Last week I went to see United States Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor speak at a local event. Fresh from swearing in Vice-President Joe Biden, Sotomayor has been on tour promoting the publication of her memoir, My Beloved World. She was being interviewed by actor and political activist Eva Longoria. The duo made an unlikely match but as the interview began everyone in the 1800 seat sold-out theatre was drawn into an intimate conversation on the Justice’s thoughts on family, law and adversity.
The conversation ranged broadly among these topics, and Sotomayor was well versed to speak to all of them. As the first ever Latina, and only the third woman to be appointed to the highest court in the country, she has overcome many challenges in her life, including losing her father to alcoholism when she was 9, and contracting juvenile diabetes as a child, and being the first in her family to attend college. Throughout the interview I was stuck by how personable she was, even though she is a Supreme Court Justice. For someone like me–a Latina, the first one in my family to graduate from college, and a lawyer–it was inspiring to hear her insightful words, and learn from her experience.
When someone from the audience asked her what advice she could give to others about being a trailblazer, she responded, “Take other people with you.” She explained that occasionally she will invite her mother to accompany her to events but her mother sometimes refuses to go because she’s afraid she won’t fit in. She will tell her that’s fine, they’ll go anyway and not fit in together. I love that even a US Supreme Court Justice can feel a bit like a fish out of water, just like so many of us. I think it’s especially true for those of us living in two cultures.
Sotomayor also spoke candidly about her relationship with her mother, and how she sometimes felt abandoned by a mother who had to raised her daughter as a single mother. She spoke about the difficulty she had writing this memoir, but how it became a vehicle for her to repair the relationship with her mother and forgive her for her mother’s detachment. I was so inspired to hear that even now, as a grown woman, a “wise Latina woman,” she is still every bit a daughter to her mother. She realized, as we all do, that our parents aren’t perfect but that she has come to appreciate how far her mother had to travel to get to be where she is and support her daughters’ rise to the bench. It gave me hope that my children, who by now realize how imperfect I am, will come to know and appreciate my efforts to support them in their lives.
Sotomayor told of her experience in writing her memoir, and how she was able to learn more of her parents’ story. She explained that through her genealogy research she learned where her father came from, and she learned of the love story between her parents. She told us that writing her memoir caused her to listen to family stories from a 97 year-old uncle and encouraged us to listen to our own family members tell their stories, even if we’ve heard the stories before. Instead of tuning out. she encouraged us to listen, and ask, “Why?” We may be surprised by the answers. This was inspiring to me because one of my fondest memories I have is talking to my 97 year-old grandmother about her story before she died, and chronicling some of my family’s history on this blog.
Perhaps the most moving part of the afternoon’s conversation was not just in the words Sotomayor spoke, but the way her words were received. The audience was diverse. There were people of all ages, ethnicity, and professions. My husband Juan was also there, and so was a dear friend of mine, who is also a Latina attorney. My friend is also diabetic and has been dealing with the challenges of this disease for nearly 25 years. As my friend listened to Sotomayor speak, she was moved to tears. As a justice on Supreme Court, it would seem natural for Sotomayor to be removed and detached, but Sotomayor has such a warm presence, that she made my friend and I both feel like she could a family member. It was awesome and I was so glad to experience such a moving afternoon. I can’t wait to experience more of her story when I read her book.