CHICAGO — Pobrecita means “poor little girl” in Spanish.
You won’t find this word in Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s recently published memoir, “My Beloved World.”
And this alone tells you everything you need to know about the woman who grew up in near-poverty, in an ire-filled home with a distant mother and an alcoholic father who died when she was 9. She was left to manage her diabetes, her family and her hard-won education nearly all by herself.
You’d probably be forgiven for calling her a pobrecita, though it would surely infuriate the endlessly self-reliant Supreme Court justice. Believe me, you won’t find any self-pitying words littering this story of pluck and perseverance.
I specifically chose those two words because the cliche irks me so. Generally speaking, I stay away from autobiographies because they’re usually meant to put the author in the best possible light for whatever next stage of fame her or she is hoping to achieve.
Sotomayor tells her own story, however, with the confidence of someone who has already arrived and doesn’t need to embellish it. On this count she almost goes overboard in the evenness, proportion and restraint with which she describes her meteoric rise to judicial stardom.
At times she describes the patience with which she maneuvered every obstacle — from the fear of insulin needles to the snootiness of high school administrators who couldn’t believe the eventual class valedictorian managed to get herself into Princeton — and the wonderment with which she greeted every successive academic and professional distinction and you just want to grab her by her threadbare lapels and yell, “Look alive, honey!”
But that’s Sonia Sotomayor: nose-to-the-grindstone, unassuming, and down to earth — nearly to a fault. For how many times she mentions her disregard for stylish clothes, purses or shoes, one is almost surprised by how beautifully put-together she appears on the cover of her book.
In truth, the pedestrian sobriety with which Sotomayor tells what amounts to a Greek mythology-style triumph — which easily could have been cast as yet another “I was a poor, victimized minority” sob story — is both refreshing and edifying.
So let’s get a few things straight about the woman who rocketed to Hispanic icon status by calling herself a “wise Latina.”
First, and what felt most important to me, was that after peering into the depths of Sotomayor’s character, it’s clear that her Latina statement was not the roar of a liberal feminist of color but merely, as she’d said in the aftermath of the slip, “a rhetorical flourish that fell flat.”
Here is a woman who worked overtime every single day of her life to attain academic and professional excellence under the most difficult personal circumstances.
Yet she did so without bitterness toward her less-than-perfect family, anger at her unenthusiastic teachers or resentment for anyone who, back in the early days of racial, ethnic and gender equality, didn’t exactly peg her as destined for any kind of greatness.
Far from being some sort of stereotypical fiery Latina, the quiet, somewhat awkward, Sotomayor freely shares her academic and personal shortcomings and insecurities. Most importantly, she details the rigor and discipline it takes to overcome such doubts through hard work.
Rather than being the ethnic activist she unwittingly painted herself as with the “wise Latina” crack, she speaks openly — and with an honesty that will disappoint many a left-winger — about not feeling marginalized by racism or lacking any desire to join radical Latino students who cheered “down with whitey” in their campaigns against oppressors.
Sotomayor does this, however, with the same mildness she uses to describe how meaningful it was to have Hispanic peers in college. They banded together to help needy Latinos and she eventually took a leadership role in a Puerto Rican social service organization that served the community she’d come from and never left until she became a judge.
Though some have complained that there aren’t any politics in the book, the lessons here transcend politics: a rock-solid belief in personal responsibility, integrity and a moral core. Plus intellectual, as well as political, independence combined with reason and context, not to mention a lifelong love of learning and self-betterment — values anyone should be able to respect.
If you’re prepared to understand all the stereotype-busting realities of one of the most successful people in the world, you’ll be rewarded with this benediction: “I’m proud to offer living proof that big dreams are not out of bounds.”
Esther Cepeda is syndicated columnist and an NBC Latino Contributor.