Overcoming Challenges: Five Themes in Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s Memoir Resonate in Indian Country
My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor (Knopf, 2013) has sat atop The New York Times best-seller list for weeks. The Latina U.S. Supreme Court Justice’s memoir is less a confessional biography than it is a practical exploration of her life growing up in the Bronx, attending two Ivy League schools and becoming a federal judge.
In a tale of family, love and triumph, Sotomayor takes a novelistic approach to depict distant mothers and alcoholic fathers. In describing challenges in health and higher education, Sotomayor makes her personal narrative an inspiring read about “how an ordinary person, with strengths and weaknesses like anyone else, has managed an extraordinary journey.”
Hardly ordinary, Sotomayor looks back upon a childhood that entailed growing up in poverty, virtually isolated from the outside world. She excelled and escaped it partly thanks to affirmative action programs, only to be criticized about these very opportunities years later. Although she is of different ethnicity from American Indians, Sotomayor shares similar struggles. Five themes in particular from this moving, first-person account of a girl who made it from the Bronx to the bench will resonate in Indian country.
1. Broken Family
The Puerto Rican daughter of a constantly fighting alcoholic father and orphaned mother, Sotomayor renders a vivid account of broken family life that forms one of the memoir’s most intriguing narratives. After losing her father at age nine, Sotomayor illustrates brilliant levelheadedness by thinking that “maybe it would be easier” for her, her mother and brother going forward without him.
But she divulges a resentment she harbored toward her mother, who, in the aftermath of her father’s death, moved the family away from relatives and to the projects, only to lock herself in a dark room to grieve the loss of the man she had loved. Sotomayor admits that it wasn’t until much later that she understood her mother’s inability to express herself: “It was only when I had the strength and purpose to talk about the cold expanse be tween us that she confessed her emotional limitations in a way that called me to forgiveness.”
2. Growing Up Poor
Her mother’s chilly love notwithstanding, Sotomayor was raised to value education, discipline and hard work. She recalls the Encyclopaedia Britannica that her mother bought for her and her brother, a collection rarely seen in their ethnically diverse working-class neighborhood in the South Bronx. By the time Sotomayor entered high school, the housing projects she lived in had fallen prey to increasing heroin use and gangrelated crime. But she continued to excel, graduating as valedictorian in 1972.
The justice credits her grandmother with providing a childhood of “protection and purpose.” But she says a wider, family-like network of generous mentors and friends helped lift the young so-called Nuyorican from the grips of this challenging environment—such as the middle-school classmate with the most gold stars, who taught her how to study.
In recounting a largely solitary life in the projects, living on her mother’s meager nursing salary, Sotomayor shines a light on how isolated poorer communities can be. She recalls, for instance, that she had never heard of “the Ivies” until a high school friend encouraged her to apply to the elite universities. When she did, she writes, she was terrified of Harvard upon visiting for an interview, intimidated by an institution she had only seen in the movies.
During her first year at Princeton, it dawned on Sotomayor that her Bronx education had omitted any study of the classics. She had never even heard of Alice in Wonderland before her freshman year. This prompted her to spend hours locked in libraries, immersed in her own crash course of English literature. It was also there that she learned of Phi Beta Kappa for the first time, but only after she had tossed out the invitation to join the academic honor society, a blunder corrected by a kind classmate.
Sotomayor is straightforward about her gains from affirmative action, and she recounts the struggles she faced from accepting the opportunities that came her way. During her time at Princeton, she recalls, letters would often get published in the campus newspaper complaining about how students like her were blocking the acceptance of potentially worthier applicants. The future justice’s response to these racially charged sentiments, which also reflects her true grit, was to excel with the Puerto Rican stu dent group, then overcome her weaknesses to win the highest honor awarded to seniors, the Moses Taylor Pyne Honor Prize. It was perhaps her own adopted philosophy of listening carefully and observing until she figured things out that gave her the confidence to advance during these formative years.
Perhaps the most rewarding takeaway is the self-assuredness one gleans from the pages of Sotomayor’s memoir. For it is a personal embrace of the qualities we all strive to hold onto: a strong sense of family, a connection to traditions and a solid understanding of one’s roots. For the Latina from the Bronx, the memories link back to parties at her grandmother’s place filled with food, music, dancing and poetry—and at times “forbidden” séances, calling upon the spirits. They are part of an identity that Sotomayor has never rejected. Indeed, she has used it to shape her ability to overcome weaknesses by gaining new strengths. The experience taught her one thing, she writes: “Ultimately, I know myself.”