The first Hispanic and third woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor has become an instant American icon. Now, with a candor and intimacy never undertaken by a sitting Justice, she recounts her life from a Bronx housing project to the federal bench, a journey that offers an inspiring testament to her own extraordinary determination and the power of believing in oneself.
Here is the story of a precarious childhood, with an alcoholic father (who would die when she was nine) and a devoted but overburdened mother, and of the refuge a little girl took from the turmoil at home with her passionately spirited paternal grandmother. But it was when she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes that the precocious Sonia recognized she must ultimately depend on herself. She would learn to give herself the insulin shots she needed to survive and soon imagined a path to a different life. With only television characters for her professional role models, and little understanding of what was involved, she determined to become a lawyer, a dream that would sustain her on an unlikely course, from valedictorian of her high school class to the highest honors at Princeton, Yale Law School, the New York County District Attorney’s office, private practice, and appointment to the Federal District Court before the age of forty. Along the way we see how she was shaped by her invaluable mentors, a failed marriage, and the modern version of extended family she has created from cherished friends and their children. Through her still-astonished eyes, America’s infinite possibilities are envisioned anew in this warm and honest book, destined to become a classic of self-invention and self-discovery.
Excerpted from My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor. Copyright © 2013 by Sonia Sotomayor. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Sonia Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude from Princeton in 1976 and from Yale Law School in 1979. She worked as an assistant district attorney in New York and then at the law firm of Pavia & Harcourt. From 1992 to 1998, she served as a judge of the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, and from 1998 to 2009 on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In May 2009, President Barack Obama nominated her as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court; she assumed this role on August 8, 2009.
Sonia Sotomayor se graduó summa cum laude de Princeton en 1976 y de la Escuela de Derecho de Yale en 1979. Trabajó como asistente del Fiscal de Distrito del Condado de Nueva York y luego en la firma Pavia & Harcourt. Desde 1992 hasta 1998, fue juez de la Corte Federal del Distrito Sur de Nueva York, y desde 1998 hasta 2009 en la Corte de Apelaciones de Estados Unidos para el Segundo Circuito. En mayo de 2009, el presidente Barack Obama la nominó como Juez Asociada de la Corte Suprema; asumió la función el 8 de agosto de 2009.
“A compelling and powerfully written memoir about identity and coming of age. . . . If the outlines of Justice Sotomayor’s life are well known by now, her searching and emotionally intimate memoir, My Beloved World, nonetheless has the power to surprise and move the reader. . . . This account of her life is revealing, keenly observed and deeply felt. . . . This insightful memoir underscores just how well Justice Sotomayor mastered the art of narrative. It’s an eloquent and affecting testament to the triumph of brains and hard work over circumstance, of a childhood dream realized through extraordinary will and dedication.”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“The book delivers on its promise of intimacy in its depictions of Sotomayor’s family, the corner of Puerto Rican immigrant New York where she was raised and the link she feels to the island where she spent childhood summers. . . . This is a woman who knows where she comes from and has the force to bring you there. Sotomayor does this by being cleareyed about the flaws of the adults who raised her—she lets them be complicated. . . . ‘I’ve spent my whole life learning how to do things that were hard for me,’ Sotomayor tells an acquaintance when he asks whether becoming a judge will be difficult for her. Yes, she has. And by the time you close My Beloved World, you understand how she has mastered judging, too.”
—Emily Bazelon, The New York Times Book Review
“With buoyant humor and thoughtful candor, she recounts her rise from a crime-infested neighborhood in the South Bronx to the nation’s highest court. ‘I will be judged as a human being by what readers find here,’ Sotomayor writes. We, the jury in this case, find her irresistible.”
—John Wilwol, Washingtonian
“Sotomayor turns out to be a writer of depth and literary flair. . . . My Beloved World is steeped in vivid memories of New York City, and it is an exceptionally frank account of the challenges that she faced during her ascent from a public housing project to the court’s marble palace on First Street.”
