has had a huge impact on Latina staffers. It is yet another concrete reminder that anything is possible. But as we celebrate such a huge leap for both women and Latinos, we are reminded of the uglier side of politics by racist right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh, who discussed Judge Sotomayor on his radio show today and proclaimed, “Do I want her to fail? Yeah. Do I want her to fail to get on the court? Yes. She’d be a disaster on the Court.”
Meanwhile, former Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee (we dodged a bullet with that one) attempted to stay ahead of the game by releasing an early morning statement to the press which read as follows:
“The appointment of Maria Sotomayor for the Supreme Court is the clearest indication yet that President Obama’s campaign promises to be a centrist and think in a bipartisan way were mere rhetoric.”
One huge problem there, Mike! Her name isn’t Maria. Contrary to popular belief, every Latina in the United States isn’t named Maria. We’ll forgive you. We’re sure you were just watching West Side Story last night in preparation for this statement and got confused.
On the plus side, CNN examined Sotomayor’s life in a five-part series, which was very well done. The links are below.
They opened with her roots on the island:
Her roots go back to the southwestern town of Lajas, a sleepy “pueblito” known as a gateway to the island’s picturesque Caribbean coast, where Sotomayor’s mother was born in 1927. They extend to nearby Mayaguez, a small city on the coast where many of Sotomayor’s relatives live today.
“They grew up in an era of great poverty,” Sotomayor’s cousin, Jose “Tito” Baez Gonzalez, said of his and Sotomayor’s parents. “Their lives were filled with struggles.”
Key in Sotomayor’s story is her mother, Celina.
When Celina Baez was 9, her mother died and her father abandoned the family, leaving her to be raised by her eldest sister and brother. The young Celina Baez soon showed the fortitude and strong will that relatives say also characterize her daughter.
Sotomayor has said that the few happy childhood memories her mother has shared involved education. Each day Celina Baez would run home from school to teach imaginary friends before doing the chores — and an emphasis on schooling was something she passed on.
Like many Puerto Ricans from her era, Celina Baez headed for the mainland at 17, joining the Women’s Army Corps in Georgia. She eventually settled in the Bronx, where she married Sotomayor’s father, Juan — a transplant from San Juan’s Santurce neighborhood with a third-grade education, who did not speak English. They had two children: Sonia and her brother, also named Juan.
Sotomayor’s father died when she was 9, leaving her mother to juggle two jobs and borrow money to get her nursing degree. Both parents and their histories had a powerful impact on Sotomayor, according to Emmalind Garcia, an appellate court judge in Puerto Rico who became close to Sotomayor after they met in San Juan about 15 years ago.
“When you have a parent who struggles because he can’t speak the language, or maybe he doesn’t have a lot of education, it makes you work harder to prove yourself,” Garcia said. “But Dona Celina also set the example for her children that education was the best way to elevate yourself from poverty.”
Relatives in Mayaguez used many of the same words to describe mother and daughter: humble, simple, caring and courageous. They spoke admiringly of their continued fluency in Spanish and their love for typical Puerto Rican dishes like rice and beans and “mofongo,” a dish of mashed plantains and spices.
While there was good press about the nomination, there was a right-wing political piranha feeding frenzy over reports about her “wise Latina” comment made in a speech. Time reported:
Washington politics may not be good at producing health-care reform, but it’s great at creating catchy new lingo. Getting “Borked.” “Hanging chads.” “Lipsticks on pit bulls.” The latest is “wise Latina,” two words that have been repeated ad nauseam since the middle of May, when conservatives started flogging the text of a 2001 speech given by Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor at the University of California, Berkeley. In that talk — on the subject of a Latino presence in the American judiciary — Sotomayor now famously said, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” In May, after the blog Verum Serum and then the New York Times posted the text of the speech online, a vaudevillian assortment of right-wing politicians and commentators have taken this remark as evidence that Sotomayor is a racist who will pursue an unknown agenda once ensconced in that great neoclassical retirement home known as the U.S. Supreme Court. Rush Limbaugh — cue falling sky — declared it the dawn of Macaca-gate II.
There was heavy-duty pushback against the Republican frothing from Latinas who donned “Wise Latina” t-shirts across the U.S. Frankly, we need a diversity of perspectives and differing life experiences on the judicial benches across America.
She also served on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDF) from 1980 to 1992, a civil rights organization I was very familiar with which she left when she became a federal judge.
