Sotomayor on Puerto Rico, Not Speaking Spanish… and Poker

Justice Sonia Sotomayor in 2009 when she was appointed by President Obama. (Photo via El Diario/La Prensa).

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic member of the Supreme Court, gave El Diario/La Prensa an exclusive interview just in time for the publication this week of her memoir “My Beloved World.”

Published in two parts and in both English and Spanish, Sotomayor talks with the newspaper’s executive editor Erica González about everything from her relationship with Puerto Rico and her wish to improve her Spanish, to El Diario’s 100th anniversary this year and even her poker skills.

Here are some excerpts:

From a large office with a plush, orange rug, the Justice emerges. There is no hint of formality. She greets like the cheery tia you have not seen for a while. The one who makes it abundantly clear que estas en tu casa.

On the wall across the entrance to her office hangs a Juan Sanchez piece, a collage of images and quotes in tribute to Puerto Rican trailblazer and educator Antonia Pantoja. There are also photos of Sotomayor engaging kids, including at the Children’s Museum in the Bronx, the borough in which she was born and raised.

According to the article, the book deals with painful experiences, including “losing her father to alcoholism, her grandmother to ovarian cancer and a cousin to drugs and AIDS,” but also touches such beloved Latino values as “family gatherings and the drive to succeed.”

SS: I had many reasons for writing this book but among them was the hope that every Latino child and adult would find something familiar in it. And my hope is that when they finish reading the book, that they will come away with a renewed sense of pride in our culture and in who we are. We get a lot of strength from that [culture and identity] and we should be proud of it. So I hope the book will give them that sense.

EDLP: You reveal family problems that older generations tend to hush up. How did your mother react to your memoirs?

SS: My mom loved the book and she said to me, ‘I never knew you had done so much.’ (laughs)


EDLP: How do you live out your “Latina-ness” now as a Supreme Court Justice in Washington?

SS: Same way I have my entire life. Keep my family and friends close. My Latino friends close. I visit the island [Puerto Rico] as often as I humanly can. And I visit with community as frequently as possible, given the demands on me. I meet with kids. I meet with adults. I try to spend time and to listen to people talk about their lives.

Sotomayor confesses that she misses “everything” about New York City: “The sights, the sounds, the pace, the food, the music, the everything. I am growing to love DC. But the core of Sonia is a New Yorker.”

EDLP: Have you encountered any misconceptions here about Puerto Ricans or Latinos?

SS: All of the time but I don’t know that I even think about it. Without question, so many people, throughout my life, never think of Puerto Rico as part of the United States. Many people have no idea what the relationship is between Puerto Rico and the United States. And certainly, I have been asked if we are citizens.

The idea of a commonwealth relationship is alien to most people but I think that’s true generally. I think there’s a large segment of the mainland population that does not really understand the number of territories that are part of the United States. So whether it’s Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, Saipan… I mention those because I am willing to bet that there are some Puerto Ricans who don’t know about [their status].

Sotomayor reveals in the interview that, following  President Obama’s advice, she didn’t watch the news during the confirmation process, which enraptured many Latinos.

But things still got through. I got a message from one of my friends in Puerto Rico, who said, ‘Sonia, there’s nobody working in Puerto Rico – they’re all glued to the television’. And I got a similar message from a friend in Spain.

So I was aware that my nomination was drawing a lot of attention, particularly in the Latino world, not just in Puerto Rico. It was touching. I am eternally grateful to all of the Latino groups outside of the Puerto Rican community, but including the Puerto Rican community, who came to support me during the process.

The Associate Justice also confesses that on the first day of the job she was beyond nervous: “Jumping out of my skin may be a better description.” She says that when she got married she attached “de Noonan” (her ex-husband name was Kevin Noonan) to her name because back then (1976) the women’s rights movement were just beginning to take hold and she was from a traditional family.

She also describes herself as a “pretty good” poker player: “I’m not a professional player but I do win regularly among my friends. I don’t think they let me win.”

EDLP: In a lot of the coverage of you and other Puerto Ricans from the Bronx, there is little complexity offered of the borough, of how people go to church, work and do what they have to do.

SS: This book was written to give that picture… The book is woven around many purposes and one was to let not just the nation but also the world understand the important slice of life that we are—to understand the complexities of our life and its richness as well.

People think of “ghetto communities,” poor communities, they think of all the negatives and they forget the word community. People live in those communities and they have lives that are meaningful. And that could be lost in the public dialogue.

EDLP: Do you have any regrets?

SS: With all of public speaking I am doing in Spanish, I wince that I had not received a more formal education [in the language]. And it’s actually one of my life projects… I’ve been thinking about getting tutoring to improve my Spanish.

We all have to take seriously our obligation to become fully bilingual. And so for those of us who are weak in Spanish, we have to take the time to take care of that. And for those of us who are weak in English, we have to take the time to take care of it. If we are going to master both of our worlds, we have to master both of our languages.

EDLP: You mention El Diario/La Prensa in your memoirs, that your parents would read the paper.

SS: El Diario/La Prensa has been a part of my life since the day I was born. It is my expectation that it will last 100 plus more years so that it continues to be a part of my life and that of everyone I love.


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