Memoir

From the Bronx to the Supreme Court

 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor traces her journey from a housing project to one of the most powerful positions in America.

Meet the author

Who: Sonia Sotomayor

When: 6 p.m. Friday

Where: University of Miami Bank United Center, 1245 Dauer Dr., Coral Gables.

Cost: Tickets required; purchase a copy of “My Beloved World” at Books & Books and receive two tickets.

Info: 305-442-4408 or www.booksandbooks.com


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.

Sotomayor’s story connects the Latino immigrant experience to hallowed American institutions of learning and jurisprudence: What she’ll do with her own chunk of judicial power now that she has it, or what she thinks the law can do to improve the lives of people like her, are topics she’s apparently left for another book.

Sotomayor’s account of her gradual, determined ascent through the American educational system is filled with incidents that will sound familiar to many Latino college graduates. When she gets a perfect score on a high school math test, she’s accused of cheating. At Princeton, she endures the diatribes against affirmative action provoked by the presence of a small number of students “of color” on campus. Snarky comments about women and Latinas follow her to Yale Law School too.

Sotomayor never lets these slights go unanswered, fighting back like the tough law-geek with a chip on her shoulder that she is. “You know what I love about you, Sonia?” a fellow student at Yale says. “You argue just like a guy.” Later, as a young assistant district attorney in New York, she develops a reputation for ruthlessness. Nothing can stop her — not even Type 1 diabetes — though her ambition and work ethic eventually undermine her marriage to her high school sweetheart.

In the end, Sotomayor achieves her goal, though it comes at a cost of an enduring loneliness that perhaps unwittingly colors the book’s final chapters. My Beloved World is the record of that solitary journey, and it ends with Sotomayor donning one set of black robes, soon to be followed by others. It’s an individual achievement that stands as a landmark in the much larger, collective civic awakening of the Latino U.S.

Hector Tobar reviewed this book for The Los Angeles Times

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