My introduction to Sotomayor as a jurist was her ruling against the New York
State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) in Campos v. Coughlin in 1994, which gave inmates the right to wear their elekes ( aka collares)—the consecrated religious beads worn by adherents of the African-diasporic religions of Lucumi and Candomblé, commonly known as “Santeria.” My interest was both scholarly and personal since I am an Iyalorisha (priestess) in the Afro-Cuban system and as an anthropologist I teach about the practices across the Caribbean and Latin America. Sotomayor wrote in her decision:
Santeria is a religious belief system with a long and rich history in the Caribbean and Latin America. It is an expression of what experts term a “syncretion,” or fusion, My My of African religion and Roman Catholicism. Saints are fundamental figures in Santeria. They play the role of guide and patron to Santeria devotees. The saints in the Santeria religion, however, are different in character and status from the saints recognized and venerated in Catholicism. The Saints, or Orishas as they are known in Santeria, have distinct personalities and temperaments and Santeria practitioners have specific patron Orishas with whom they have a spiritually intimate affiliation. The saints and spirits, and the adherent’s devotion to the Orishas, are central aspects of Santeria beliefs. See Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, ___ U.S. at ___, 113 S.Ct. at 2222.
Devotion to the Orishas and commitment to Santeria is expressed, in part, by the follower’s wearing of a necklace of colored beads, the practice at issue in this action. The beads are not mere symbols of some greater entity or a tool for veneration. According to plaintiffs’ expert, the beads are “a focus of spiritual presence, as protection against misfortune, and as markers of spiritual identity.” Affidavit of Joseph M. Murphy, ¶ 9 (“Murphy Affidavit”). Significantly, Santeria adherents believe that if the practitioner wears these beads faithfully the beads ensure the practitioner’s closeness to the Orishas, as well as protection from negative forces and events. Even a simple transgression from this practice, such as a temporary removal of the beads for some reason other than those recognized by adherents, or the blemishing of the beads as a result of their handling by someone other than the wearer, may lead to negative consequences for the practitioner.
The colors of the beads, and color combinations of bead strands, also carry great significance in the Santeria religion because different color beads correspond to particular Orishas and particular days of the week. When a practitioner recognizes a patron Orisha, that individual then wears that patron’s colors on a bead necklace. In addition, the follower also wears the beads which correspond to the Orisha recognized on that particular day of the week. Consequently, a practitioner of Santeria may wear several strands of beads, in various colors, some worn daily and others worn on different days of the week.
She pointed out that inmates of other “traditional religions” were not deprived of their crosses and went on to point out that:
The beads are not, as defendants would have me recognize, an optional devotional item. Rather, they are a hallmark of plaintiffs’ beliefs. Unlike the choice of, or prohibition against, wearing rosary or Dhikr beads, or crucifixes and crosses, only in the case of Santeria beads does the failure to wear them, according to plaintiffs’ beliefs, result in negative, and possibly irreversible life consequences for the practitioner.
DOCS personnel, despite their history in the prison system with Santeria adherents, and despite their own expert’s evidence and the significant available literature on the subject, appear, at best, ill-informed and indifferent.
Why am I bringing this case up? Simply because it illustrates that Sotomayor’s very life experience in a community that practices several variants of African diasporic faiths gave her insights that informed how she ruled in this case. Many judges would have simply listened to DOCS’ labeling of bead wearers as “gang members.”
This case called for a “wise Latina,” and thankfully for the inmates, they got one.
In response to another iteration of the wise Latina attacks, Markos Moulitsas (our kos) posted “They all look the same to the National Review,” who had depicted Sotomayor as an Asian Buddhist on the cover of their racist rag. Others of us were busy objecting to a cartoon showing Sotomayor hung as a pinata (which reminded some of us of lynchings) and Barack Obama in a sombrero. Um … Sotomayor is not Mexican.
Then came her confirmation hearings (transcript here), which should serve as a reminder for those of you who think open racism and bad behavior started with Trump. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions showed his ass—big time. The best takedown and tongue-lash reporting on the hearings was penned by The New York Times’ Frank Rich. If you get a chance, read the whole thing. I’ll just tease you with the opening:
As political theater, the Sonia Sotomayor hearings tanked faster than the 2008 Fred Thompson presidential campaign. They boasted no drama to rival the Clarence-Anita slapdown, the Bork hissy fits or the tearful exodus of Samuel Alito’s wife. There was rarely a moment to match even the high point of the Senate’s previous grilling of Sotomayor — in 1997, when she was elevated to the Second Circuit. It was then that Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri previewed the brand of white male legal wisdom that would soon become his hallmark at the Bush Justice Department. “Do you believe there’s a constitutional right to homosexual conduct by prisoners?” he asked. (She aced it: “No, sir.”)
