Justice Revealed: Sonia Sotomayor’s Early Years

By Sara CamposApril 28, 2013

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor

FROM THE SECRET inner workings of the country’s highest court comes a rare and intimate glimpse into the mind of one of its newest justices. In My Beloved World, Sonia Sotomayor unveils the upbringing and early career that catapulted her to realize a childhood dream, to become a judge — a goal she later surpassed by becoming the first Latina appointed to the United States Supreme Court. Readers scouring the pages for clues on her jurisprudential proclivities will be disappointed. But those who read on will discover something greater: a life examined and mined for its more essential truths. The book’s title is taken from a line in To Puerto Rico I Return by Puerto Rican poet José Gautier Benítez. Translated and printed in full at the back of the book, Gautier Benítez’s poem calls to mind an exile’s bittersweet return to his homeland. In a similar way, Sotomayor returns to the landscape of her childhood and early career, sharing the events that formed her character and shaped her thinking.

The book begins in the projects and tenements of the South Bronx, an enclave occupied by Puerto Rican immigrants, many of whom migrated from the island during World War II. In vivid prose sprinkled with Spanish, Sotomayor evokes childhood touchstones: her Abuelita, the adored paternal grandmother who pours unconditional love into her favorite granddaughter, tutoring her on selecting the juiciest chickens at the vivero, the livestock market. Sotomayor tells of the extended clan’s convivial gatherings that stretch until wee hours. The adults eat tostones and sofrito, dance, and play dominoes as she cavorts with cousins. She leaps into all kinds of mischief, earning her the nickname Aji, hot pepper. All the while she remains alert to what is happening with the adults, especially for Abuelita’s poetry recitations and her mysterious veladas, the summoning of spirits long deceased.

If this makes the picture Sotomayor paints appear romantic or idyllic, it is not. Her parents fight constantly, often over her father’s drinking. The crux of the conflict is painfully wrought when Sotomayor, recently diagnosed with diabetes, decides to inject herself with the necessary insulin, as neither parent is up to the task. She realizes that if she cannot rely on herself to deliver the shot, she will be unable to spend nights at Abuelita’s — her refuge from her parent’s eternal screaming. She is barely eight-years-old and has only recently learned how to tell time, necessary since she must watch the clock for the full five minutes to sterilize the syringe in boiling water.

Troubles in her young life only increase when her father dies, leaving her 36-year-old mother to care for her and her younger brother, and Sotomayor to deal with her grief. When her father dies, all the parties at Abuelita’s house end.

In My Beloved World, Sotomayor attempts to understand the bereavement of her overburdened, distant mother in an already impoverished family. She unearths memories and produces a compelling narrative, reaching back to her mother’s beginnings in Puerto Rico to gain perspective into her parents’ troubles. The stories she learns writing the memoir lead to reconciliation with her mother, something that had not been possible before her writing. But it is Sotomayor’s own childhood struggles, the diabetes that Abuelita and other relatives characterize as a maldición, or curse, as well as her parents’ turmoil that transforms Sotomayor and allows her to find a source of strength within herself.

“There are uses to adversity, and they don’t reveal themselves until tested,” Sotomayor writes. “Whether it’s serious illness, financial hardship, or the simple constraint of parents who speak limited English, difficulty can tap unsuspected strengths.” Sotomayor concedes that life can also “beat people down until they can’t get up,” but she does not permit this for herself; her optimism and determination save her. 

Her parent’s strife helps Sotomayor develop a keen awareness of the adults in her life. Even before her father’s death, she eavesdrops on them, knowing her security depends on it. She overhears Abuelita gossiping with her aunts about how her father, in an attempt to find liquor, broke the lock in her aunt’s cabinet. She knows her father’s drinking is a problem and although she cannot name the condition, she is ever watchful for the first signs of her father’s alcoholic neuropathy. She knows they must leave Abuelita’s party before his “fingers curl into claws” and he can no longer walk. If they don’t, trouble looms ahead.

When she is first diagnosed with diabetes, she cannot monitor her blood sugar with a prick of her finger; glucose monitors did not exist back then. She must read her body’s signals and thus develops an acute sensitivity, one that not only leads her to assess her own body’s well-being but also the unspoken body language of others, a skill she later finds invaluable as a lawyer and judge. She deems it an accidental gift from her disease. Another is early self-reliance.

After her father’s death, her mother undergoes prolonged grief. Instead of her parent’s loud battles, there is only gloomy silence. Sotomayor is baffled by her mother’s behavior. Wasn’t her father’s drinking the source of her parent’s fights? Yet night after night her mother puts dinner on the table and then holes away in her room and closes the door, leaving Sotomayor and her younger brother alone to do their homework. After a while, the future justice deems it enough. She marches outside her mother’s door and shouts for her to stop. She is only nine-years-old. 

