Sonia Sotomayor and I

The title sounds kind’ve like the movie The King and I, doesn’t it? No — Sonia Sotomayor and I were not and are not going to be in a movie together (wouldn’t that be something though?). However, I recently read her autobiography in the book titled “My Beloved World” which is a #1 New York Times Best Seller. I really enjoyed reading her book which was gifted to me by my mother-in-law for Christmas.

Justice Sotomayor and I are both Puerto Ricans and a lot of her family history is similar to mine. Actually, most Puerto Ricans I know who live on the mainland have pretty similar backgrounds.

In this post, I thought I’d share some of our similarities. Some are comical — some more serious. In an earlier post, I’ve shared some of what I consider to be her best quotes – wisdom from maturity. She had great insight into life.

So — here are some snippets (in bold) from her book. I’ve followed it up with my personal comments:

  • Mami and my aunts would often be at Abuelita’s when we got back, crowded into the kitchen for coffee and gossip.  (Ch. 2)  How true this was in my family also. I can hardly walk into someone’s house (even today) without them offering me a cup of coffee. When I was little, our breakfast consisted of a cup of coffee with buttered toast. It was a “poor” family’s breakfast but tasted so delicious.  My cousins used to put mayonnaise on their toast instead of butter (yuck!).
  • The dominoes never stopped for dinner. The game was serious. (Ch. 2) Although I was born in Chicago, every time I go back to Puerto Rico, dominoes are the game of choice and it is indeed a serious game. The first time I played dominoes it was a “doubles” game and my partner was my cousin’s husband (known as a brother-in-law to me as cousins are treated like sisters). He couldn’t believe we were losing and every time I put a tile down he said “No no, you shouldn’t have played that because …” To me it was just a game, but to him — well, you would have thought we were playing for money instead of fun.
  • When I woke up in the morning, I would have Abuelita all to myself. She would stand at the stove in the housecoat she always wore for an apron … This took me back to when I would go to my abuelita’s (grandmother’s) house and she would make me scrambled eggs with diced spam ham — wearing a housecoat for an apron … just like my mother still does.
  • It just wasn’t in my mother’s nature at that time to show affection, give you a hug, or get down on the floor to engage with a kid.  She had been deprived of the formative security that nurtures such impulses.  Growing up, my mother was the same way — she seemed distant. And, just like Sotomayor, it took me many years to understand that you can’t give what you have never experienced — at least not until something in your life changes or someone comes into your life and you see a different way.
  • The truth, as I explained, was that I’d never once got an answer wrong on the practice tests; points had been deducted only because I hadn’t followed the steps she had prescribed.  I had reasoned out my own steps, which made sense to me, and she never explained what was wrong with them. Oh, how I remember this happening to me on so many occasions. The way I reason in my head is so illogical to other people. I remember taking a correspondence course to learn Fortran (a programming language). I was able to get to the right answer but in 10 steps instead of the 3. Needless to say, I did not pass the course. Recently I’ve encountered challenges learning how to quilt — but I’m hanging in there!
  • And yet, Nancy Drew had a powerful hold on my imagination. Before moving to Minnesota, I gave away sets of Nancy Drew books. She was one of my fictional heroes and one of the few women who was in a field that was mostly men.
  • They were an odd couple, those two sisters. Neither of them showed affection, and Titi especially could be austere and forbidding, but it was also clear that they were bound to each other in a way that I didn’t entirely understand.  They were like two trees with buried roots so tangled that they inevitably leaned on each other, and also strangled each other a bit. Sotomayor’s family dynamics is so similar to my mother and aunts. Their relationships are like water and oil — and yet, one can tell that they love each other so much. How do these relationships work?
  • “Sonia, I don’t care if you have to cut off your hands, get that gesture out of your goddamn repertoire!” That was Kenny’s ringside. Tell a Puerto Rican not to talk with her hands? Ask a bird not to fly.  This is so true of all the Puerto Ricans I know who, not only talk with their hands but talk LOUD. As a young girl, I can also remember being in a room filled with 20-30 family members and knowing almost every conversation that was going on. That “gift” has left me though since I’m hard of hearing now — but the expectation seems to still be there.
  • To be honest, I had probably never seen a couch that wasn’t covered in plastic.  Hmmm … was it only Puerto Rican families that had plastic covered couches? Ours was red and was always a tad sticky to sit on in the summer.
  • Re her relationship with her mother:  Beyond that I knew practically nothing about her childhood. Her most telling stories would trickle out slowly, in dribs and drabs, but it was only when I had the strength and purpose to talk about the cold expanse between us that she confessed her emotional limitations in a way that called me to forgiveness.  “How should I know these things, Sonia? Who ever showed me how to be warm when I was young? I was lonely; I was angry at Mayo. What else did I see?”  My mother said these words to me a few years ago. She told me that she was not hugged and that the way people loved in her day was simply taking care of each other. There were no “I love you’s” said out loud. To a lesser degree, I raised my boys the same way. Yes, there were hugs but not as many as there should have been. Only later, when a friend of mine had a baby and I saw how she loved her baby did I realize there was another way.
  • As I learned, I practiced on my mother — a real hug, a sincere compliment, an extra effort to let down my guard — and miraculously she softened in turn, out of instinct long dormant, even if she didn’t quite know what was going on. Opening up, I came to realize the value of vulnerability and to honor it, and soon I found that I wasn’t alone even on this journey. My mother was taking every step alongside me, becoming more affectionate and demonstrative herself, the person who, given a chance, she might have been. Her mother, and mine, both have been able to open up and experience a new and better way of being. But, how sad for those people who don’t have the opportunity to see or taste a different way.

This book re-enforced the belief I have about people — we’re all basically the same. We have the same basic needs of wanting to be loved and accepted. We want to be forgiven for mistakes that have been made and we want to be able to start again without people getting in our face and reminding us of everything we have ever done wrong.

We’re all growing. Some people can see (like Sotomayor) how much we need to respect people where they are — others can’t see the journey that’s being traveled and just assume that people are idiots or stupid.

A little love and patience sure goes a long way though.

I gained a lot of insight from this book about personal relationships. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to read it again and again as each time you read a book you gain another perspective of what the writer is trying to convey. Glimpses into life.

Thank you Justice Sonia Sotomayor for sharing your “growing up” stories. Your humanness definitely makes me look at you in a different light.


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