Yet the Sotomayor show was still rich in historical significance. Someday we may regard it as we do those final, frozen tableaus of Pompeii. It offered a vivid snapshot of what Washington looked like when clueless ancien-régime conservatives were feebly clinging to their last levers of power, blissfully oblivious to the new America that was crashing down on their heads and reducing their antics to a sideshow as ridiculous as it was obsolescent.
The hearings were pure “Alice in Wonderland.” Reality was turned upside down. Southern senators who relate every question to race, ethnicity and gender just assumed that their unreconstructed obsessions are America’s and that the country would find them riveting. Instead the country yawned. The Sotomayor questioners also assumed a Hispanic woman, simply for being a Hispanic woman, could be portrayed as The Other and patronized like a greenhorn unfamiliar with How We Do Things Around Here. The senators seemed to have no idea they were describing themselves when they tried to caricature Sotomayor as an overemotional, biased ideologue. At least they didn’t refer to “Maria Sotomayor” as had Mike Huckabee, whose sole knowledge of Latinos apparently derives from “West Side Story.” But when Tom Coburn of Oklahoma merrily joked to Sotomayor that “You’ll have lots of ’splainin’ to do,” it clearly didn’t occur to him that such mindless condescension helps explain why the fastest-growing demographic group in the nation is bolting his party.
Coburn wouldn’t know that behind the fictional caricature Ricky Ricardo was the innovative and brilliant Cuban-American show-business mogul Desi Arnaz. As Lucie Arnaz, his and Lucille Ball’s daughter, told me last week, it always seemed unfair to her that those laughing at her father’s English usually lacked his fluency in two languages. Then again, Coburn was so unfamiliar with Jews he didn’t have a clear fix on what happened in the Holocaust until 1997, when he was 48. Party elders like Bill Bennett had to school him after he angrily berated NBC for subjecting children and “decent-minded individuals everywhere” to the violence, “full-frontal nudity and irresponsible sexual activity” of “Schindler’s List.”
When Rich wrote this, he had no crystal ball to predict the advent of Trump and Trumpism. After skewering a few more Republicans, he concludes:
It’s the American way that we judge people as individuals, not as groups. And by that standard we can say unequivocally that this particular wise Latina, with the richness of her experiences, would far more often than not reach a better conclusion than the individual white males she faced in that Senate hearing room. Even those viewers who watched the Sotomayor show for only a few minutes could see that her America is our future and theirs is the rapidly receding past.
That past can’t recede fast enough. We are now faced with a future court inhabited by perhaps yet another Trump appointee. Sotomayor will need every drop of strength and sheer grit she has learned through adversity to deal with it.
When I was a panelist at the Bronx Museum of the Arts celebrating The Women of the Young Lords, outside of the packed lecture hall they had a table piled with books for sale by and about Puerto Ricans. I was thrilled to see how many young people were snatching up copies of books about Puerto Rican history, culture, and political struggle. Quite a few of them were about Sonia Sotomayor, and they were flying off the table. I’m not sure how many people understand the impact she has had on young people of color, and young women particularly. Here is a woman they can look up to, and also identify with. Her story is their story. She is, in her own description, simply “Sonia from the Bronx.”
Sotomayor’s best-selling memoir My Beloved World makes that patently clear.
Here is the story of a precarious childhood, with an alcoholic father (who would die when she was nine) and a devoted but overburdened mother, and of the refuge a little girl took from the turmoil at home with her passionately spirited paternal grandmother. But it was when she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes that the precocious Sonia recognized she must ultimately depend on herself. She would learn to give herself the insulin shots she needed to survive and soon imagined a path to a different life. With only television characters for her professional role models, and little understanding of what was involved, she determined to become a lawyer, a dream that would sustain her on an unlikely course, from valedictorian of her high school class to the highest honors at Princeton, Yale Law School, the New York County District Attorney’s office, private practice, and appointment to the Federal District Court before the age of forty. Along the way we see how she was shaped by her invaluable mentors, a failed marriage, and the modern version of extended family she has created from cherished friends and their children. Through her still-astonished eyes, America’s infinite possibilities are envisioned anew in this warm and honest book, destined to become a classic of self-invention and self-discovery.
