Though it was only an hour and a half from home, for a girl from the Bronx whose parents had both migrated from Puerto Rico, the ivy-covered halls of Princeton in 1972 evinced another world for 18-year-old Sonia Sotomayor. One of only a few Latinas, she felt like an outsider. She had graduated as valedictorian of her high school class the previous spring and received a full ride to Princeton, only after a friend who was already at Princeton urged her to apply.
Admitting years later that she was probably the beneficiary of affirmative action, Sotomayor decided not to let the opportunity go to waste. She spent much of her free time studying at Firestone Library and reading the classics during the summer. Eventually she’d co-chair Acción Puertorriqueña, a political group for Puerto Rican students, and graduate summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in history, writing her senior thesis on Luis Muñoz Marín, Puerto Rico’s first democratically elected governor.
Growing up in a housing project now bearing her name, Sotomayor had endured a childhood filled with as much familial love and hardship as most Latinos do living in America’s inner cities. She was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 8 and would remember hearing her parents argue over who would give their daughter the lifesaving insulin injections. Then, only a year later, her father died at the age of 42 of a heart condition, forcing her mother Celine to work long hours six days a week, which further strained their already uneasy relationship. Still, it was her mother who insisted that Sonia and her young brother focus on their education, saving up enough money to buy her kids the Encyclopædia Britannica, something which was unheard of in that time and place.
In 1986 Sotomayor was working at a private Manhattan law firm. She had earned a law degree from Yale in 1979 where she’d been an editor for the Yale Law Journal. After graduation she worked as an assistant district attorney in New York, later admitting that her 15-hour days partially contributed to the end of her marriage, which had begun shortly after she graduated from Princeton in 1976. For the past three years she had also been running a solo practice out of her apartment, mostly providing services for friends and family. It was at this time that Sotomayor appeared on Good Morning America in a segment looking how three women from the class of 1976 had fared in the decade following their college graduation. She seemed unsatisfied with how her life had turned out: “I am very happy with where I am at this point in my life, but I think my expectations were greater in ’76. I mean, I really expected to turn the world on fire.”
Little did she know — or maybe it was part of her plan all along — that in six years she would be appointed U.S. district judge and then, in another six years, U.S. appellate judge. During this period she earned a reputation as a fair but exacting jurist, studying every detail of each case brought before her. So it surprised no one when a newly-elected President Barack Obama nominated Sotomayor to replace the retiring Justice David Souter on the nation’s highest court in May 2009. She was sworn in a few months later, becoming the first Latino Supreme Court justice in U.S. history.
In an address delivered at the UC Berkeley School of Law in 2001, Sotomayor reflected on her experiences in the context of the country’s crises in dealing with race, ethnicity and gender:
America has a deeply confused image of itself that is in perpetual tension. We are a nation that takes pride in our ethnic diversity, recognizing its importance in shaping our society and in adding richness to its existence. Yet, we simultaneously insist that we can and must function and live in a race and color-blind way that ignore these very differences that in other contexts we laud. That tension between ‘the melting pot and the salad bowl’ — a recently popular metaphor used to described New York’s diversity — is being hotly debated today in national discussions about affirmative action. Many of us struggle with this tension and attempt to maintain and promote our cultural and ethnic identities in a society that is often ambivalent about how to deal with its differences. In this time of great debate we must remember that it is not political struggles that create a Latino or Latina identity. I became a Latina by the way I love and the way I live my life. My family showed me by their example how wonderful and vibrant life is and how wonderful and magical it is to have a Latina soul. They taught me to love being a puertorriqueña and to love America and value its lesson that great things could be achieved if one works hard for it. But achieving success here is no easy accomplishment for Latinos or Latinas, and although that struggle did not and does not create a Latina identity, it does inspire how I live my life.
Honoring Sotomayor’s continuing achievements — and that the American Dream is never gifted, only seized — is how we celebrate our heritage.