Sonia Sotomayor learned quickly how to navigate the stairwells of the Bronx housing project in which she was reared in the 1960s — basically, avoid them as often as possible. Because in her neighborhood, the stairwells were littered with the detritus of drug addicts and criminals preying on addicts and residents. Life inside her unit wasn’t much brighter. Her late father was an alcoholic, and his behavior was unpredictable. Her mother worked long hours to avoid her husband. Sotomayor writes of these early days in her new memoir, My Beloved World (Knopf, $27.95.)
Today, Sotomayor sits as the first Hispanic justice on the United States Supreme Court. Most recently, she administered the oath of office to Vice President Joe Biden for his second term at the ceremonial swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol during the 57th presidential inauguration ceremonies in Washington.
On Friday, Sotomayor, 58, who cites the sleuthing acumen of fictional Nancy Drew and the law skills of TV’s smooth Perry Mason as inspirations in her journey to the court, speaks about her book and life at the University of Miami’s BankUnited Center. Coral Gables residents have first dibs on 250 free tickets for the Books & Books-sponsored event, as part of a 20-year development agreement between the city and the university. UM President Donna Shalala will interview Sotomayor at the lecture.
Shalala plans to approach the interview much in the fashion she has adopted for similar sessions with President Bill Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and humorist Dave Barry.
“First of all, I want to know the audience and this is a very broad audience. I ask students for suggested questions and I go through their questions,” Shalala said in a phone interview this week. “This is a book tour, so I can’t ask the Supreme Court Justice about law cases. I’m not a lawyer. I think about what the public might be interested in and what hasn’t been revealed. I want them to get a sense of the individual as a person, and that’s easy after reading her book.”
My Beloved World should offer a wealth of talking points. Though the book purposely avoids accounts of her days as a Supreme Court Justice, Sotomayor deals candidly with her childhood and how growing up a poor, self-described Nuyorican with diabetes but gifted with a sharp mind and determination, led to her trailblazing career and status as a role model.
She was sworn into her seat by President Barack Obama during his first term in 2009. He lauded her as “an inspiring woman who I believe will make a great justice.”
Indeed, Shalala has a wide range of topics to draw from for their public conversation.
“I go with the flow, I don’t have a set of 12 questions I have to ask,” she said. Shalala, 71, who spent eight years in Clinton’s cabinet as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, gives an example of a successful exchange she enjoyed in a session not unlike the kind students can expect on Friday.
“President Clinton answered a question about what advice would you give a student who would want to run for president. His answer, ‘Be a sponge. Learn new subjects.’ ”
Sotomayor’s visit to the Gables campus is significant, she says, because students “get to see a very important public figure who will be important for their entire generation in their lifetime. She’s a younger member who will be on the court for a very long time. They’ll see someone who didn’t grow up with great wealth who they can aspire to. She’s a role model for them.”
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