—Adam Liptak, The New York Times
“You’ll see in Sotomayor a surprising wealth of candor, wit, and affection. No topic is off limits, not her diabetes, her father’s death, her divorce, or her cousin’s death from AIDS. Put the kettle on, reader, it’s time for some real talk with Titi Sonia. . . . The author shines in her passages on childhood, family, and self-discovery. Her magical portraits of loved ones bring to mind Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street; both authors bring a sense of childlike wonder and empathy to a world rarely seen in books, a Latin-American and womancentric world.”
—Grace Bello, Christian Science Monitor
“This is a page-turner, beautifully written and novelistic in its tale of family, love and triumph. It hums with hope and exhilaration. This is a story of human triumph.”
—Nina Totenberg, NPR
“Big-hearted. . . . A powerful defense of empathy. . . . She has spent her life imagining her way into the hearts of everyone around her. . . . Anyone wondering how a child raised in public housing, without speaking English, by an alcoholic father and a largely absent mother could become the first Latina on the Supreme Court will find the answer in these pages. It didn’t take just a village: It took a country.”
—Dahlia Lithwick, The Washington Post
“My Beloved World is filled with inspiring, and surprisingly candid, stories about how the Supreme Court’s first Hispanic justice overcame a troubled childhood to attend Princeton and Yale Law School, eventually earning a seat on the nation’s highest court.”
—Carla Main, Wall Street Journal
“Remarkable. . . . A portrait of a genuinely interesting person.”
—Michael Tomasky, Daily Beast
“In a refreshing conversational style, Sotomayor tells her fascinating life story with the hope of providing ‘comfort, perhaps even inspiration’ to others, particularly children, who face hard times. ‘People who live in difficult circumstances,’ Sotomayor writes in her preface, ‘need to know that happy endings are possible.’”
—Jay Wexler, Boston Globe
“Classic Sotomayor: intelligent, gregarious and at times disarmingly personal. . . . A portrait of an underprivileged but brilliant young woman who makes her way into the American elite and does her best to reform it from the inside. . . . I certainly hope My Beloved World inspires readers to chase their dreams.”
—Jason Farago, NPR
“Vital, loving, and incisive. . . . In this revealing memoir, Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor candidly and gracefully recounts her formative years. Her memoir shows both her continued self-reliance and her passion for community.”
—Library Journal (Starred review)
“Justice Sotomayor recounts numerous obstacles and remarkable achievements in this personal and inspiring autobiography. . . . Readers across the board will be moved by this intimate look at the life of a justice.”
“Amazingly candid . . . an intimate and honest look at her extraordinary life and the support and blessings that propelled her forward.”
—Booklist (Starred review)
“Graceful, authoritative memoir. . . . Mature, life-affirming musings from a venerable life shaped by tenacity and pride.”
1. What do Sotomayor’s descriptions of her childhood convey about Spanish-speaking communities in New York? In what ways are the hardships in her household—the lack of financial resources, her father’s alcoholism, and the tension between her parents—exacerbated by the strains of living in a marginalized society? What family or cultural traditions help mitigate the difficulties she and her family face? Are there traditions in other cultures including your own that serve the same function?
2. When she learns she has diabetes, Sotomayor thinks, “I probably wasn’t going to live as long as most people…So I couldn’t afford to waste time” [p. 99]. What does her reaction reveal about the way Sotomayor views herself and the possibilities available to her? In what ways does it establish a pattern for her behavior throughout her life? What other life events, like Sotomayor’s chronic illness, can alter a person’s outlook?
3. Sotomayor writes, “My father’s neglect made me sad; but I intuitively understood that he could not help himself; my mother’s neglect made me angry” [p. 16]. This is a child’s perspective of her life at the time. Is it fair? If so, in which ways and if not, what nuances of addiction and family’s responses are missing?
