Monday, August 25, 2014

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor: Just Judge or Just Another Judge? (Part One)

This two-part post on Justice Sonia Sotomayor of the U.S. Supreme Court is the last in a series on this blog analyzing the family backgrounds of prominent pro-choice figures. This series, written by my husband and co-author Dr. Manny Santos, will continue on


Some children dream of being superheroes. It almost doesn’t matter which one they aspire to be. The dream is an impossible one, and as such doomed from the start. Such dreams are amusing despite being impossible, and most parents find them harmless enough. A different type of dream is the impossible dream in the quixotic sense, as highlighted in the song made famous in the 1972 film Man of La Mancha. The lyrics of this famous song give us a roadmap to the life of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who by many accounts has achieved a dream that seemed impossible. 

I'll examine the following four lines of the song, showing how they pertain to Justice Sotomayor's life and choices, both the fortunate and unfortunate.

To dream the impossible dream, 
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

Justice Sonia Sotomayor has not only broken through the glass ceiling but undoubtedly inspired countless boys and girls to rethink the impossible and continue dreaming. Presciently perhaps, the justice's mother gave her the name Sonia, an English version of the name Sophia, which means wisdom. On June 25, 1954, when she came into the world, few could have dreamt that she would one day become the first Hispanic to sit on the Supreme Court (and the third woman ever to do so).

To dream the impossible dream

As a young girl, Sonia dreamed of becoming not only a lawyer but a judge, admittedly a rather uncommon aspiration for a child living in an East Bronx housing project. Yet, if we wish to understand Sonia it is first necessary that we strive to understand her mother Celina. Born in 1927, Celina Baez grew up in Lajas, a small town three hours from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Although the countryside may have been idyllic, her life was not. Celina’s mother was long plagued with health problems, and died at an early age, leaving Celina (age 9) to fend for herself along with her siblings (Celina was one of five and shortly after the death of their mother, they were abandoned by their father). Celina Sotomayor, now 82, recalls that her family was so poor she and her four siblings had to share one pencil. Despite these hardships she was always driven to improve herself and at age 17 left Puerto Rico to enlist in the Women’s Army Corp, ending up in Georgia. Although her English was limited, the corps trained her as a telephone operator.

After leaving the corps, Celina met and married Juan Luis Sotomayor, and true to her nature sought and earned a high school equivalency diploma at James Monroe High School. Given her prior experience, she was able to land a job as a telephone operator at Prospect Hospital in the South Bronx. Lest you, reader, begin to think that Celina’s life of hardship and struggle had become a thing of the past it is worth noting that her husband Juan frequently sought comfort in a bottle. Although his drinking undoubtedly affected not only Celina but also her two children, his premature death at the age of 42 from a heart attack propelled Celina into the role of sole breadwinner and single mother. Undaunted by this newest obstacle in her life, the 44 year old mother of two managed to support the family whilst simultaneously pursuing her dream of becoming a nurse. She enrolled at Hostos Community College in the Bronx to become a registered nurse and after two years turned dream into reality.

Speaking about the years during which his mother balanced working full-time with being a student, Juan would later recall, “My sister’s strength was English, and mine was math. We helped her get organized because it was a big shock for her to go back to school. But she did very well.” This period, so formative in her life, was recalled by Justice Sonia Sotomayor during a 1998 appeals court awards ceremony. As quoted in the New York Times, “My mom was like no student I knew. She got home from school or work and literally immersed herself in her studies, working until midnight or beyond, only to get up again before all of us [the next day].”  Celina transmitted her determination and love of learning on to her children, stating in a matter of fact fashion that, “I always expected them to do their best.” Adversity did not seem to affect her priorities, and as her son Juan states, she saved every spare penny to pay for a Catholic school education for her children and to buy a set of Encyclopedia Britannica. “I remember the enormous financial burden that placed on my mother,” recalled Sonia.

By all accounts, Celina’s efforts paid off.  Her daughter Sonia went on to graduate as valedictorian from Cardinal Spellman High School (1972), Princeton University summa cumlLaude (1976), and Yale Law School (1979). Her son Juan earned his medical degree from NYU after attending City College, subsequently completing his specialty in Pediatrics at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse and specializing further in allergy, immunology, and pulmonology at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. (For more background on Justice Sotomayor, read here.)

To fight the unbeatable foe

In a recent interview with Justice Sonia Sotomayor, CNN’s Soledad O’Brien asked about a plaque which hung on her door and stated, ‘Well behaved women rarely make history’ (the original phrase: ‘Well behaved women seldom make history’ has been attributed to many people, including Marilyn Monroe and Eleanor Roosevelt, but most likely was coined by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich). By her own admission, Sonia is not a well behaved woman. She describes the sign hanging from her door as, “almost a life motto.” To describe her as a fighter may sound disrespectful to some but the facts, as they say, speak for themselves. Let’s take a brief inventory of the hurdles she has had to overcome on the road to the Supreme Court, a road that in more ways than one is certainly the road less traveled.

Her first obstacle was poverty, most assuredly an impediment to achieving the American dream. Not only was Sonia poor, she came from a very distinguished and well established line of poor people. As we’ve already seen, her mother was poor, and her mother’s mother was even poorer. Her father was not only poor, but poorly educated, and as if that were not enough he was an alcoholic. How did Sonia and her brother Juan break free from the vicious cycle of being among the have-nots? The key to this was their mother. Celina placed love of education amongst the few gifts she was able to bestow upon her children, second only to the life she gave them and the faith she raised them in. Further evidence of how far Sonia has travelled comes to us from a rather unique source. Rarely do I have the opportunity to quote a gravedigger, and it would be foolish to pass up such a learned source since even Shakespeare saw fit to impart the wisdom of a gravedigger or two in Hamlet, considered by many to be his greatest work. Thus it is that we turn to Mattias Sela, a 33 year old gravedigger from Lajas, the small town from whence Sonia’s mother hailed. There lies her father now, so soon taken from his son and daughter. “It’s a point of pride for all of us because she’s risen up from the bottom,” Mattias tells us, since “not many of us do.” Gravediggers have a way with words, don’t they?

The second obstacle on the road to success was the fact that she was Puerto Rican. Sure, the Puerto Rican Day parade in New York City revels in the magnificence of La Raza, but behind the bravado there is the bitter reality that Hispanics are a minority and that they lag behind whites in almost every measure of achievement. Attesting to the not so hidden bias, Albita Rivera, a supporter of statehood for Puerto Rico and president of the Women’s Caucus in the Puerto Rican House of Representatives says of Justice Sotomayor's appointment, “It changes the view that North Americans are racist and do not want us because of our color. It eliminates that obstacle.” Another testament comes to us from a woman quoted in the NY Times, Ela Betancourt, when she states, “We have to remove the stigma of West Side Story.” (Read more here.)

The third and perhaps most daunting obstacle on the road to achieving what many see as one of the most powerful positions in America was the simple fact that Sonia is a woman. When she attended Princeton, she was well aware that only three years earlier the prestigious University did not even admit women. As if to prove her worth, she graduated with honors. Her three years at Yale Law School were no less remarkable in that on more than one occasion she had to bear the scornful look of those who believed she was only there because of affirmative action. Her subsequent work as an Assistant District Attorney in New York under New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau ought to put to rest any question of her qualifications on the basis of being a woman.  Her subsequent appointments to the judiciary at successively higher levels, ultimately culminating in her nomination and confirmation to the Supreme Court, should serve to silence any lingering doubts. She is not only a remarkable woman but moreover she is a remarkable person, period. The questions that remain are what might she have lost along her path to success and what impact might she have on the future of our nation.

Visit again later this week for the second half of this post.

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