Author: Melanie Reyes
Artwork: Joanne Qiu
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was born in the Bronx, New York, on June 25, 1954. Her story of determination and achievement is proof that she lived the American dream. She grew up in a public housing project in the South Bronx with her Puerto Rican parents and brother. Her father’s highest level of education was the third grade and he was a factory worker until he passed away. Her mother raised her children to believe that the key to the future was a good education.
From a young age, Justice Sotomayor had a strong work ethic. She graduated from Cardinal Spellman High School in New York as Valedictorian and attended Princeton University. She learned about Ivy League schools from Ken Moy, her debate coach in high school. Many children of immigrants with limited knowledge of college admissions depend on their teachers and counselors to provide this information. It is a barrier that stops many generations of immigrants but luckily it did not stop Sonia Sotomayor. She earned a B.A. in 1976 from Princeton University and graduated both Summa Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa. She also received the University’s highest academic honor, the M. Taylor Pyne Prize. Sotomayor then attended Yale Law School and earned her J.D. in 1979. While at this institution, she worked as Editor of the Yale Law Journal and as Managing Editor of Yale Studies in World Public Order, Yale Journal of International Law.
Sotomayor’s professional career, spanning almost every level of our judicial system, is evidence of her sophistication and impressive experience. She served as Assistant District Attorney in the New York County District Attorney’s Office from 1979 until 1984, where she tried dozens of criminal cases ranging from murder to robberies. The Justice served as an Associate and then Partner of Pavia & Harcourt from 1984 to 1992. In private practice, she gained experience in civil cases dealing with real estate, employment, banking, contracts, and agency law. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated Sotomayor to the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, where she served for six years. As a woman in her 30’s, the Justice was the youngest member of the court, where she presided over 450 cases. She then served as a Judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit from 1998 until 2009. Sotomayor was the first Latina to serve on this court; in these eleven years, Judge Sotomayor worked furiously on a range of complex legal and constitutional issues.
Judge Richard C. Wesley joined many colleagues in praising the Justice for the unique perspectives she brought to the courts. She stood up for those who were often forgotten because she knew the importance of protecting people who cannot fight for themselves. An example of this is Lin v. Gonzales where she ordered reconsideration of asylum claims of Chinese women facing discrimination through forced birth control. In 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court of the United States as an Associate Justice.
It is not simply Sotomayor’s experience but also her demeanor that make her a strong source of inspiration, especially to me. Since I am also a Latina from the South Bronx, I feel unstoppable seeing her on a world stage. In her Senate confirmation hearing in 2009, the Justice said, “a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” She stated in front of the world that Latinx people have the same power and intellect as white males who have been running this country since its creation. Every day, she is giving more and more authority to Latinas everywhere, making our future brighter than I know my parents thought possible when they first came to the United States.
Along with “The Sonia & Celina Sotomayor Judicial Internship Program”, the Justice sponsors a yearly program called “Dream Big” in the Bronx Children’s Museum for second and third graders. In 2016, she spoke to the young audience and said “ I want you to be me because I am you.” Her words could not be more true. She represents me so well because she knows my struggles, my fears, my happiness, and my goals. She represents me so well because she is me and I am her.
This article is part of Untold Herstories, an initiative launched at NYU LS in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, which granted womxn the right to vote for the first time. Untold Herstories honors the pursuits and achievements of womxn who have historically been overlooked as a result of their gender identity.