4. How do her visits to Puerto Rico enrich Sotomayor’s appreciation of her background? What aspects of her time there give her a sense of pride? Why does the island’s physical beauty, the museum she visits, and the warm connections among her relatives affect her so deeply [pp. 40-48]? Compare her impressions as a child to her perspective as an adult [pp. 191-192]. Do visits, traditions, or other events evoke an appreciation of your own background?
5. In describing the visit to her maternal grandfather, Sotomayor writes, “I have carried the memory of that day as a grave caution” [p. 49]. Why do you think her mother never spoke to Sotomayor about being abandoned as a child? Are there good reasons for keeping an unhappy past from one’s own children? Do you agree that “without acknowledgment and communication, forgiveness is beyond reach” or do you think that it is possible to forgive someone who is unable or unwilling to acknowledge their impact on your life?
6. Sotomayor comes to understand her parents’ relationship as an adult when she learns the details of their backgrounds, courtship, and marriage [chapter seven]. Did aspects of her mother’s story surprise you? What insights did it give you into her character? Does her parents’ history give you a new perspective on Sotomayor’s strengths and ambitions? Does her parents’ history give you a new perspective on your own parents?
7. When Sotomayor arrives at Princeton she finds “that many of my classmates seemed to come from another planet and that that impression was reciprocated” [p. 160]. What role does gender and ethnicity play in her sense of isolation and insecurity? What helps her adjust to the unfamiliar, often unfriendly, atmosphere of Princeton? Are there other means that she might have tried?
8. In addition to the barriers women and minorities faced at traditionally male, white universities, students of Sotomayor’s generation faced the polarizing effects of affirmative action: “The Daily Princetonian routinely published letters to the editor lamenting the presence of ‘affirmative action students’” [p. 183]. What arguments can be made on either side for supporting or opposing affirmative action programs? Did the book assist you in understanding the debate better?
9. In reviewing the repercussions of affirmative action, Sotomayor writes, “Much has changed in the thinking about affirmative action since those early days when it opened doors in my life and Junior’s. But one thing has not changed: to doubt the worth of minority students’ achievement when they succeed is only to present another face of the prejudice that would deny them a chance even to try” [p. 245]. Have the prejudices Sotomayor encountered changed over the ensuing decades? Are things better, worse, or the same?
10. At Yale Law School Sotomayor met José Cabranes, whom she calls “the first person I can describe as a true mentor” [p. 224]. What does Cabranes represent to her? How do the mentors she meets at various stages of her life shape her approach to her role as a model for others? Do you have mentors in your life who have provided or now provide support in different ways?
11. What does she learn at Yale and later as an Assistant DA in New York City and as a lawyer in private practice about the assumptions made about her based on her gender and ethnicity? In what ways do her experiences in both the public and private sectors defy her assumptions? What assumptions about yourself do you regularly encounter and how do you deal with them?
12. Sotomayor describes several of the cases she took on at the District Attorney’s office and at Pavia & Harcourt. What do these descriptions contribute to the memoir? What insights do they offer into the workings of the legal profession as well as Sotomayor’s personal approach to the practice of law?
13. Sotomayor writes candidly about her divorce [p. 280-285]. Are the difficulties she and Kevin faced common in relationships that begin during the teenage years or in situations where the wife is more successful than the husband? Discuss the regrets and self-criticism Sotomayor offers in describing the reasons for her failed marriage. Do you think she and Kevin could have had a successful marriage given their circumstances?
14. How have Sotomayor’s strong attachments to her community, family, and friends shaped her personality and unique perspective? How do they reflect the attitudes she acquired growing up in a Puerto Rican culture? Are these attitudes that can be acquired in different ways?
15. What different groups does Sotomayor identify with in the course of her narrative? How does her self-image change as she pursues her education and career? How does she define herself at the memoir’s end? How do you define yourself and your life?
16. How would you describe the tone of My Beloved World? Talk about the effects of her touches of humor (including self-mockery); frank appraisals of herself and others; and informal style on your appreciation of her story. Are there aspects of her life you think she should have explored more fully?