An Assertive Woman: Sonia from the Bronx

by Maritza I. Reyes

Recently, a series of coincidences that occurred on the same night convinced me of the importance of Sonia Sotomayor’s new book for many audiences, including women, Hispanics, and members of the legal profession. On that magical night at a Disney resort, I attended a reception of Latina/o lawyers, heard a keynote address by a Latina judge (the first to be appointed in her circuit), engaged in a conversation with another Latino judge about the issues that Hispanics face in the legal profession, including as judges, and finally, at the end of the night, received Sotomayor’s book as a gift from a Latina student.  I admire Justice Sotomayor, so I planned to read her book, but these coincidences made me read it sooner, rather than later.    

Sotomayor makes it clear in the preface of My Beloved World: this is a personal story up to the time, twenty years ago, when the person who she is today “was essentially formed.” It’s about overcoming a difficult childhood full of nuanced experiences―some positive and some negative.  For example, she candidly writes about her beloved cousin, Nelson, a drug addict, and how he died of AIDS (due do needle sharing) when he was 29. She explains that she carried survivor’s guilt because she managed to endure and thrive when others, like Nelson, did not.  She credits her success in large part to her competitive spirit; she doesn’t compete against other people--but competes against herself. Sotomayor does not seek to please others; but seeks to meet her own standards of character.  She also discusses her divorce and, in hindsight, considers the reasons for the end of a marriage that developed from the naïve love of the teenage years.  The Justice explains that some career choices were easier because she does not have children.  In all, she gives a balanced account of the life of a real person.   

Sotomayor also includes stories about her pre-judicial trajectory in the law. Other reviewers have focused on the personal aspect, including her relationship with her mother and her chronic diabetes.  I want to highlight the stories that she faced as a Latina law student and lawyer who admits that her assertiveness, competitive nature, and innate sense of integrity helped her reach the heights of professional success that she has reached. She acknowledges what many women know and experience: there is a price to pay for exhibiting traits that are normally associated and admired in men, but viewed with disdain in women.  Recently, I caught a glimpse of a telenovela, a Mexican soap opera, my grandmother was watching.  A wife was jealous after she learned that her husband would be working with a female lawyer.  The wife was telling the husband to disrespect the female lawyer because women who enter careers that should be the ambition of men need to learn a lesson and must be disrespected; the husband agreed.  These messages have to be countered with narratives like Justice Sotomayor’s. This is the story that more little girls, little boys, young men, and young women need to know, especially Latinas/os. 

Sotomayor does not sugar coat her experiences in the law and acknowledges that her assertiveness is an advantage as well as a disadvantage.  She explains that male classmates described her straight-forward way of posing questions in class as arguing “just like a guy” because she did not preface her questions and arguments with apologies in the way that some women tentatively do. (i.e.“‘Excuse me, Professor, I’m sorry, this might not be important, but you may want to consider the possibility . . .’”) This style served her well in a career where she had to compete mostly with men.  However, during a mock jury trial at Yale Law School, she realized her assertiveness could rub some people the wrong way.  Nonetheless, she understood that she could not do anything about such a personal reaction by someone who acknowledged, when she asked him about it, that his reaction was due to his own prejudice. The conclusion: it was his problem not hers. 

Then, when she was embarrassed in front of fellow law students by a partner of a prestigious law firm who questioned whether she would have been admitted to Yale Law if she were not Puerto Rican, she candidly responded that affirmative action “probably didn’t hurt,” but that she had a proven track-record of excellence graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton.  She addressed the issue with the partner at a subsequent meeting and followed that encounter by filing a complaint against his law firm.  This proceeding brought her a notoriety that she did not expect and made her fear that she would be blacklisted by firms, but she stood by her convictions.  The student-faculty tribunal that conducted the investigation negotiated a full apology from the law firm.

In a law school with a pass-fail grading system and no class ranking, she was determined to distinguish herself and compete on equal-footing with her classmates.  She earned membership in The Yale Law Journal by writing a piece accepted for publication.  “It’s called a ‘note,’ but it’s really a very thorough paper.”  She reached the semifinals of the Barrister’s Union mock trials.  After graduation, she defied conventional wisdom and defined her own success, not by seeking monetary rewards, but by returning to her dream of seeking justice in a courtroom--a dream she entertained as a child who watched many Perry Mason episodes that sparked her interest in becoming a lawyer and  judge.  She followed her instincts and began her legal career at the New York District Attorney’s Office. 

