In memoir, Sonia Sotomayor reveals childhood struggles and fighting spirit

Video by: Ignacio Torres

In Sonia Sotomayor’s “My Beloved World,” the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice provides a vivid and evocative window into a truly bicultural household, one of two languages and two places of importance in her life; New York and Puerto Rico. In her book, which is released today in English and Spanish, Sotomayor says she faced “not uncommon” challenges — serious illness, poverty, and a one-parent household.  “But neither have they kept me from uncommon achievements,”  she writes.

In an interview with NBC Latino, Sotomayor says this is why she wrote the book.  “When people look at me on television, especially young Latinos-they make me an icon,” she explains.  “But I don’t know that when the times get tough — that image on television is really going to give them strength. And that’s why I wrote this book,” she says.

Sotomayor begins her memoir during a very tough time; she was diagnosed, before she was 8, with life-threatening juvenile (Type 1) diabetes.  At the same time, her parents’ marriage had basically disintegrated due to her father’s alcoholism.  Sotomayor, nicknamed “Ají” (hot pepper) for her non-stop activity, learned fast.  She learned how to boil water, sterilize syringes, and give herself insulin shots. She dealt with the severe blow of  her father’s death, a year later.

And though only a child, she challenged her mother to snap out of what had become a catatonic state of grief.  Decades later, interviewing her mother for the book, she was finally able to understand her father’s deep love for his mother, before the ravages of alcohol.  Sotomayor says through the memoir, she learned to love her father.

Sotomayor describes afternoons watching American TV shows with her younger brother Juan. On the other hand, she recounts witnessing through a crack in the door her “espiritista” paternal grandmother’s sessions — something that irked her non-espiritista mother.

The Supreme Court Justice describes in detail the Bronx of the 60’s and 70’s, a place where many hard-working but poor Puerto Ricans, Irish and Jews did their best to raise children, while telling them to avoid stairwells where the “junkies” would shoot up.  (Her own beloved cousin Nelson, an intelligent young man from a stable, loving family, would succumb to drugs and AIDS years later).  Her mother worked hard to send her to Blessed Sacrament Elementary school, a parochial school “with very little warmth.”

She alternates her Bronx childhood with visits to her parents’ native island of Puerto Rico, a place of clear beaches, mouth-watering fruit and where she first visited an art museum.  It is also in Puerto Rico where the young Sonia first sees signs with names of Puerto Rican lawyers and doctors — something she says she did not see in the Bronx.

Sotomayor’s prodigious intellect was evident since she was very young. At Cardinal Spellman High School, a teacher accused her of “copying” her perfect Regents score in geometry. Who would she have copied from, if no one had these scores, was young Sonia’s answer. (The teacher tested her anyway, and she got the answers right.)

The way Sotomayor ended up at Princeton is fascinating. Her forensics club buddy at Cardinal Spellman High School, a year ahead of her, went to Princeton, and told her she could only apply to Ivy League schools.  She said okay, though she had no idea what that meant.

Sotomayor and her mother only realized what getting into Princeton meant once she was accepted. “I have to tell you Sonia, at the hospital I’m being treated like a queen right now,”  said her mother Celina, who worked as a lower-paying practical nurse for years, too afraid to take the English-language nursing exams — which she later aced. “Doctors who have never once had a nice word for me have come up to congratulate me,” said her mother at the time.

Princeton, she writes, was a place with few minorities, and alumni made their displeasure about “affirmative action” known in the pages of the college newspaper. She joined the group Accion Puertorriqueña and worked to get more Latino students at Princeton, as well as encouraged the university to hire more Hispanics and other minorities.

Yet Sotomayor was not a believer in militancy, and she also dived right into the larger, predominantly white world at Princeton. “I would warn any minority students today against the temptations of self-segregation: take support and comfort from your own group as you can, but don’t hide within it.”  Four years later, the young woman who started Princeton with what she called “gaps in my knowledge” which she understood were the “limits of class and cultural background” graduated summa cum laude, was Phi Beta Kappa, and was awarded Princeton’s highest award for student achievement.

She attended Yale Law School on a full scholarship, where she also c0-chaired the Latino, Asian and Native American student organization, and was published in its prestigious journal (her article was on whether the commonwealth of Puerto Rico could claim “seabed rights”). She worked for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and worked at a prestigious Manhattan law firm where her clients included the Fendi designer family. In the span of these years, she married and then divorced her childhood sweetheart, an Irish-American whose mother at first did not accept her, but later loved her as a daughter. She at times regrets not adopting children, but did not do so because she feared dying young because of diabetes.

Sotomayor was ultimately nominated and confirmed by the Senate as New York’s first Hispanic federal judge, at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, where she ends the book.

We all know her current job, of course.  And despite some very painful experiences in her life, here is what went through her mind when she caught President Obama‘s eyes when she took the oath of office for the Supreme Court.

“…a sudden memory, an image seen through the eyes of a child: I was running back to the house in Mayaguez with a melting ice cone we called a piragua running sweet and sticky down my face and arms, the sun in my eyes, breaking through clouds and glinting off the rain-soaked pavement and dripping leaves….Along with the image, memory carried these words from a child’s mind through time: I am blessed.”   

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