Five years ago, Sonia Sotomayor became the first Latina and third woman to join the most exalted of all judicial panels, the Supreme Court of the United States.
I remember the howls from the right and the joy that fired up the left — especially within communities of color — when President Obama, just five months into his first term, nominated her to the court. The sound and the fury have diminished substantially since then. Nevertheless, I was excited to finally dive into Sotomayor’s widely acclaimed memoir, “My Beloved World,” published 20 months ago in January 2013.
I was familiar with the broad outlines of Sotomayor’s story of personal success despite tough odds. Reading her memoir allowed me to fill in the details and appreciate even more the long, hard road taken from an insular, impoverished upbringing in The Bronx to the Ivy League to one of nine seats on the Supreme Court.
As a young girl growing up in New York City, Sotomayor faced material poverty and chronic illness, and was raised by a single mother after her father died. She had Type I juvenile diabetes and learned at age 7 to give herself daily shots of insulin. She and her younger brother Juan moved from one public housing project to another, living in crowded conditions with relatives who, like Sonia’s parents, had immigrated from Puerto Rico as World War II was winding down.
Her mother, a nurse, worked hard to send her children to Catholic school and Sonia excelled, winning admission to Princeton and then Yale Law School, where she distinguished herself among hyper-competitive, privileged peers. She went on to work for the New York County District Attorney’s office and then in private practice before winning appointment as a federal judge, an appellate judge and finally the Supreme Court.
I knew much of that going in. What I didn’t expect was the extraordinary quality of Sotomayor’s writing. Yes, it was clear and specific, as you might expect from a judge. But much of the book had a literary quality to it, with beautiful phrasing, warm intimacy and a consistently positive tone. More surprising was how much the author revealed — almost TMI — in discussing topics like divorce, dating and ladies’ dressing rooms. Sotomayor evidently considered nothing to be off limits and so it is jarring to find one’s self reading about her insecurities about fashion, down to her choice of underwear.
But that’s part of the appeal of this book. Can you imagine Ruth Ginsberg or any of the male justices on the court going remotely near of these topics? Can you imagine any of them being raised in a low-income, bilingual household in a high-crime neighborhood? Can you imagine how shocking it must have been to have grown up in New York City, having never crossed the state line to New Jersey until enrolling at Princeton?
After reading this book, I came away with a ton of respect for Sotomayor as one wise Latina.
She makes a compelling argument for affirmative action, as the embodiment of those who benefit from a program designed to give underrepresented minorities an opportunity — a mere chance — to prove their worth at elite institutions previously closed to them.
She acknowledges her exceptional success in life and attributes much of it to her beloved world, growing up in the embrace of an extended family where tradition, culture and faith combined to give her a sense of security and self-worth. But she also asks herself the question, “Why me?” What made it possible for her to excel in high school and continue achieving at the highest level at an Ivy League school? What put her on the path to becoming a judge?
“Call it what you like: discipline, determination, perseverance, the force of will,” she writes.
“Good habits and hard work matter, but they are only the expressions of it, an effect rather than the cause. What is the source? I know that my competitive spirit – my drive to win, my fear of failure, my desire constantly to outdo myself – bubbles up from very deep within my personality.”
Competing against herself, rather than others, was part of it, Sotomayor says, but even more so was the desire to do for others, to help make things right for them.
“My Beloved World” is a wonderful book. I found it inspiring and revealing of the character of a distinguished lawyer and judge — and a generous human being.
Photograph: Jason Reed, Reuters