Whether it is to gain control over her life or because her mother instills in her the need to educate herself, Sotomayor applies herself, not only in school, but also privately. She reads voraciously and becomes a lover of learning. She discovers Reader’s Digest and when her mother splurges on a multi-volume set of Encyclopedia Britannica, she pores over its pages. She also reads Nancy Drew and watches Perry Mason on television, admiring the way they solve human mysteries and puzzles. When she receives a career pamphlet at the diabetes clinic and learns that the disease will prevent her from serving in the military or becoming a police detective, she casts her eyes to law. Almost as an afterthought and with little notion of what the job entails, she decides she wants to become a judge.

Sotomayor pushes herself, competing not with anyone but always with herself. She seeks mentors and finds ways to improve her study habits. And realizing that lawyers must speak publicly, she finds opportunities to practice those skills. In high school she competes in forensics and continues to excel. Ultimately, she lands a full scholarship to Princeton University alongside a handful of other affirmative action students.

It is at Princeton that another form of adversity rears its head: an understandable and predictable insecurity. The gaps of Sotomayor’s knowledge as well as the insularity of her parochial school education come in sharp relief against students from much worldlier and privileged backgrounds. An undercurrent of resentment, often voiced in The Daily Princetonian, laments the misguided policies displacing more deserving white students with those of questionable talents that have entered through affirmative action doors. The editorials predict that the latter will undoubtedly fail.           

True to form, Sotomayor only pushes harder; she graduates summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and earns the coveted Pyne Prize, the highest honor conferred on a Princeton undergraduate. She then marries her high school sweetheart, proceeds to Yale Law School and a distinguished career with the New York District Attorney’s Office under Robert Morgenthau before pursuing private practice. But what is most instructive and powerful about her experiences are not the accolades or successes, but the places where she comes up short, whether it is in college where she realizes that her writing and critical thinking skills are subpar, or later in law school when she is not offered an associate position after her summer law firm job, and she experiences self-doubt. In law, a field that thrives on competition and frowns on weakness, Sotomayor does not wince at acknowledging her shortcomings and innermost insecurities. It is a familiar theme that she must often battle. She writes:

The tide of insecurity would come in and out over the years, sometimes stranding me for a while but occasionally lifting me just beyond what I thought I could accomplish. Either way, it would wash over the same bedrock certainty: ultimately, I know myself. At each stage of my life, I’ve had a pretty clear notion of my needs and of what I was ready for.

Sotomayor goes on to experience many triumphs and heartaches: successes as a district attorney and private lawyer representing Fendi and Ferrari, the scourge of heroin that ravages a close cousin, the end of her marriage. Through it all, she fills her life with friends. Yet, as much as she surrounds herself with loving people, she realizes she is alone; she is always the listener, never the sharer.

Once again, it is her diabetes that teaches her and propels her to change. Although she conscientiously monitors her blood sugar, it can drop precipitously and threaten her life. Although they are rare, she does experience a few close calls. After one precarious episode, she realizes that for her own safety she must inform friends about the disease she has kept secret. This same guardedness, she realizes, has infected the rest of her life:

Many times I felt there was a wide moat separating me from the rest of the world, in spite of my being, by all accounts, a great listener to all my friends. They felt free to tell me their troubles. […] The only trick I couldn’t manage was to ask the same of them. 

Sharing was not my style; my problems were mine to deal with. Ever since fifth grade, ever since putting behind me the misery and isolation visited upon an alcoholic’s family, ever since that cute boy, Carmelo, convinced me that being smart could be cool, I’d surrounded myself with a crowd of friends. And yet, inside I remained very much alone. Perhaps even within my marriage. 

As she does in so many other aspects of her life, Sotomayor seeks to change and become better. This time she must travel emotional rather than intellectual pathways. As she begins trusting others and shedding layers, she also discovers thick walls of hurt and anger. As she confronts and works through them, healing and reconciliation begin.

Sotomayor tells an extraordinary story, not only because of its rags to riches, Horatio Alger trajectory, but also because of the depths she reaches. She exploits the possibilities of memoir as a genre, sifting and striving to understand the autobiographical facts, using them to reflect human, universal truths. And, whether it is to wax eloquent on the beauty of Puerto Rico or share insights about herself, she delivers it all in magnificent prose.           

The memoir ends just before Sotomayor is confirmed as a federal district court judge for the Southern District of New York, leaving the story incomplete. But as she makes clear throughout her narrative, Sotomayor is a person who will seek further challenges. One can hardly wait to read the next chapter of her story.


LARB Contributor

Sara Campos is a writer, lawyer, and currently a program officer at the Grove Foundation. After almost two decades of advocacy on behalf of immigrants and refugees, she obtained an MFA in creative writing from Mills College and has published fiction, poetry, and nonfiction in a number of publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States. She has also received fellowships from Hedgebrook, Mesa, Refuge, Letras Latinas, and the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She is a recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation grant.


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