This past Monday, the students and faculty of the most exclusive university in the state – Yale – were privy to the thoughts of the first Latina admitted into the most exclusive club in the United States, the Supreme Court. Justice Sonya Sotomayor was interviewed by the Yale law professor Judith Resnik in front of a large crowd in New Haven’s Woolsey Hall, where the high court judge seemed eager to impart the secrets of her success. One core message of the afternoon was how trailblazers make it possible for others to follow in their footsteps.
However, toward the end of her talk, she made a point of detouring from the questions that Professor Resnik was asking in order to address a common issue that she shared with many in the audience: the private struggle that many Latinos in the U.S. face; that is, reconciling multiple identities. “Now what you haven’t asked, and I’ll answer,” she said to Resnik, raising a laugh from the crowd.
Her rise from humble beginnings in the Bronx, through her college years at Princeton and Yale Law School, are chronicled in her memoir, My Beloved World (Knopf). She told the Yale community gathered in that ancient auditorium that she had to not only fill herself with knowledge, but that she also learned the ways of power, to adjust the identity she had built while growing up, and reconcile that with the exclusive world she now inhabited.
She remembered how the higher she rose in her profession, the fewer peers she had, in terms of background. “In all of those rooms, I was the only Latina playing a role in the policies and conversations of those groups,” she said. “I also viewed that they were important instruments of change, and that I had to become comfortable in those places of power, that I had to know how to navigate them.”
She continued, “Sometimes I do feel that I’m not part of either world completely. There are moments when I go back to my old neighborhoods. I describe one of them in the book, where I was in a project when I was a prosecutor and I was sitting on a couch, and the apartment was beautifully kept, and there was a standing lamp next to me, and there was a cockroach walking up the lamp. You learn in the book that I really don’t like roaches at all. There’s a reason for it.”
“I fled from that apartment. Despite my lifetime of living in those conditions, I had been removed enough after about 9 or 10 years…there I fled the apartment. And there are other moments like that, where my life has changed so much that, going back, I don’t feel like I’m completely part of the conversation. But I feel that way as well in the worlds I travel in now, even though I’m as much a part of them as anyone else.”
“I sit and listen to my colleagues talking about all of the operas they go to. Ruth Bader Ginsberg can name any opera singer that she’s ever heard. What performance and where. I can’t do that.”
“When you move from one world to the next, you can sometimes feel alien from all,” she summed it up succinctly. Then she shared an outlook of hers that helped her meet this challenge and cope with the feeling of never quite belonging:
“I guess the thing that I do that helps me is to try to hold on to the positive of every world I’m in. So to understand that each world that I navigate, that I’m in, that’s part of the circles of my life – they overlap because people have common emotions. People give common things: caring and love, and people are the ones who share experiences with you and create memories. And so, as long as I keep focused on that, and less on the differences, then I find myself thriving and staying connected.”
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