Friday, March 11, 2016
March 11, 2016: Puerto Rican Posts: Sotomayor’s Story
[On March 9th, Raúl Juliá would have turned 76. To honor one of the most famous and talented Puerto Rican artists, this week’s series will feature a handful of Boricua blogs, leading up to a special weekend post on Puerto Rican statehood!]
On what’s profoundly cultural about the Supreme Court Justice’s autobiography, and what’s not.
When President Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to replace retiring Justice David Souter on the Supreme Court in May 2009, he certainly knew he was making history by nominating the first Hispanic American Justice. Yet I don’t imagine he could have expected how much her contentious nomination debate and process would come to hinge on her ethnic heritage and identity, and more exactly her self-image as a judge in relationship to that identity. In the course of the media investigation into her legal and professional career, a 2001 symposium speech was discovered in which Sotomayor responded to an oft-quoted Sandra Day O’Connor point that “a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases,” arguing instead that “First … there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.” Reading of the full text of the speech, hyperlinked above, is necessary before fully analyzing this particular line, but in any case the quote does reflect Sotomayor’s connection of her heritage to the law.
The controversy notwithstanding, Sotomayor was confirmed to the Court in August 2009, and a few years later she wrote and published an autobiography, My Beloved World (2013). The first half of that book focuses fully and potently on Sotomayor’s childhood in the Bronx, as the daughter of parents who had moved from Puerto Rico a few years before her 1954 birth, and includes extended portrayals of both parents, as well as her beloved Abuelita (her father’s mother and the custodian of a number of Puerto Rican customs and practices), her aunts Titi Carmen and Titi Gloria, and many other family members. As a self-identified Nuyorican, Sotomayor engages at length with what that Puerto Rican family and heritage (as well as her annual summer trips back to the island) have contributed to her individual identity and perspective. Indeed, by choosing to end this autobiography before her time on the Supreme Court (perhaps to set up a future second volume), Sotomayor turns the book into somewhat more of an autoethnography, one that could be said to lay out an extended argument for the speech’s argument about what Latina community and identity might contribute to the development of a future judge’s professional and legal perspective.
Yet at the same time, Sotomayor opens the book with a Prologue that narrates the origin points of one of the most individual aspects of her life and identity: the diagnosis of type 1 diabetes when she was seven, and her subsequent decision (due to other individual factors including her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s burgeoning depression) to administer her daily insulin injections to herself; she concludes the Prologue with the first of those self-administered injections. In the book’s Preface, Sotomayor writes that one of her main goals in writing it has been to chronicle how “the challenges I have faced” (with “chronic illness” chief among them) “have not kept me from uncommon achievements,” and thus to achieve a particularly inspiring audience effect: “People who live in difficult circumstances need to know that happy endings are possible.” While of course some of Sotomayor’s difficult circumstances (including those aforementioned personal issues facing her parents) were intertwined with her cultural heritage, and specifically the experience of migrating to the United States from Puerto Rico, she chooses to frame the book most overtly with diabetes, a far more individual and intimate circumstance. As with any life and world, Sotomayor’s are both communal and individual, and her autobiography powerfully narrates each level.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other PR connections you’d highlight?