Did Sonia Sotomayor chose the wrong profession? The U.S. Supreme Court justice is rocking her book tour, packing venues and leaving social media atwitter with accounts of her warmth and vitality. She traded pithy barbs with Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, salsa danced with Univision’s Jorge Ramos and deftly managed the subdued Q-and-A of public television’s Charlie Rose.
She’s everywhere. A Puerto Rican Oprah.
The emergence of this very non-diva persona is due to My Beloved World, Sotomayor’s recently released autobiography. The memoir couldn’t be better timed for America, a nation increasingly troubled by the growing chasm between the rich and the rest of us.
Sotomayor has written an unflinchingly honest portrayal of what it is like to be a person gifted with intelligence who could have so easily been undermined by poor schooling and the inability to navigate upward through class levels and cultural differences. “The uncertainty I’d always felt at Princeton was something I’d never shake entirely,” she wrote.
There are a lot of poor kids in America like Sotomayor. They come in every race and ethnicity. Problem is, the people who need to read her book the most, to absorb its many lessons, are those who can least relate to those experiences. They are the teachers, professors, deans, police, politicians and business owners who can unknowingly, or at times willingly, stand in the way of people like Sotomayor. Her life was one where one turn in luck, a chance encounter or bit of guidance, meant all the difference to a person willing to meet such opportunity with hard work (and then more hard work). A high school friend urged her to “try for the Ivy League” — and then had to explain to Sotomayor what that was, which institutions were a part of it and what their prestige would mean to her life.
On her book tour, Sotomayor is drawing a large audience of those who can readily identify with her. Much has been made of her background: the South Bronx tenements, the sofrito and arroz con gandules, joyous family gatherings with songs sung in Spanish, her superstitious, loving and yet at times dysfunctional multi-generational family. Sotomayor feels a deep commitment to provide by example the “ Si, se puede,” for younger generations of Latino children. She latched herself to achieving her goal of helping others by the surest route in the land, a solid education.
Social scientists study people like her; attempting to unravel the unusually high levels of emotional intelligence. She could tell them a lot about her sense of survivor’s guilt, knowing that many of her childhood peers failed to reach goals, even though some had more innate intelligence. She’s honest about how ill-equipped she was to navigate the Ivy League, not because she lacked discipline or determination but for lack of prior exposure to its norms and manners.
The book tells of the Phi Beta Kappa letter she threw in the trash as junk mail. How she had to look up “summa cum laude” in the dictionary when told she would receive the distinction at Princeton.
Her own stellar ascent in academia easily could have unraveled had she not realized that her written English grammar was influenced far too heavily by Spanish. She often learned from books, not living examples. And she explains the limitation:
“When a young person, even a gifted one, grows up without proximate living examples of what she may aspire to become — whether lawyer, artist or leader in any realm — her goal remains abstract. Such models as appear in books or on the news, however inspiring or revered, are ultimately too remote to be real, let alone influential.”
No child should grow up with many of the challenges that faced Sotomayor. As a little girl, she fearfully watched for the inevitable at family gatherings, for her alcoholic father to go from quietly sipping whiskey to the angry words that would end the evening. She developed a nearly paralyzing fear of bugs after an infestation of their home by giant cockroaches. She waded through the crushing realization that the people best situated to help her too often had extremely low expectations for her.
But the fact is, many children in America can relate to Sotomayor. They need allies, people in positions of power who reach out with opportunity, not pity. People who realize that being bicultural is a gift, not a deficit.
Look where it took Sotomayor.