When she was a District Attorney, she dealt with what she terms “routine sexism that was an occupational hazard.”  She was invisible to some male defense lawyers who assumed that she was not the lawyer at the table.  She met challenges with hard work and “prepared compulsively, the way [she] had in law school.”  Her innate sense of justice was always present.  In one instance, a purse-snatching case with weak evidence, she walked into her boss’s office and “full of righteous indignation, fiery but totally in control,” she told him: “I’m not trying this case.  I can’t lie to a jury.  If you think you can go into that courtroom and argue that this is grounds to convict, then you’ll have to do it yourself.”  She then threw the file on his desk and walked out.  Luckily for Sotomayor (she acknowledges that “luck with a purpose” has played a role in her success), her boss agreed with her and explained that he was playing devil’s advocate. 

Eventually, Sotomayor made her way to a boutique law firm where she re-started her career as an entry-level associate and practiced civil litigation.  One time, she was shaken when she overheard an associate describe her as “‘one tough bitch’ who could not be pushed around by an adversary.” This incident was tempered by many positive experiences and she found mentors and role models at the firm.  The law firm eventually played a pivotal role in helping her to become a federal district court judge. Sotomayor also met important people, including members of the Fendi family, owners of the luxury handbag Italian company. She describes how Alessandro Fendi was very comfortable with her because he was used to being around assertive career women in his own family, starting with his grandmother. 

Although it was normal for her to work twelve-hour days, seven days a week, Sotomayor found ways to serve her community. She recognized that growing up “among the Latinos of the Bronx” contributed to her success.  She volunteered with organizations like Latino Justice (previously the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund).  It was through her work in this organization that she was introduced to Hispanic women in positions of power “―competent, authoritative, professional Hispanic women―who were leaders in their own fields as well as determined to give of themselves for the sake of others.”  She took her fiduciary duties to the institution as a member of the board very seriously and learned about politics.  She also volunteered beyond her community because she understood that “no group is an island . . . and to do good ultimately meant seeing any particular interests in a larger civic context, a broader sense of community.” 

Sotomayor candidly acknowledges the realities that she confronted to become the interesting and real woman that sits in the highest court of the land.  She discloses her strengths as well as her vulnerabilities.  She gives credit to mentors, friends, and programs that opened doors and helped her throughout her law school years and legal career.  Ultimately, she is a realist with a good balance of idealism, which she recognizes as important in the practice of law. 

Sotomayor has never been shy about displaying and living her Latina identity--even by salsa dancing, occasion permitting (at the White House and in the Supreme Court).  Although she rubbed shoulders with members of the Fendi family, she was not ashamed of her humble roots and even invited them for Thanksgiving dinner at her mother’s apartment in Co-op City.  She has always remained “Sonia from the Bronx,” how she told 60 MINUTES reporter, Scott Pelley, that she prefers to be known. 

Now a professor of immigration law, I entered the United States as a child, and experienced first-hand the life of an immigrant waiting for decades to attain a lawful permanent resident status and U.S. citizenship. When I was reading Sotomayor’s story, I could not help wonder how many Sonias and Joses will read the book knowing that, even if they work hard and have great intellectual aptitude, their full potential may not be reached and they may not be able to seek the types of opportunities that Justice Sotomayor enjoyed (because she was a U.S. citizen).  To these DREAMers I say, follow the example of Justice Sotomayor, keep on dreaming, aspire, move forward, and continue to work hard to reach your goals, even if you cannot achieve what you would have, had you been born a U.S. citizen.  In the words of Justice Sotomayor, “.. you may recognize that the proper measure of success is not how much you’ve closed the distance to some far-off goal but the quality of what you’ve done today. . . .[t]here is no experience that can’t avail something useful, be it only the discipline to manage adversity . . . . ”  ¡Si Se Puede! 

 

Professor Maritza I. Reyes teaches law at Florida A&M University (FAMU) College of Law and wrote an op-ed about the Sotomayor confirmation. A graduate of the Master of Laws program at Harvard Law School, Reyes also earned a J.D. summa cum laude from Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad Law Center. She currently serves on the Board of Advisors of the Harvard Latino Law Review as well as serves as faculty advisor to the FAMU College of Law Hispanic American Law Students Association.

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