Sotomayor, Rosenbaum, and Three José’s

By José I. Ortiz

I’ve met my fair share of celebrities back home in Puerto Rico. It seems that you can’t fling a chancleta without hitting a politician, musician or actor on the island. So, I think I have had enough experiences to be able to say that I do not get star-struck. But, when I attended one of 92nd Street Y’s Talks events featuring a conversation between Thane Rosenbaum and Justice Sonia Sotomayor my anti-star-struck streak was over.

As she walked out onto the stage – after being introduced by Professor Rosenbaum to this packed Upper East Side theater, I saw a Puerto Rican woman calmly making her way to a chair on stage with a warm smile on her face.  She sported a bright yet elegant turquoise top. And she seemed to me like any one of my aunts. For a moment, I felt like I was at a family Christmas gathering and that I could walk up to her, giver her a kiss on the cheek and (as we do with all of our elders) ask her for a blessing, bendición.

This very personal side to Justice Sotomayor seems to be what she hopes to share with anyone who would pick up her new book, “My Beloved World”. Appropriately available in both English and Spanish (Mi Mundo Adorado), her book is near the New York Times Best Sellers List in the non-fiction hardcover category. The New York Times’ review says that it seems Justice Sotomayor has “mastered the art of narrative.” I’m reading the book myself and so far, I wholeheartedly agree.

Justice Sotomayor’s stated mission is to bring hope to those who feel life’s circumstances are stacked against them. (Her speaking tour is undoubtedly working wonders for book sales, as well. But, I won’t go down that cynical road.) The fact is that this Supreme Court justice is different. All of a sudden this salsa-dancing, Spanish-speaking judge is giving a rock-star feel to the black robes and mahogany desks. She summed up her experience dancing salsa with Jorge Ramos (Univision’s Latin version of Anderson Cooper) by saying that he was atrevido.  Not quite Felix Frankfurter’s style.  Or any other justice’s, for that matter.

Born of Puerto Rican parents and raised in the Bronx, very little of this justice’s life would have led anyone to believe that she would one day be nominated to sit on the Supreme Court. In a passage from her book that she read aloud to the audience, Justice Sotomayor recalls her childhood yearning to make sure her next “report card would have one more A than the last one” — which was difficult, as she lived in a home where Spanish was spoken almost exclusively.

The young Ms. Sotomayor was able to count on her family – which for her as for many Puerto Ricans includes extended family – for moral support. Listening to Justice Sotomayor speak so fondly of her grandmother as her “soulmate” struck a chord with me because I too associate some of the deepest love and support I’ve ever felt to my relationship with my grandparents. I think many of us who did not grow up in a traditional home can relate to this.

Perhaps the lesson that Justice Sotomayor hoped to impress on her listeners most that night was of the importance of mentors. She fondly spoke of one of her closest mentors, Judge José A. Cabranes – the first Puerto Rican appointed to a federal judgeship in the United States and currently a judge on the Second Circuit’s Court of Appeals. She quoted him as saying that “mentors show you they are just like you.” A mentor like that needn’t say more to inspire someone into pursuing her own “Cinderella story”, as Professor Rosenbaum described Justice Sotomayor’s biography.

All too soon, it was time for Q&A from the audience. I wrote my question on a note card and handed it to an usher in the hopes that it would be selected, but it wasn’t. Maybe my question was too political; after all, it asked her thoughts on Puerto Rico’s current political status as a commonwealth associated with the United States and if it should change.

But, I think the way she chooses to tell her story as a woman, with Puerto Rico and its culture as a deeply rooted part of who she is, might just give me the answer I seek. As one of the most recently appointed Supreme Court justices she could shape her image as she pleases and she chose to open her memoirs not by quoting Plato, Jefferson or Cardozo but by quoting from one of her grandmother’s favorite poems by José Gautier Benítez (I swear, we’re not all named José):

Forgive the exile

My sweet frenzy:

I return to my beloved world,

in love with the land where I was born.


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