Some of the most revealing moments in Sonia Sotomayor’s stirring new memoir come early. The future Supreme Court justice, who appears Saturday at University of Miami, is 9 years old when her father dies in her family’s apartment in a Bronx housing project. He was a broken-hearted man with an artist’s soul and a weakness for Seagram’s Seven that eventually killed him.
Juan Sotomayor’s family is devastated. At his wake, after a night of endlessly repeated rosaries, Sonia nods off before the coffin. When she opens her eyes her relatives are arguing around her. Apparently, while she was asleep, Sonia had spoken a single Spanish word in the voice of a long departed aunt. Conformate, she said. Accept it.
“I can’t explain it,” Sotomayor writes. “Nothing like that had happened to me before, and it hasn’t happened to me since.”
At age 9, and for much of her life, level-headed Sonia tells herself that reason can triumph over chaos and adversity. All around her adults act irrationally, slaves to their superstitions and passions. When her aunt later tries to climb into the grave with Sonia’s dead father, Sonia doesn’t understand: The aunt never came to visit when her father was alive.
My Beloved World is a record of the most difficult and improbable part of Sotomayor’s long journey from the Bronx projects to a seat on the Supreme Court. It begins with her birth to two young, unsettled parents with roots in impoverished, rural Puerto Rico. And it ends 38 years later with the realization of a dream she’s held since childhood: her first appointment as a judge.
While other recent memoirs by current and former justices have touched on weighty political and philosophical themes, Sotomayor avoids such terrain. A coming-of-age story, My Beloved World does not touch on a single day of her life as a Supreme Court justice. Instead, in her own often straightforward, occasionally soaring writing style, Sotomayor crafts an often old-fashioned tale of overcoming obstacles.
It’s a book explicitly intended to address her newfound role as a Latina role model. From her story of family and community strength and dysfunction, a worthy Latino addition to the pantheon of mythic American civic stories emerges.
Lincoln was a log-splitter, Washington chopped down the cherry tree — and Sotomayor was a smart girl from the projects who decided in grade school that she wanted to be a judge. We learn that Sonia, having listened to her mother and father fight almost every day of their marriage, likes the idea of sorting out conflict. Her hero is the level-headed judge on the old Perry Mason television show.
Her Puerto Rican-born paternal grandmother is a rare calm and steady presence for Sonia during her earliest years. Abuelita is a supplier of “unconditional love, respect and confidence.” She can also out-haggle any street vendor, cook a mean sofrito, and channel the dead at seances. But abuelita is only a shadow of herself after the death of her son, Juan Luis. So is Sonia’s mother.
Like so many American immigrant and migrant narratives, it’s a story that returns to “a little wooden shack of a house” in the middle of crops and fields. Sonia’s mother lived in such a shack, in Lajas, Puerto Rico, eventually arriving in New York after enlisting in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. In New York she met a young man named Juan Luis Sotomayor who recited poetry to her, in Spanish.