Madeline Rodriguez, writing for Gozamos, describes her reaction to the book:
What I found astounding in her book was the relevance of her upbringing to my own and that of my fellow Puerto Ricans — the way she describes our culture, the segregation of neighborhoods, the topics of conversations around the dinner table, the dysfunction, the santería, marital struggles of family members, dating, all the way to cashing in paychecks at the currency exchange. The melancholy of the adults in her family from leaving their homeland Puerto Rico to move to the States holds true, even today!
One description I particularly enjoyed was that of Saturday evenings at her abuela’s house. There, her family all gathered religiously to have dinner, watch a game, sing songs, recite poetry. And when the party would clear out and only a few intimate members remained, they would turn down the lights, ignite a candle and evoke the spirits.
Residents of Sotomayor’s old Bronx neighborhood don’t have to read her book to be reminded of her. They live in, visit, or pass by “The Justice Sonia Sotomayor Houses and Community Center” every day, as detailed in “Bronxdale Houses renamed for Sotomayor”:
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor returned Friday to the Bronx housing project where she spent part of her childhood, recalling how an unlikely encounter there with Robert F. Kennedy ignited her passion for public service.
The Bronx native fought back tears at the ceremony renaming the Bronxdale Houses after Sotomayor.
In an emotional speech, Sotomayor said she lived in the project during the most formative years of her life. On a spring afternoon in 1958, she looked out of her second-story window and saw a famous face. “Robert Kennedy was coming to visit our projects. I had never before looked down on red hair that bright,” she said, adding that she went to the library to look him up. “I was captivated by his career. Through this chance encounter above the old community center, my interest in public service was awakened.”
With many residents of the complex listening in the audience, and her mother wiping away tears in the front row, Sotomayor reflected on a childhood that was spent surrounded by family. Her cousins, also from the projects, would join her at the local fast food joint for hamburger-eating competitions, she said. “I do remember each time I drive by that White Castle, the hours and hours of laughter that my cousins and I had as we roamed the grounds of this housing project, and played in the playgrounds, and screamed and fought and laughed and lived,” she said.
In 2016 Justice Sotomayor received the Leadership Award from the Hispanic Heritage Foundation.
New York Appeals Court Judge Jenny Rivera, who was once a law clerk for Sotomayor, introduced her to the sounds of Oye Como Va, Tito Puente’s iconic salsa tune, as she walked on to the stage.
“Soy Boricua,” said Sotomayor to the loudly cheering crowd, using the Taino term for those whose identity comes from the island of Borikén.
The Hispanic Heritage Awards are considered among the “highest honor for Latinos by Latinos” and recognize notable Latinos who have made a positive impact on America, and the world, in various fields.This year the Hispanic Heritage Award in Leadership was awarded to Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
I enjoyed re-listening to the late Gwen Ifill’s interview with Sotomayor.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor tells the story of her childhood growing up with a difficult mother, an alcoholic father and a deeply loving grandmother. Her new memoir, “My Beloved World,” gives an exceptionally personal portrait of the justice from youth to judgeship.
But before she put her story to paper, she faced choices. How intimately should she describe her experiences? How much should she share?
In one situation, she asked her cousin and aunt if she could write about a cousin who died after struggling with AIDS and a drug addiction. For writing about her mother, the choice came more easily.
“We had come to that decision in our life together. We’ve done a lot of talking through the years, this book chronicles that. And we’ve come to peace with the things that I felt and experienced…. That’s what the book describes, how we walked my life together,” she said
Looking back at attacks on Sotomayor from the right brought me to our post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico of today. After Irma and Maria hit the island, polling data showed that “Nearly Half of Americans Don’t Know Puerto Ricans Are Fellow Citizens.” I wonder if those numbers have changed?
Fox News viewers who absorb a steady diet of racism, sexism, and xenophobia have certainly been affected by this false description of Puerto Ricans. Questions raised about Trump’s disdain for and resistance to aiding Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and his attacks on immigrants carry echoes of early vitriol from Fox-spewers like Laura Ingraham, examined in this article titled “Laura Ingraham’s Attacks On Sonia Sotomayor Miss Her All-American Heritage: Does Ingraham Know Puerto Ricans Are American Citizens?”
Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham launched an ignorant smear against Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor, suggesting that she has to choose between her “immigrant family background” or the Constitution.
Ingraham’s smear is both rooted in the premise that immigrants are separate from mainstream American culture and is completely off the mark given the fact that Sotomayor is an American citizen and the daughter of American citizens.
