Turquoise dress, black knee-length cardigan, dark curls stretching to her chin. Her friendly face — with perfectly plucked eyebrows and subtle make-up — is accentuated by silver earrings. She almost seems demure. Her facial expression is professional and friendly. She greets me with a surprisingly deep voice and a sweeping hand gesture.
But there is more to her: Sonia Sotomayor resonates a strength, a kind of grandeur that emanates with a warmth difficult to define. Perhaps it’s her radiant smile, or maybe her way of speaking, slow and paced, that makes it feel as if she’s clarifying something for her favorite nephew.
She strikes me as pleasant from the get-go. Sonia Sotomayor is gesticular, she has a very physical way of communicating. She gets up close, gently grazing whoever is sitting across from her, bridging the gap and creating a connection.
Only upon second glance do you remember that Sonia Sotomayor is one of the most powerful people in the USA. She is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. And not only is she the third woman to hold this position, she is also the first Latina, the first representative of the Hispanic community in the United States.
It is not particularly easy to pigeonhole the non-partisan Sotomayor’s political leanings, even given all the available criteria from her career in the federal justice system. Federal judges are appointed by the president and then approved by Congress. Thanks to this practice, presidents have been able to influence politics long beyond their time in office, particularly in the case of Supreme Court Justices who hold their offices for life.
Sotomayor was appointed to the United States District Court in New York by Republican George H. Bush. She had Democrat Bill Clinton to thank for her elevation to the United States Court of Appeals 2nd Circuit. And her appointment as Associate Justice in the highest level of the judiciary, the Supreme Court of the United States, came from Barack Obama.
“Yes,” she nods with a laugh. A bit of pride shining through. President Obama selected her. She nods again. Her hands gesture around the room “Obama!” For many, her nomination was hope. “A hope for what was possible. For everyone!” She herself didn’t know until it was happening. How did it come about? Her phone just rang and Obama was on the other end?
“No,” her smile deepens. Of course she realized it was a possibility when her predecessor stepped down. But when the telephone rang and it was the White House on the line asking her to please hold… she leans forward brushing my arm and says a bit more softly: “Then he was on the line and I said ‘Mr. President’, and then he told me that he would be recommending me. The first thing I did was cry. I was just barely able to say thank you. Standing next to him during the nomination was really something…”
Children and adults alike always have questions for her. And she always has advice, because she knows how it really is. And now we all know: “Sonia from the Bronx” is one of many.
Her movements and expressions lend every word an almost physical meaning. She knows her words carry weight, and her body expresses that. “Yes, life as a Supreme Court Justice is different. There’s a loss of privacy that comes along with it. You don’t meet any new friends without harboring a bit of mistrust. Especially on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. where favors are an established form of currency.”
The “judgeship” also often changes the Judge. At least the risk is there, because everyone has immense respect for people who can potentially intervene in anyone’s life. This power can change people: there are judges who have become incredibly egocentric. The danger of losing yourself in office is great. As she says that, her upper body sways forward, pecking the word “great” into the ground with a bird-like head bob.
Her life’s journey is impressive: little Sonia from the Bronx owes many thanks to many people, and she doesn’t intend to forget that. Which is why she wrote a book, My Beloved World. When appearing in public, she is often celebrated as a figure halfway between a favorite aunt and a rock star.
There are two reasons the book is so thick, she laughs: “I met so many people along the way.” But also, just in case she has forgotten someone, that person ought to have a heavy book to “hit me over the head with so that it really hurts.”
“Yes, I am from the Bronx”, she nods. “From the South Bronx to be precise.” The Bronx is one of the toughest parts of New York. As a child, she witnessed police officers sporting bullet-proof vests and toting weapons in pursuit of gang members. She wasn’t allowed out on the street by herself. When she was a bit older, she smiles, she stood up against some older boys to defend her brothers. Back then she had to put up with a lot, and sometimes she went down fighting. What made little Sonia so strong? “Hostility.”
But you need “a lot of tenacity to trudge forward. Anyone who’s successful knows that!” It’s simply a question of “how you deal with defeat.. Because you can learn! You just always have to ask yourself: what is the lesson here?” If her mother is to be believed, she’s been this way since childhood.
Her life changed radically shortly after she started school. While at church, she fainted after having consumed large amounts of liquid in an effort to quench an unquenchable thirst. The nuns brought her to the hospital. To this day she remembers the diabetes diagnosis: “I was sitting next to the doctor and could see my mother crying. That’s how I knew it was something really terrible.
I asked myself: Am I going to die? But the doctor said: ‘Sonia, it’s fine. From now on, you’ll just have to live a sugar-free life.’ The first time I had skim milk in my cereal. That was really awful. But the worst was when I overheard my parents talking about how I was going to die and my low life expectancy.”
“Yes, that’s how I learned how to give myself shots at seven!” She rubs her cheek, turns her head slowly from left to right. Looks down, and then up again — exhales. “Giving myself shots was a lot less painful than the episode with my parents. The daily needles instilled me with a steely discipline, they made me stronger.” She dips her head again to emphasize her point, her avian pecking gesture. Her stare gives you a glimpse of the little Sonia who had to jab a “huge needle” into her small arm.
