WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor says she has a "Puerto Rican soul," and that says a lot about her.
By her own reckoning, Sotomayor offers more than just a different complexion as the first Hispanic nominee to the high court. Rather, she's long stressed her distinctive ethnic identity, how it's been shaped and — at times — what it might mean for her jurisprudence.
"My Puerto Rican soul was nourished each weekend that I visited and played in abuelita's house," Sotomayor told a New Haven, Conn., audience in October 1998, referring to her grandmother.
Like other Supreme Court groundbreakers before her, Sotomayor now must balance uniqueness with conformity. She'd bring a new face, but wear the same robe and interpret the same Constitution and laws. At times, she's accentuated rather than smoothed over potential differences, reflecting America's longtime vacillation between the virtues of assimilation and the value of diversity.
"Although I am an American, love my country and could achieve its opportunity of succeeding at anything I worked for," Sotomayor told the Hispanic National Bar Association in May 1996, "I also have a Latina soul and heart, with the magic that carries."
"It's definitely going to be a challenge," said Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and an expert on Latino politics. "This is something she will be asked about."
Soto added that Sotomayor's pride in her Latina identity "grabs the public, because it's something we've never seen before" in a Supreme Court nominee.
Sotomayor's parents moved from Puerto Rico to the Bronx, where she was born in June 1954. She grew up in an urban neighborhood that she said was "populated largely by Hispanics," and she regularly visited Puerto Rico during the summers.
Citing a "lifelong commitment to identifying myself as a Puerto Rican Hispanic," Sotomayor stressed in her 1998 speech that her ethnic identity comes from more than her "very Puerto Rican taste buds," the Spanish language or the broader Spanish cultural heritage.
"That antiseptic description . . . does not really explain the appeal of morcilla or merengue to an American-born child," Sotomayor said, referring to blood sausage and music and dance. "It does not provide an adequate explanation for why individuals like us . . . still identify so strongly with the island in which our parents were born and raised."
Since her days as a Princeton undergraduate, when she helped file a complaint charging the university with a "lack of commitment" to hiring Latino staff, Sotomayor has been active in efforts to give underrepresented groups a voice. At the time, Princeton had relatively few Hispanic students and lacked what Sotomayor termed "Puerto Rican or Chicano" faculty or staff members.
"The facts imply and reflect the total absence of regard, concern and respect for an entire people and their culture," a 19-year-old Sotomayor wrote the Daily Princetonian in May 1974. "In effect, they reflect an attempt — a successful attempt so far — to relegate an important cultural sector of the population to oblivion."
A short time later, Princeton hired its first Hispanic assistant dean of students. While praising the individual selected, Sotomayor complained to the Daily Princetonian in September 1974 that "it was not right" for the university to have hired the new assistant dean without sufficient student input.
After she graduated from Yale Law School, Sotomayor was for 12 years a member and at times an officer of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. From 1998 to 2004, she was a member of the National Council of La Raza, which bills itself as the nation's largest Latino civil rights group.
La Raza has championed legalization programs as part of comprehensive immigration legislation. The organization has been on the opposite side of the political fence from Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who as the ranking GOP member of the Senate Judiciary Committee will take a lead role in questioning Sotomayor.
Sotomayor's judicial career has blossomed as Latinos have gained more influence. As recently as 1965, the federal bench had only three female judges and one Latino judge. Of the 1,298 federal judges today, 248 are women and 72 are Latino.
Nonetheless, Sotomayor sees persistent racial distinctions. Sighting "very deep storm warnings," Sotomayor told a Berkeley audience in 2001 that in recent years, "The majority of nominated justices the Senate delayed more than one year before confirming or never confirming were women or minorities."
At other times, Sotomayor has expressed her hope that a "wise Latina" judge would "more often than not" reach a better decision "than a white male" who lacked the same experiences. Senate Judiciary Committee members will be asking her about this soon, giving Sotomayor a chance to once more reflect publicly on her identity.
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