Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor visits Rutgers

‘As a kid from the South Bronx, I didn’t know the Supreme Court existed’

“This is what you dream about when you write a fan letter,” said Dr. Ruth Mandel, director of the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics, as she sat a few feet away from Associate Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

The humble Sotomayor smiled and looked up at the huge audience piled into the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) bleachers. “Wow,” she said. “I was asked by a student earlier if I still got nervous. I invite that student to look at this crowd.”

Dr. Mandel wrote to Sotomayor after she read the justice’s book My Beloved World. Dr. Mandel’s first question to Sotomayor was about the title of her autobiography.

Sotomayor explained that it originated from a poem by a Puerto Rican author named José Gautier Benítez who wrote about feeling displaced from his Puerto Rican community.

This first question seemed to set the tone for a discussion about how Sotomayor manages to stay in touch with her Puerto Rican roots.

Sotomayor shared personal anecdotes about her struggles when she first began on the court.

“The first Christmas I went to visit my family, I walked in, sat down on the couch, and everyone was staring at me in silence,” Justice Sotomayor said. “At a Puerto Rican party, nobody shuts up. Finally I said, ‘What’s wrong with you guys? I’m still Sonia.’”

Sotomayor’s heritage played a large role in the discussion, possibly because the students preselected to ask the justice a question were not permitted to ask about court cases or politics.

“I’m an American from New York City, but I tell people I have a Puerto Rican heart, because my culture is deeply ingrained in me,” she said.

In writing her memoir, Sotomayor said she did her best to be “painfully objective” in including both the challenges and the good parts of her life:

“The positive and negative experiences of my life crafted me; they made me. Who I am is an amalgamation of those experiences. Once I finished the book I realized I loved my life.”

The more Sotomayor discussed her past compared to her present reality as a Supreme Court Justice, the more she sounded consumed by diaspora, doing her best to stay in touch with her latinidad.

“My Puerto Rican culture is so vibrant. It’s in the very core of me,” she said. “The day the president called me to say he selected me, he asked me to promise to stay tied to my community. My response was: Mr. President, I don’t know how to do anything else.”

Before the selected students were able to ask their questions, Sotomayor decided – much to the obvious chagrin of her US Marshall detail – to climb the entire height of the bleachers in the RAC.

“This is my first experience with the goddess,” Dr. Mandel said as Sotomayor began her journey up the bleachers.

“If my nose starts to bleed, I’ll tell you,” Sotomayor said once she reached the first terrace of the bleachers.

As the justice made her rounds, shaking every person’s hand she could reach, she explained that people always ask her what it feels like to be such a momentous part of history.

“It remains for me an absolutely surreal experience,” she said.

“As I was being sworn in, all I could think about was, ‘my God, thank you for this gift.’ I never dreamed of this. As a kid from the South Bronx, I didn’t know the Supreme Court existed. You can’t dream about what you don’t know about.”

Rutgers University