Book Review: My Beloved World

My Beloved World
By Sonia Sotomayor
PUBLISHED BY: Borzoi Books, a division of Knopf/Random House, Inc.
ISBN: 978-0-307-59488-4
Review copy provided by publisher

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

This has been one of the most refreshing reads I’ve had so far this year. And the year is just getting started! It’s not often that I get to read about one of my own making good. Justice Sotomayor is a Puerto Rican home girl from the Bronx, with a background similar to my own, but whose ambition and drive took her to the top of the legal profession, a seat on the Supreme Court of the United States. The closest I got to the legal profession is typing form letters for lawyers at my civil service job. I could plead poverty, but the plain truth is that I just didn’t have the brains and gumption to qualify for all the grants and scholarships she got to attend both Princeton and Yale Law School. When I look at all she managed to accomplish during the same period that I was struggling to survive after graduating from high school, all I can do is shake my head and mutter “Damn, she’s good!”

Just looking at Sonia Sotomayor’s black and white family photos from the Fifties, reading her descriptions of her life growing up in the Bronx, attending Catholic school, visiting Puerto Rico with her mother, gave me a strong sense of nostalgia for my own childhood on the Lower East Side, before it got gentrified. Even the sorrow of watching her alcoholic father gradually descending into darkness was all too familiar to me, alcoholism being all too common among Latino families, even to this day. But at least I didn’t have to contend with diabetes as well; she’s had it since she was seven years old. She had to give herself her own insulin shots, since her father’s hands shook too much, and her mother’s nursing job forced her to leave home early in the morning and come back late at night. Talk about self-sufficient! I learned to make my own café con leche by the time I was ten, and to cook and clean the apartment by the time I was twelve. But I was never able to earn one of those scholarships that came so easily to her, so I could attend a decent college instead of the city university I was forced to drop out of during the economic crisis in the seventies, so I could get a “real job” to keep the rent and bills paid in our apartment in the Baruch Housing Projects.

There are a lot of parallels between my life and Sonia Sotomayor’s. Whether she got lucky or was just smarter than I was, I won’t dwell upon; it just depresses me. I would rather rejoice over the fact that one of my own finally made it to the Supreme Court, and will hopefully be able to counter the rising tide of conservatism in this country, that always seems to be aimed at poor working people, particularly Latinos. Whether legal or illegal immigrants, the powers that be seem determined to punish the innocent along with the guilty. Why else would they be so determined to oppose amnesty for illegal aliens who have been here long enough to start a family of American-born children who barely speak Spanish and consider this country their home?

Nobody gave Sonia any breaks for being a minority. Even her work with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund during her early years as a lawyer was considered “radical” by the cranky old men who vented her for a federal judgeship. Not to mention the racist school nurse at Cardinal Spellman High School who practically accused her of cheating when she managed to win admission to Princeton over two other top-ranking girls (both white, I’m sure). This sort of thing would follow her throughout her life, even in college, where grumpy old white men would constantly write letters to The Daily Princetonian complaining about “affirmative action students” on campus who were displacing more deserving students (read “white males”) who would benefit from a college education far more than these semi-literate savages would. She proved them all wrong by rising to the top on her own merit, which is a source of pride for me and millions of other Puertoriquenos, and a source of embarrassment for these silly old white folks who know that they are now in the minority and resent being reminded of it by a wise Latina, who does not remain silent during judgments, unlike a certain black justice once accused of sexual harassment.

This book would make a great graduation gift to any female or minority student who is bound for law school. It should be required reading in New York City high schools, where the dropout rate among minorities is staggering. I’m sure that the residents of The Justice Sonia Sotomayor Houses (formerly the Bronxdale Houses development where she grew up) and Justice Sonia Sotomayor Community Center would appreciate having a few copies of her book donated to their local public library. But you don’t have to be Puerto Rican, or even female, to appreciate the story of a (mostly) self-made woman who came up from the Bronx to become a Supreme Court Justice. She did have some help along the way, but not all the help in the world would have made her what she is today if she didn’t have the right attitude and the right stuff to be successful. Affirmative action can only open doors for you; whether you can remain within after entering is up to you.