Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor visits Chicago

by Mary C. Piemonte 

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor talks to a young fan at a recent book signing and lecture at the Harold Washington Library. Photo by Mary C. Piemonte.

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor declares proudly that she has a lot in common with poor people, including public housing tenants. She should know, since she grew up in a South Bronx public housing project “in abject poverty struggling with an illness, in a dysfunctional family.”
Sotomayor, who became an instant American icon after her appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Barack Obama in May 2009, shared more about her early life there during a recent visit to Chicago promoting her memoir, “My Beloved World.”
The book covers her transition from her early life growing up in New York City to becoming a judge on the country’s highest federal bench. Early life in public housing was not easy, she said to the audience in the jam-packed auditorium at the downtown Harold Washington Library last month. However, her role models, including her mother, and her perseverance in the face of obstacles to her life’s goals allowed her to gain success and become the first Latina and third woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Growing up a juvenile diabetic with an alcoholic father, in an era where things like that were kept hidden, where poverty was something that was perceived as shameful, where being a Latina in situations where I had been made to feel uncomfortable,” was very hard, Sotomayor said.

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor mingles with the crowd at the Harold Washington Library during a recent book-signing and lecture. Photo by Mary C. Piemonte.

“So many of us, not just Latinos, I think anybody who feels different, anyone who had a life challenge of any kind – a parent or loved one with addictions, anyone who had dealt with chronic diseases of themselves or someone they loved. Anyone who’s been poor or anyone who has felt insecure, we share similar emotions and we share similar enough experiences that I had hoped that in writing about them two things would happen: The first is my favorite line in the book, it’s a passage in which I’m talking about the value of role models by describing how meeting your first role model, the person who shows you that you can be a path to success, is perhaps the most important moment in every young person’s life,” she added.
Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent, said she also wanted to “have fun writing her book.
“I wanted people to come see a piece of my life. To experience the moments that were fun and enjoyable that taught lessons at the same time,” she said.
Sotomayor read excerpts of her book that talked about her appearance as a youth, meeting her husband, and her good and bad times being raised in public housing. She credited her mother, some aunts and uncles as being her inspiration who instilled in her an extraordinary sense of determination and the power of believing in oneself.
Sotomayor also encouraged others, especially the youth, to persevere in reaching their life’s goal despite the obstacles they too face.
“It’s not the idea of reaching a dream,” she said. “Because sometimes you can’t for a lot of reasons outside your control, but what you can do is enjoy the process of trying. Never be afraid to say, ‘I don’t know these people.’ And then reach out to others and ask for help and learn how to enrich yourself,” Sotomayor said.
After answering some of the audience members’ questions, Sotomayor sat behind a desk to sign books.

Background
Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University in 1976 and received her law degree from Yale in 1979, according to the Chicago Public Library press release announcing her visit. Sotomayor “has the rare distinction” of being nominated and confirmed to three federal judiciary posts by three different presidents. In 1991, she was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by President George H.W. Bush. President Bill Clinton nominated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1997 and President Obama nominated her for the Supreme Court.
“The Bronxdale Houses and Bronxdale Community Center was renamed after Sotomayor, who lived in the 28-building housing complex between 1957 to 1970,” according to a news report in May 2010.

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