In a February 3 speech before Yale Law students, Sotomayor commented on the fact that she was the first Supreme Court Justice to use the term “undocumented immigrant,” instead of “illegal alien,” saying “[t]o call them illegal aliens seemed and does seem insulting to me.”
Ingraham highlighted Sotomayor’s comment on her radio show the following day. Ingraham suggested that using the term “undocumented immigrant” demonstrated a failure of Sotomayor’s duty “to defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America.” According to Ingraham, the word choice shows that Sotomayor’s “allegiance obviously goes to her immigrant family background and not to the Constitution of the United States.”
Sotomayor is a Puerto Rican American who is both an American citizen and the daughter of American citizens. Puerto Ricans have had U.S. citizenship since President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act in 1917. Ingraham’s claim that Sotomayor’s heritage somehow conflicts with her mission to uphold the Constitution is both baseless and nonsensical.
Looking ahead, we have to redouble our efforts to educate our citizenry, and especially our children, about Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans.
Recommended for children ages 4 through 8 is Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx/La juez que creció en el Bronx:
The inspiring and timely story of Sonia Sotomayor,who rose up from a childhood of poverty and prejudice to become the first Latino to be nominated to the US Supreme Court.
Before Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor took her seat in our nation’s highest court, she was just a little girl in the South Bronx. Justice Sotomayor didn’t have a lot growing up, but she had what she needed — her mother’s love, a will to learn, and her own determination. With bravery she became the person she wanted to be. With hard work she succeeded. With little sunlight and only a modest plot from which to grow, Justice Sotomayor bloomed for the whole world to see.
Antes de que la magistrada de la Corte Suprema Sonia Sotomayor llegara al máximo tribunal de nuestra nación, no era más que una niñita en el South Bronx. La magistrada Sotomayor no tuvo mucho durante sus primeros años, pero sí tuvo lo que contaba — el amor de su madre, la voluntad de aprender y su propia determinación. Con valentía se hizo la persona que quería ser. Con trabajo arduo triunfó. Con un poquito de sol en un solarcito donde crecer, la magistrada Sotomayor floreció para que todo el mundo la vea.
Check and see if your local library has a copy.
Youth activism is thankfully on the rise, and Sotomayor makes frequent visits to college campuses to speak and interact with students. Just last month she was at Brown University.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor visited Brown University on Wednesday, Feb. 7, for an open-to-the-public conversation moderated by Brown President Christina Paxson. The U.S. Supreme Court justice engaged with students on a wide range of topics, offering an up-close look at her life and career. Sotomayor’s visit came 18 months after Brown’s incoming Class of 2020 students explored her journey from a Bronx housing project to her appointment as the first Hispanic and third woman on the nation’s highest court. Her “My Beloved World” memoir served as the text for the University’s First Readings program in 2016.
On the book children’s book front, Sotomayor has more in store for us, as detailed in “Sonia Sotomayor’s New Children’s Books Will Make The Young Feminists In Your Life Very Happy”:
Justice Sotomayor will be adapting her 2013 memoir, My Beloved World, which chronicles her childhood in the Bronx, her struggles with Type 1 juvenile diabetes and her trailblazing law career, for a middle-grade audience. Having grown up in a South Bronx public housing project to an alcoholic father and a loving but “overburdened” mother, Sotomayor developed early on an unfailing internal drive. At a young age, with no clear road map, “Aji” (“hot pepper”), as her family called her, became determined to become a lawyer. She graduated valedictorian from her high school and summa cum laude, the school’s highest academic honor, from Princeton University. As she continues to sit on the Supreme Court, Sotomayor’s book ends at her 2009 appointment. An audiobook, narrated by actress Rita Moreno, was released in 2014.
In addition, Sotomayor will be penning two children’s books: Turning Pages, a picture book autobiography and collaboration with bilingual illustrator Lulu Delacre (The Storyteller’s Candle: La velita de los cuentos, How Far Do You Love Me?), which will highlight the books that have played important roles in Sotomayor’s life, and an additional picture book, about “childhood differences,” on which she’ll collaborate with illustrator and muralist Rafael Lopez (Drum Dream Girl, Book Fiesta).
Both memoirs will be released in fall 2018, while the book on childhood differences will hit shelves in 2019.
The future of SCOTUS is in our hands and at the ballot boxes, as is the future of Puerto Rico.
Today I just want to say a simple thank you to Doña Sonia, aka “Sonia from the Bronx’,” and remind you to support Puerto Rico.
“Puerto Rico will not only survive this. It will bloom once again.” — Sonia Sotomayor
Pa’lante, Puerto Rico.