Her mother smuggled herself into the army when she was underage to get out of Puerto Rico. And that early experience really shaped her. “My mother didn’t know how to show tenderness, it was just tough love.” But there was a lot of reading at home. Despite regular fights with her alcoholic father.
Her mother, who loved books more than anything, provided ample reading material. “We even had an encyclopedia at home. A real encyclopedia! And that was important. Because the closest library was really far away. Our books, especially the encyclopedia, were like a window into another world..” She starts laughing when she talks about the encyclopedia. You can tell she’s reminiscing about something: little Sonia, the Bronx and the encyclopedia. Through the eyes of a child she was able to discover a new wild world of birds, plants, rockets and foreign countries. That was where her career as a lawyer began. Her brother went on to become a doctor. “My mother gave us the greatest gift: education!”
The value she places on childhood education is incredibly evident. She appeared on Sesame Street to explain how a court works. It’s hard to imagine a robe-clad judges in other countries doing the same – in simple language and to a bunch of puppets.
With her gestures, Sonia Sotomayor imbues her words with force: “Education! Read to your children! Children need to see adults reading!”
Hispanics account for a good half of the 1.4 million residents of the northernmost corner of New York City. So there are a lot of Latinas from the Bronx who also learned to read in the 1960s, which was a catastrophic time for the neighborhood. Why was she different?
She smiles and shakes her head. She has to quote her old classmate Rudi. He always joked with her: “‘Sonia you’re like a guy! When you’ve got something to say, you tell it like it is. You don’t have that typical girly way of talking: excuse me, I might have an idea about how to interpret that law…’ According to Rudi, I always argued like a man, always very outspoken.” She’s not quite sure where she got it from, “but it helped really helped me relate with men.”
While studying at the Ivy Leagues, “I often heard the ‘b’ word!” But that’s how it is she tuts, with the wisdom of her years: “Strong women are usually described negatively. You just have to know when to be tough and stay tough in life!” And you “have to be taught this kind of strength, you can learn it.”
Nowadays the topic of affirmative action — a presidential order dating back to the 60s that aims to give minorities, in this case women, blacks and Latinos, better access to institutions of higher education and ultimately higher corporate positions — is a constant source of controversy in the USA. The ruling has been debated since its inception, despite numerous successes in the fight against marginalization.
Sonia Sotomayor shakes her head, her words escaping more slowly, she smiles cautiously and then she paints an image: “Imagine a race! All of a sudden, someone is explaining a competition to you that you’ve never about. You actually manage to find out where the race is, and how to get to the start line. Once I knew what was out there, and that I could be a part of it, I rushed to join in.” And it was “incredible to excel at Princeton and Yale!”
Her eyes sparkle when she talks about the universities where she had the chance to shine. And then she raises her right-hand to ward off what might come: this program is just a starting gate. “What happens beyond the gate is something only you can determine!”
At first, 10-year-old Sonia wanted to be a police officer. However, her diabetes made that impossible. But then she saw Perry Mason on television. The criminal defense lawyer was almost like a police officer with his meticulous investigations. And so was born her desire to pursue law. “For me, law was an opportunity to bring people together, understand issues and make some sense of everything.”
She circles her wrists stopping with her hands held out, palms towards her face — like a Muslim about to pray. “Lawyers make money, even when they lose. That’s why you really have to consider if something is worth the fight, and who stands to win.” With that statement, she twists her hands together, as if screwing her words together into the perfect argument.
Sotomayor learned English late in the game. That makes her Spanish mother tongue all the more important to her: “You can only learn cultures if you can speak them. Only then can you understand the nuances, the depth.” And it is Spanish that gave the Latin American her spirit, her Latina soul: “Pride, tradition, a sense of family, art, and especially music.” And Sotomayor certainly emulates that. At a charity gala, she wasn’t able to resist the charms of Hollywood hunk Esai Manuel Morales. She allowed herself to be whisked onto the dancer floor in front of filming cameras for a little twirl.
Her Latina spirit imbues her with something special. She’s always emphasizing how she sees life through different eyes. This way of thinking has caused her a lot of grief, particularly since she often argues: “A wise Latina sees things differently and is able to make better judgments than a white man who hasn’t had the same experiences.”
Sotomayor has been openly accused of racism by some Republicans. Even today she is a controversial figure amongst some demographics.
Somehow it all sounds too good to be true. Was there ever a point in life when she thought it couldn’t continue this way? Her fairytale career reads a bit like a Hollywood movie… She chuckles: “It doesn’t matter how often you fall. What counts is that you keep getting back up. That’s what makes all the difference.” And as an eternal optimist, she always got back up!
At some point her hands rest on her lap, index fingers and thumbs grazing each other. With slow articulateness she closes them. Every night before she goes to bed she asks herself two questions: what have you learned today? What acts of kindness did you perform? Because that is what gives meaning to each and every day. We so often forget: living is giving.