Exclusive Interview with Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Justice Sonia Sotomayor reveals how her mother reacted to her memoirs, what bothered her during the confirmation hearings and what she misses most about New York
Exclusive Interview with Justice Sonia Sotomayor
Justice Sonia Sotomayor when appointed by president Barack Obama in 2009.

Most people would let an appointment to the Supreme Court and a $1.2 million book deal swell their heads. That would be understandable. But “most people” are not Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

From a large office with a plush, orange rug, the Justice emerges. There is no hint of formality. She greets like the cheery tia you have not seen for a while. The one who makes it abundantly clear que estas en tu casa.

On the wall across the entrance to her office hangs a Juan Sanchez piece, a collage of images and quotes in tribute to Puerto Rican trailblazer and educator Antonia Pantoja. There are also photos of Sotomayor engaging kids, including at the Children’s Museum in the Bronx, the borough in which she was born and raised.

Appointed by President Obama in 2009, Sotomayor finds her feat – earning a place as an associate justice of the highest court in the United States—”almost surreal.”

Her memoirs, which will be released this week, are far beyond an expected endeavor of justices. She wrote them for several reasons— among them, as a promesa to remain true to who she is and as a way of offering a more complex picture of the much maligned Bronx. 

In her book, Sotomayor unfolds deeply painful experiences, including losing her father to alcoholism, her grandmother to ovarian cancer and a cousin to drugs and AIDS.

She also talks about the moments and values many Latinos know too well — family gatherings and the drive to succeed.

Dressed in a black top and pants and wheat sweater, her hair in its customary layered waves, Sotomayor is smiling and relaxed in a role and office that were destined to be hers. The scene brings home the adage lo que está para ti, nadie te lo quita.

EDLP: In your memoirs, you talk about a visit to Harvard, one of the other schools you considered attending, and seeing a sofa for the first time without plastic covers.

SS: I had many reasons for writing this book but among them was the hope that every Latino child and adult would find something familiar in it. And my hope is that when they finish reading the book, that they will come away with a renewed sense of pride in our culture and in who we are. We get a lot of strength from that [culture and identity] and we should be proud of it. So I hope the book will give them that sense.

EDLP: You reveal family problems that older generations tend to hush up. How did your mother react to your memoirs?

SS: My mom loved the book and she said to me, ‘I never knew you had done so much.’ (laughs)

[Sotomayor discusses how she and her family decided to reveal for the first time that her cousin Nelson was addicted to drugs. ]

SS: Each one of them [referring to her family] believed that hiding things is never good and that by sharing them, we could give hope to some people – because so many people we know have suffered some of the same things…This is about example and hoping that it can help someone else cope with those situations and maybe make different choices.

EDLP: Your life has changed so much and so quickly. You were appointed to the Supreme Court, now living in D.C., you have a $1.2 million book contract. How does that feel?

SS: Often not real. It’s almost surreal.

One of the other reasons for writing this book was to hold on to the person you first met. More of the world knows about me now and follows me in a way that never happened before. I didn’t want me, the inside of me, to change. Because I liked Sonia, the Sonia who has been. So another reason for writing the book was to hold on to that —whatever the best in Sonia was, to try to capture it.

EDLP: How do you live out your “Latina-ness” now as a Supreme Court Justice in Washington?

SS: Same way I have my entire life. Keep my family and friends close. My Latino friends close. I visit the island [Puerto Rico] as often as I humanly can. And I visit with community as frequently as possible, given the demands on me. I meet with kids. I meet with adults. I try to spend time and to listen to people talk about their lives.

You can only stay connected if you feel connected. And I hope in my book, that the sense that I really feel connected comes through.

EDLP: What do you miss most about New York City?

SS: Everything. (laughs) The sights, the sounds, the pace, the food, the music, the everything. I am growing to love DC. But the core of Sonia is a New Yorker. This [Washington] is a beautiful city. I think every citizen should come see their capital. A lot of the museums are free, there are restaurants that are reasonably priced.

There’s a great variety of people in Washington, but I think because of the great concentration of people in New York, that variety is more visible. You walk the streets and there are people of every color, shape and size, ethnic background, religion, it doesn’t matter. It’s always present.

EDLP: Have you encountered any misconceptions here about Puerto Ricans or Latinos?

SS: All of the time but I don’t know that I even think about it. Without question, so many people, throughout my life, never think of Puerto Rico as part of the United States. Many people have no idea what the relationship is between Puerto Rico and the United States. And certainly, I have been asked if we are citizens.

The idea of a commonwealth relationship is alien to most people but I think that’s true generally. I think there’s a large segment of the mainland population that does not really understand the number of territories that are part of the United States. So whether it’s Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, Saipan… I mention those because I am willing to bet that there are some Puerto Ricans who don’t know about [their status].

EDLP: You spend significant time talking about Puerto Rican history and refer to the island’s status. Do you think that question will ever be resolved?

SS: I am not sure, I hope so.

EDLP: You were bothered by attacks on the organization Latino Justice (PRLDEF) during your confirmation hearings. What else bothered you?

SS: You know, you always wonder whether the attacks on my capabilities came from an honest evaluation of my accomplishments or from stereotypical presumptions that we [people of color] just can’t do it, for some reason. This is, for an accomplished Latino, an accomplished African American, an accomplished anyone who disproves stereotypes, it’s a constant battle in your life.

Now, some people choose not to engage the battle and then don’t seek out that kind of success. And others do. So you make your life choices understanding that you might and do have to work harder to prove yourself.

EDLP: During the hearings on your confirmation, how did it make you feel that so many Latinos were focused on you?

SS: The President had suggested that I not watch the news during the confirmation process. I assiduously followed his advice.

But things still got through. I got a message from one of my friends in Puerto Rico, who said, ‘Sonia, there’s nobody working in Puerto Rico – they’re all glued to the television’. And I got a similar message from a friend in Spain.

So I was aware that my nomination was drawing a lot of attention, particularly in the Latino world, not just in Puerto Rico. It was touching. I am eternally grateful to all of the Latino groups outside of the Puerto Rican community, but including the Puerto Rican community, who came to support me during the process.

There had been questions raised about whether we could ever really unite to work together on an issue, whether we could do it with equal passion and fervor. And it happened during my nomination and I think I forever will be grateful for that love, for that support and for proving those naysayers wrong.