Sonia Sotomayor: The First Hispanic Woman to Serve the U.S. Supreme Court
Here is the story of Sonia Sotomayor, a Puerto Rican by blood whose life in New York shaped her to become the first Hispanic woman appointed as U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
Her dream of a better tomorrow might have seemed too far away to reach when she was growing up in circumstances that limited her possibilities—financially and even academically. However, now we see her as a sitting Justice of the Supreme Court!
Join me as I explore how Sonia Sotomayor is a firm believer in growth and expertise from failure, and an exemplar who leads others into becoming the best version of themselves.
Growing up in New York
For years, people have looked at the United States as a country where all dreams can come true, or where all the hard work you make can actually become something better.
Born and raised on June 25, 1954, in Bronx, New York, Sonia Sotomayor looked forward to brighter days as she decided from a young age that she wanted to become a lawyer.
Her encounter with the series Perry Mason boosted her interest for justice and equality, as she claims she decided right then that she wanted to have the power to dismiss cases or determine the defendants’ fate impartially. She also recalls reading Nancy Drew books, which interested her in detective or police work.
Just as she knew she wanted to become a lawyer, she was driven to be an independent woman, something her mother supported, and encouraged her to study and focus all her energy and time on education.
Sonia’s parents traveled from Puerto Rico to New York searching for a promising life for their future family. Her mother, Celina Baez, was a hard-working nurse who always took second shifts at the hospital to earn an extra income. Her father, Juan Baez Sotomayor, was a tool-and-die maker who sadly was overcome by alcoholism and passed away when Sonia was nine years old.
Sonia affectionately remembers her father helping her to do Math homework—she later found out that he was quite intelligent and had a passion for reading.
Sonia Sotomayor always emphasizes that her Diabetes Type 1 diagnosis at the young age of 7 was the turning point for her personality and her life achievements. For some time, she believed that her disease implied a low-life expectancy, which was highly reported at the time.
The independence she always seeked for initiated when she needed to take the insulin shots herself, with no adult aid or supervision. Later in life, Sonia learned that the real reason her mom worked such long hours was to stay away from her husband.
Sonia recalls her happiest days were when her grandmother visited and her family life seemed a little more normal.
Due to her limitations and lack of emotional support from her parents, she remained in her town until she was a teenager and was able to finally visit Manhattan.
In this 2013 conversation with Sonia Sotomayor, she talks about her published book, My Beloved World, where she dives into her mother’s personal life as she had never done before.
My Beloved World
- Paperback and Kindle in English.
After reading the book, her mother told Sonia that she was unaware of all the things she had accomplished, most likely because she was too focused on matters like her husband’s alcoholism and earning enough money to eat.
Thriving Through Student Life
Sonia Sotomayor should take pride in her college years. After she graduated valedictorian from Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, the road to getting to where she is today has been such a rollercoaster, but she has no regrets.
Surprisingly for an Hispanic woman brought up in a Spanish-speaking household, her heritage was a game-changer for her admissions into Ivy-League schools Princeton and later Yale for her law degree.
Her tumultuous youth powered the key factors in her battle against the cultural barrier that she encountered in freshman year, determination and self-confidence. She knew she was prepared to break these walls as she was a dedicated student and knew her chosen degree was her calling.
The language limitations she grew up with resulted in her first bad grades at college, but she decided to put in extra work and become an expert in English grammar and writing to make studying easier.
She immersed herself in Classics, vocabulary books, and made a vow to study up to five new words daily to improve her abilities in speaking and writing. All her efforts were well-rewarded when she became Editor of the Yale Law Journal.
Though her ethnicity and background did not affect her admission in college, she did suffer from discrimination and racism from her classmates. If they saw her now!
Sonia Sotomayor’s most relevant achievement is to be the first Hispanic woman to be appointed as U.S. Supreme Court Justice. She’s also the third woman in history to serve in such a position.
Major life events such as graduating summa cum laude from Princeton and being awarded the Pyne Prize—the highest academic award for Princeton undergraduates—led her to important jobs from which she only climbed up.
Initially, she worked as Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan—her unstoppable drive to prosecute criminal cases impressed New York’s D.A.
As if it weren’t enough, Sonia has also had experience in private practice at Pavia & Harcourt, especially in intellectual property litigation. Settled in such a prestigious firm, she took part in pro-bono cases at the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the New York City Campaign Finance Board, and the State of New York Mortgage Agency.
Little did she know that her outstanding selfless endeavors would catch some important people’s eyes. Senator Ted Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan helped her to be appointed as U.S. District Court Judge in 1992 during President George H.W. Bush administration.
In 1998, during Bill Clinton’s administration, she was appointed to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
Before Barack Obama appointed Sonia Sotomayor as Supreme Court Justice in 2009, she had already presided over 3,000 cases.
There’s no question as to why President Obama knew she was the right choice for the job. Sonia was an essential part in the Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as Obamacare, in 2010. She also played an essential role in Obergefell v. Hodges making same sex marriage legal in all 50 states.
In addition to her practice, she’s been a professor at NYU and Columbia Law School, earning Honorary law degrees from Herbert H. Lehman College, Princeton University, and Brooklyn Law School. Moreover, she served on the Board of Trustees at Princeton.
Sonia received the Katherine Hepburn Award from Bryn Mawr College.
Now a published author, Sonia Sotomayor analyzes how the hardships she endured shaped her to become independent and ambitious.
Despite some people believing that she obtained her most prestigious post only because of her heritage instead of her hard work, she hopes that others are inspired by her story.
She realizes that some may idealize her and see her only as successful, but she wants others to see her as a regular human being with an ability to thrive through difficult times and to make adversity a learning experience.
Growing up with a chronic disease drew her to be disciplined, to avoid excess and to normalize the fact that she needed to take insulin shots constantly and that her illness was nothing to hide.
Though nowadays she considers her mother’s absence affected her emotionally, she recognizes that situation played a key role in her growth and autonomy. Sonia knows that her self-sufficiency and initiative damaged her marriage from the beginning, even if it ended cordially.
Her passion for standing up for diversity and equal education has not faded; she has spoken at multiple universities, giving speeches about the importance of equity and superior education.
Being such an independent and driven woman, Sonia believes in the power of asking for help and asking about things you don’t know about to learn from others.
She thinks one should never be afraid to inquire about what one ignores—something she’s learned through her unconditional friendships.
Sonia has been an example of perseverance; she’s demonstrated that we must learn as much as possible from our mistakes and limitations and use those experiences to fuel our purposes.
Learn More About Hispanic Heritage
How inspiring is Sonia Sotomayor? It’s safe to say she’s an example of hard work and perseverance. If you’re interested in fascinating stories about Hispanic and Latin figures that have shaped history, learning Spanish can be a start!
Learning another language boosts your chances of knowing more about other countries’ cultures and backgrounds, making your experience twice as enriching.
Sign up for a free class today and we’ll ensure your language learning will be like no other. Our one-on-one classes with native Spanish speakers will help you become an expert in Spanish conversations and equip you with important skills in no time!
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