Wednesday, March 6, 2019

First Hispanic Supreme aims not to be the last -- March 7, 2019 column


As a child growing up in the South Bronx projects, Sonia Sotomayor never dreamed of being on the Supreme Court.

“You cannot dream of something you don’t know about,” she said, adding, “That has been the most important lesson of my life.”

Sotomayor, the first Hispanic and the third woman justice on the U.S. Supreme Court in history, has made it her mission to inspire children with words we seldom hear anymore from anyone in public life.  

“Everything in life is hard. To get anywhere, to do anything, you have to work at it,” she said March 1 in a conversation with actress Eva Longoria Bastón at George Washington University.

The auditorium was filled not with college students but schoolchildren, many of them Hispanic, and Sotomayor spoke Spanish as well as English.

“You’ve got to work hard, you have to study hard, you have to do a lot of things you don’t want to do, but there can still be hope,” she said. “And I want every child to live in the world knowing dreams can come true.”

She’s been on tour to promote her latest book, “Turning Pages: My Life Story,” a children’s picture book in Spanish and English, which she called, “a great way to learn Spanish or if you have to learn English.”

Showing photos in the book of her family and herself as a child, she said: “I look like a lot of you – don’t I?”

When President Barack Obama named Sotomayor to the court in 2009, he called  her “an inspiring woman who I believe will make a great justice.”

His choice sent a powerful message to the Latino community and all minorities that America still can be the land of opportunity – a message needed even more today than a decade ago.  

Sotomayor, 65, was born in New York City, where her mother, an Army veteran, and her father relocated from Puerto Rico. Her dad, a tool-and-die maker, did not speak English; her mom, a nurse in a methadone clinic, was fanatical that Sonia and her brother learn English and get a good education.

After her father died when she was 9, young Sonia went to the library to escape the sadness at home.

“Reading is the key to your success in life,” she said.

Asking if her young listeners had library cards, she said: “Make your parents take you tomorrow to sign up.”

As part of her mission, she also promotes civics -- “the most important class you can ever take in school.” She serves on the board of iCivics, founded by retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, which teaches civics through video games.

In her pre-video game youth, Sotomayor was inspired by watching “Perry Mason” on TV. The first iteration of the popular TV legal drama and who-done-it ran from 1957 to 1966. 

Sotomayor attended Princeton University. Her first job out of Yale Law School was as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan. She was named a U.S. District Court judge by President George H.W. Bush and to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by President Bill Clinton.

“Yes, it’s a little bit harder when you come from a background a lot of other people don’t come from,” she said.

But asked how her Puerto Rican heritage influences her, she credits it with instilling her identity and values.

“It’s not just food or music or poetry, it’s the way you learn to love one another as a family,” she said. 

When Obama nominated her, critics said she wasn’t “smart enough” to be a Supreme Court justice, she told the kids.

“That hurt me a lot,” and she started to doubt herself. But she didn’t let her doubts stop her.

She had faced fear at an early age. At age 7, she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and, terrified of needles, had to learn to give herself insulin shots.

She steeled herself to the task by emulating a character in her favorite comic book.

“Maybe I can find the bravery Supergirl has,” she thought at the time.

She urged her young listeners not to let fear stop them from pursuing their dreams.

“We all have courage inside us.”


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