SONIA SOTOMAYOR, the first Latina Supreme Court justice, paves the way forward

Why does it seem so many Latinos connect with Justice Sonia Sotomayor?  Justice Sotomayor has made history as the first Latina Supreme Court justice, and it was her impressive legal trajectory and her accomplishments as a federal judge which got her there. But beyond the world of law, there is something ‘real’ about a Puerto Rican Supreme Court justice who loves salsa and ‘lechon asado.’  She worked her way from a humble background to a place in the history books —  but she is still ‘one of us.’

“She truly is a ‘wise Latina judge,’ who is highly intelligent and intellectual but who also looks at the practical application of a law,” says Benny Agosto, Jr., immediate past president of the Hispanic National Bar Association, and a friend and ‘pen-pal’ of Sotomayor from her days as a federal judge in New York. “When I met her,  I recalled thinking she is ‘100 percent borícua,” and she loves her dancing and her rice and beans, but more importantly, she brings her culture and upbringing to the table, and that is important,” says Agosto.  “When issues come up, like racial profiling, for example, she is not arguing in a vacuum,” he adds.

Agosto says this was evident during the SB1070 arguments, where Justice Sotomayor “was very vocal” on the bench during the arguments. “She wanted to know what the real-life aspect of these laws was, and having those positions heard is important as the Supreme Court makes its decisions,” Agosto explains.

Sotomayor’s story is all the more resonant to many Latinos since she does not come from privilege or money. In fact, Justice Sotomayor and her brother were raised in a New York City working-class housing project by her Puerto Rican widowed mother.  Sotomayor’s father died when she was nine, and they spoke Spanish in her house. Yet Sotomayor’s intellect and hard work earned her a scholarship to Princeton University, where she earned the highest undergraduate award for her academics.  This was  followed by entrance into the prestigious Yale Law School.

Sotomayor rose through the corporate legal ranks but also volunteered her time on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and other organizations. She was appointed U.S. District Court judge for the Second Circuit in New York City, and later the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals.  Many have credited Sotomayor with ‘saving baseball’ after her swift decision on the bench ended a contentious 1995 baseball strike.

Despite these accomplishments, Sotomayor is still very tied to her community.  “Sonia Sotomayor wasn’t a person from a humble background who became ‘transformed’ by elite institutions; she has managed to hold on to where she comes from,” says Juan Flores, professor of social and cultural analyses at New York University.  “It’s really welcome and it’s not that frequent that it happens,” he adds.

Stella Rouse, an assistant professor of politics and government at the University of Maryland, says Sotomayor is the epitome of what is called descriptive representation, someone who represents Latinos descriptively but also symbolically. “I think we have a responsibility to show non-Latinos we can break from the stereotype.  Jobs like being a gardener and a maid are important jobs, but we are also much more,” says Rouse, who says Sotomayor’s appointment crossed two lines — she is a woman as well as a Hispanic.

Rouse adds that issues important to Latino families are the same issues important to the whole country, whether it be better education or better criminal justice. Sotomayor has the respect of her colleagues and is on the highest court in the land not just because she is a Latina, says Rouse, but because she is good.  This combination sends a powerful symbolic message.

Agosto recalls the time he and his daughter Victoria wrote a children’s book, Victoria Goes to Court, and they sent a copy to Justice Sotomayor.  Agosto talks of the  kind note his daughter got back from Justice Sotomayor.

“It said ‘Victoria, dream big always,’ and to me, that is exactly what Justice Sonia Sotomayor represents,” says Agosto.  “To dream big, always,”  he adds.  “Sotomayor shows us that as Latinos, we can do it.”

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