“Even though I was born and grew up in New York City, español, Spanish, was the language we spoke at home–– the language of Puerto Rico, the island where my family came from” – Sonia Sotomayor.
Growing up as a Hispanic woman in San Antonio, Texas, I don’t think that I ever truly understood what it meant to be a minority. Most of my friends were Hispanic and so was the rest of my family. It wasn’t until my older sister, Kimberly, pursued her bachelor’s degree that I learned that we were not like everyone else. Both first-generation students, my sister was eleven years older than me, we did not know what to expect when entering a college environment. Because we grew up in an upper-middle class neighborhood, it was practically decided that we were set to attend a four-year university, not by our parents, but more so by our peers and their parents. I asked my sister how it felt when Justice Sotomayor was chosen to sit on the nation’s highest court, and I found her experience to be extremely insightful, especially because this was only twelve years ago, when my sister was as old as I am now. My sister explained “It was an empowerment like none other. When entering college I realized just how many women with the same cultural identification as us are setup for failure, but Justice Sotomayor’s nomination was a monumental precedent for Hispanic women everywhere, no matter where you grew up.” I personally remember being only nine-years old at the time, and the secretary at my elementary school would always mispronounce my last name on the intercom. She always said “Sotomayor” instead of “Sultemeier,” and I always felt a rush of pleasure, pride, and satisfaction for someone to confuse my name with the first Hispanic Justice on the Supreme Court. Growing up in a Mexican household with a German-American last name, I always had a hard time identifying with my cultural identity. I felt like I lacked the namesake connection with my ethnic roots like my friends had the chance to experience, so a sense of joy always sparked in my heart when my last name was mispronounced. I am truly thankful for thank for Justice Sonia Sotomayor raising the bar so high for possibilities in my own life. Not only did she become my role model, but she serves as a role model for children everywhere, as she explains through her children’s literature.
Justice Sotomayor begins her children’s book with the introduction of her cultural background that sets her apart from many of the inhabitants of New York City. Serving as the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice, and only the third woman to serve on the Court, she wrote “Turning Pages” with an integration of English and Spanish to tell her life story through a beautifully illustrated children’s book.1 The story tells about her struggle with diabetes, her love for reading and education, and her journey to higher education and her dream appointment to the Supreme Court. She explains that she had an extremely hard time learning English because the culture in her home life favored Spanish. However, reading became an important aspect of her journey. Books were her gateway to learning English, and something that actually made learning fun. She explains the importance of literature in her life and how it was related to the generational stories told by her grandparents. “My first memory of the power of words came from Abuelita, my beloved grandmother.” She tells a beautiful memory from her childhood and how after their dinner celebration, her Abuelita would recite old poems about the life that the family had left in Puerto Rico. This form of literature served a much greater purpose than poetry, they were memories from a home that they used to know. Justice Sotomayor describes words as “electrical currents that jolted feelings to life.” This passion for reading played a major role in her decision to study law later in her life. By age 10, she was positive that she wanted to attend college to become an attorney.2 After realizing that the law was one of her favorite pastimes, she grew an interest in true crime literature.
Justice Sotomayor mentions that she wrote Turning Pages in order to inspire young women, especially minorities, to always follow their dreams. In her book, “My Beloved World,” she discusses the conditions in which she was raised growing up in a Bronx housing project, and losing her father due to a long battle with his addiction to alcohol.3 She explains that she often wanted to ask her father why he couldn’t stop drinking for the love of his daughter, but she knew that alcoholism had already taken over his life. After the death of her father in 1963, Sonia and her younger brother, Juan, only had their mother. She explains that there were often stages of neglect entangled with the difficult relationship that they faced through their most influential years. Naturally, she knew that her mother’s behavior stemmed from her grievances against her children’s father, and while the circumstances were harsh, her mother was one of the greatest prizes that she has been given in her lifetime.
