Wednesday, March 6, 2013

MY BELOVED WORLD by Sonia Sotomayor

I was barely awake, and my mother was already screaming. I knew Papi would start yelling in a second. That much was routine, but the substance of their argument was new ...
Sonia was seven years old, and this time her parents were fighting over who was going to give her her newly prescribed daily insulin shot. For a moment she panicked: if giving her the shot was so hard for her parents, surely her grandmother would not be up to the task either--and she'd have to give up her weekly sleepovers at her grandmother's house, her "only escape from the gloom at home." The solution was simple: Sonia would learn to inject herself.

My Beloved World covers some 30 years of Justice Sotomayor's life, from her diabetes diagnosis at age 7 to her appointment as a district court judge at age 37. It is not an account of her more than 20 years on the bench, but rather the backstory of what she had to overcome in order to get there: an alcoholic father who died when she was only 9, a hard-working mother who was rarely at home, a Bronx neighborhood full of junkies and gangs, her inability to speak English fluently until she had been in an English-speaking school for several years, and a serious disease that she expected would kill her before she reached middle age.

How did a penniless Puerto Rican girl from the projects get accepted by Princeton (from which she graduated summa cum laude) and Yale (where she became an editor of the Yale Law Journal), land a couple of good jobs (in which she advanced rapidly), and eventually get appointed to a U.S. District Court, a U.S. Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court? Much of her success is due to her own  hard work, competitiveness, and will to succeed. Much is also due to her supportive family and friends. And a significant factor in her career success is the era in which she was born.

A few months before Sonia's 7th birthday, John F. Kennedy signed the executive order that created affirmative action. When she was 11 years old, Lyndon B. Johnson reaffirmed and strengthened the policy. When she was 13, affirmative action was expanded to include women. When she was 17, she was accepted to Princeton.
I had no need to apologize that the look-wider, search-more affirmative action that Princeton and Yale practiced had opened doors for me. That was its purpose: to create the conditions whereby students from disadvantaged backgrounds could be brought to the starting line of a race many were unaware was even being run. I had been admitted to the Ivy League through a special door, and I had more ground than most to make up before I was competing with my classmates on an equal footing. But I worked relentlessly to reach that point, and distinctions such as the Pyne Prize, Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude, and a spot on The Yale Law Journal were not given out like so many pats on the back to encourage mediocre students. These were achievements as real as those of anyone around me.
My Beloved World is not a political book. It gives little insight into Sotomayor's legal or judicial philosophy. But with its emphasis not only on success but also on the importance of hard work, of the support of family and friends, and of wide-open doors of opportunity for all, it may give an idea of what kind of justice Sotomajor is likely to be. Fortunately, the treatment for type 1 diabetes has come a long way since Sonia was 7 years old. She's 58 now, still giving herself injections, and likely to wear that black robe for many years to come.

1 comment:

Javier Elizondo said...

Good review LaVonne! I appreciate you quoting the paragraph about her experience with affirmative action. Judge Sotomayor life story is a perfect illustration of the combination of opportunity and hard work.