Sotomayor Shaped By Her 'Nuyorican' Roots Growing up in a largely Hispanic neighborhood in the Bronx, Sonia Sotomayor has said, she never saw herself as a minority. But the culture shock of being one of the first Latinas to attend Princeton helped forge her commitment to community service and social justice.
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Sotomayor Shaped By Her 'Nuyorican' Roots

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Sotomayor Shaped By Her 'Nuyorican' Roots


Sotomayor Shaped By Her 'Nuyorican' Roots

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Sonia Sotomayor has kept up a busy schedule, introducing herself to members of the Senate. Confirmation hearings for the president's Supreme Court nominee are scheduled to start July 13th.

Today, we're going to hear about the importance Sotomayor attaches to her ethnic identity. She describes herself as Nuyorican, the daughter of Puerto Ricans who moved to New York.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports and how that identity was shaped and how it has influenced Sotomayor's life.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Sonia Sotomayor has called this South Bronx stretch of Southern Boulevard the center of her childhood universe. She came here to eat Puerto Rican snow cones and see Spanish movies. She and her cousins sat at the window of her grandmother's apartment and made faces at the passengers on the elevated Number 5 train.

(Soundbite of a subway train)

LUDDEN: Sotomayor has said she never thought of herself as a minority back then, since most of the neighborhood was Hispanic.

Mr. RUBEN DIAZ, JR. (President, Bronx Borough): I grew up right on that block. So, I hung out on these benches…

LUDDEN: Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. is also of Puerto Rican heritage. He was raised in the same public housing complex as Sotomayor, though says her generation had it better.

Mr. DIAZ, JR.: Maybe when you had a rumble, somebody may bring a knife. That totally changed by the time I was a teenager here.

LUDDEN: A few blocks away is the spot where in 1999, four police officers gunned down Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant. All four were acquitted. Diaz is proud this area is now rebounding, but he says a deep distrust remains.

Mr. DIAZ, JR.: People here feel like the judicial system doesn't always work for them. So, could you imagine how big that is; a young lady who comes from these developments who is now going to pass judgment with eight other people for the whole United States?

LUDDEN: Down in New York's Lower East Side, the Grand Street Settlement is a place for elderly Latino men to come for free meals and a game of dominos.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: There's also subsidized day care, after-school programs, training classes. And the director here represents another connection to Sotomayor.

Ms. MARGARITA ROSA (Executive Director, Grand Street Settlement): My name is Margarita Rosa, and I know Sonia from our years together as students at Princeton University.

LUDDEN: Rosa was a junior when Sotomayor was a freshman. And she says for both of them, moving from New York to Princeton was like going to another planet. They were among just a handful of Hispanics in the early years of Affirmative Action. They were females at an institution that had just gone co-ed; Catholics where most were not; low-income scholarship students where many came from privilege.

Sotomayor has said Princeton changed her. But in that era of civil rights activism, Rosa says Princeton's Latino pioneers decided they would also bring change to the institution.

Ms. ROSA: We set out to make our presence felt and the issues of our communities known.

LUDDEN: Sotomayor joined a Puerto Rican student group. She and others sued Princeton, pushing it to hire Hispanic faculty. They lobbied one professor to teach a course on Puerto Rican history. Rosa says the ideals of social justice that motivated many of the students, including, she believes, Sotomayor, carried over into their professional lives.

Ms. ROSA: We really felt - at least I did - that I wanted my life to be about something other than just myself and the size of my bank account, that I wanted to leave a mark and improve conditions for people who are disadvantaged, many who were like me, and others who aren't like me.

LUDDEN: Sotomayor has spoken frequently of her duty to give back to the community, and she's been an active board member for civic groups serving low-income minorities. For 12 years, she was on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, now known as LatinoJustice.

Mr. CESAR PERALES (President, LatinoJustice PRLDEF): We brought the dramatic case that stopped New York City from holding its city council elections in 1981.

LUDDEN: President Cesar Perales says while Sotomayor was there, the group argued that New York's district lines were racially gerrymandered. The courts agreed, and New York redrew its districts.

Mr. PERALES: This time, lines were much more fair and did not discriminate. And yes, more minorities were elected to the council than there had been in the past.

LUDDEN: In a speech in 1998, Sotomayor said America has a conflicted attitude toward diversity, embracing it on one hand yet insisting people live in a race-blind way. This, she said, produces a constant source of tension and means people of color must band together to promote change.

Juan Cartagena is another former colleague at the Legal Defense Fund.

Mr. JUAN CARTAGENA (General Counsel, Community Service Society): Sonia's elevation to the court would be an incredible way to demonstrate that a person who embraces that identity doesn't let go of it, that that diversity speaks to and informs all of her life decisions.

LUDDEN: Cartagena and others say Sonia Sotomayor is grounded, unpretentious, and not one to forget where she came from. A week ago, Margarita Rosa invited her friend to a party for her daughter, not expecting she'd be able to make it. But Sotomayor did.

Ms. ROSA: And in her inimitable fashion, she greeted every member of staff, the, you know, the bartender, the person serving the food, the man who was doing security.

LUDDEN: And then, the staff all posed for photos with the woman who may soon become, by some measures, the most powerful Hispanic in the nation.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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