Through her love for reading she found a joy in learning about the law. She attributed this to her two favorite sources: Nancy Drew and Perry Mason. She says that it was within an episode of Perry Mason where Perry turned to the judge after the defendant had confessed, and she says that was the moment when she knew that the judge was the most important person in the courtroom. She follows with “I wanted to be that person.”4
Her mother placed a large weight on education for her two children, which was extremely rare for families in the housing project. Sotomayor says that her mother played a major role in the person that she has become today, although she was distant, her choices often influenced Sonia. Justice Sotomayor recalls, “For my mother, education has always been the top priority in all of our lives. It was because of her that we were the only kids I knew in the housing projects to have an Encyclopedia Britannica.” Sotomayor grew up working at a retail store and a hospital to help provide for her mother’s education to get a better paying job. After her mother became as RN, Sotomayor attended high school, where she was accepted into an upper level college prep school called Cardinal Spellman High School. She served in many student organizations until she graduated as the class valedictorian in 1972. During the course of her high school education, crime increased in the project housing in which her family lived with growing gang activity and heroin use, so her mother made the decision to relocate the family.5
Justice Sotomayor was able to attend Princeton University on a full scholarship, and explained that her admission was thanks to affirmative action.6 She later explained the importance of affirmative action in universities, stating that “its purpose is to create the conditions whereby students from disadvantaged backgrounds could be brought to the starting line of a race many were unaware was even being run.” Princeton played a large role in her life, especially because Sotomayor was raised in the bubble that she knew as the Bronx. After assimilating to the culture at Princeton, Sotomayor was very successful and graduated summa cum laude in 1976. Sotomayor then entered into the Yale Law class of 1979, again attributing this achievement to affirmative action with a scholarship.
After working for years in private practice, Sonia was approached to become a Federal District Judge, then a Court of Appeals Judge, until 2008. Once President Obama won the 2008 election, there were speculations surrounding whether Sotomayor would be a good selection for the Supreme Court. The two New York Senators immediately wrote President Obama, and mentioned that should a seat become available on the Supreme Court, Judge Sonia Sotomayor was the most deserving possible nominee. After Souter’s retirement in 2009, President Obama approached Sotomayor and extended his offer. Sotomayor explained, “I had my hand over my chest, trying to calm my beating heart, literally.”
There were several waves of controversy that surrounded the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the open seat on the Supreme Court. Most of the opposition came from conservatives and several Republican Senators who had issues with the comments the she had previously made, pertaining to a speech she gave “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white man who hasn’t lived that life.” From this, speculations of racism arose. Many claims that she was too problematic to be placed on the highest court. The Republicans went after several previous decisions that she made in prior cases regarding gun rights and racial discrimination.4 Sonia has made her positions very clear. She was often found in the same partisan category as the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, qualifying as one, if not the most, liberal justice on the Supreme Court. Speaking in terms of issues today and the environment of the Supreme Court, she is the most leftist justice. Often cited is her notable opinion in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores 573 US 682 (2014) case which assesses the constitutionality of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Hobby Lobby is a family owned craft store chain that is operated based on the principles of Christian faith. In this case, Hobby Lobby did not want to extend certain provisions under the Affordable Care Act to its female employees’ health insurance benefits, refusing to cover any forms of contraceptives because the business considered them to be forms of abortion. Hobby Lobby stores extended this belief to claim that they would not be associated with contribution to such acts. While this was allowed for religious employers and non-profits, this exemption did not extent to the for-profit industry. In a 5-4 decision, the conservative block voted in favor of Hobby Lobby, stating that businesses who have five or fewer stockholders for over 50% of the company could run their businesses in this manner. They also went on to state that businesses possess corporate personhood, meaning that they are allowed to maintain the same views as an actual human being. The five justices who voted in favor of Hobby Lobby claimed that it would be unconstitutional to force the family-owned business to provide access to such contraceptives.8
Justice Sotomayor joined Justice Ginsburg in their dissent. Their dissenting opinion argued that the business’s religious beliefs cannot impinge on any third parties, which would be the Hobby Lobby female employees’ rights in this scenario. Aside from this case, Sonia Sotomayor has inserted her extremely powerful opinion in several other cases. She feels very strongly about her pro-choice views, affirmative action, gun control, and more. She utilizes her platform in order to reach young Latina women to pursue and achieve their wildest dreams. Her role on the Supreme Court is especially crucial today given the circumstances of the Supreme Court. Considering the recently appointed Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kagan serve as half of the remaining liberal justices. Speculations of overturning major cases, even super precedents, like Roe v. Wade are possible and their opinions will matter more than ever, even if only in dissent. We have learned, Justice Sotomayor will never go down without fighting for justice and the protection of rights for all.9