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Sotomayor—From the Bronx to the Bench


Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is determined to be as frank as possible in her new memoir.

Learning to manage her juvenile diabetes shaped her life and taught her discipline and self-reliance, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor told a sold-out crowd at a recent Commonwealth Club event in San Francisco.

“The prognosis for my life was not good,” she said. “I had to take full advantage of what I thought would be a limited life span.”

Sotomayor’s new memoir, My Beloved World, opens with her learning to sterilize a needle and give herself insulin shots as a seven-year old. The book details her upbringing in public housing in the South Bronx, her alcoholic father (whose hands shook too much to give her the shots himself), her mother who worked long hours as a nurse, and ultimately her journey to Princeton, Yale Law School and on to become the third woman and first Latina to be appointed to the nation’s highest court.

Often when she reads a memoir, Sotomayor said, she feels she hasn’t learned anything she didn’t already know from the press. In her book, she says she wanted to be candid and expose her insecurities and struggles.

“I wanted readers to be able to say, ‘She’s just like me, and if she can do it, I can do something too,’” Sotomayor said.

Stanford Law School Dean Mary Elizabeth Magill, who interviewed the justice at the Herbst Theater, said that Sotomayor’s challenges – poverty, racism, her father’s alcoholism and early death, not speaking English as a first language, and her illness – must have seemed almost insurmountable at times. Sotomayor said she made it to Princeton, where she graduated summa cum laude, law school at Yale, private practice, federal judgeships and finally the Supreme Court due to her grandmother’s unconditional love, along with her own stubbornness and determination. As a child, Sotomayor says, she got in fights on the playground defending her brother, and she always refused to concede defeat.

“I may have beaten some people up,” she said. “But I also got beaten up a lot because I would never cry uncle. I learned not to give up.”

Her self- reliance and persistence helped her to deal with racist slurs, sexism, and those thinking that she’d taken the spot of someone more deserving when she was at Princeton and Yale.

Sotomayor said she couldn’t discuss affirmative action, since the court has a case pending, but she did say it helped her get into the Ivy League.

“I was given a chance to get to the start of the race, and it made all the difference,” she said.

Growing up, Sotomayor seldom left her neighborhood. Magill asked her if Princeton, which had only started letting in women two years before she went there, seemed like Mars to her.

“What’s the furthest planet?” Sotomayor said. “I felt like I was on Pluto.”

As a little girl, Sotomayor wanted to solve crimes like her fictional heroine Nancy Drew. She felt she had Nancy’s qualities of being logical, focused, and a good observer and listener. But when she was given a pamphlet with the jobs that a diabetic could do, police officer wasn’t on it. After seeing the TV show, "Perry Mason," Sotomayor decided if she couldn’t be a detective like Nancy Drew, she would become a lawyer, which she saw as another way to investigate and fight crimes.

The title of her book, My Beloved World (Sotomayor joked she rejected friends’ suggestion of Wise Latina) comes from a line from the poem “To Puerto Rico (I Return),” by José Gautier Benítez. Sotomayor told Magill she liked the idea of people actually reading poetry from her parents’ birthplace. Their conversation veered from the typical workday of a justice to if she preferred throwing out the first pitch for the Yankees or being a guest on Sesame Street (the latter), to her grandmother’s belief in witchcraft. An audience member asked Sotomayor if she had hesitated over including that in her book. Sotomayor said she had, but wanted to be as frank as possible about her life.

“I wanted to underscore that everyone has . . . something their family does which they wish would be kept secret.”

Sotomayor said she thinks about all her cases from every angle before making the best decision she can, but she said remembering that one side always feels wronged keeps her humble.

“You are not God,” she said. “Hopefully God is more merciful than you can be as a judge. There is always someone who will feel there’s an injustice.”

She found the time in her busy schedule to write the book, Sotomayor said, because she realized her family was getting older, and she wanted to find out their stories. Also, she said, she wanted to remember where she came from.

“I wanted to hold on to the Sonia side of me,” she said. “I told my family and friends if I change in any way they don’t like, I wrote a heavy book, so they could hit me over the head, and say, ‘Remember how you got here.’”

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