When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently remarked from the bench that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 perpetuated “racial entitlement,” his fellow Justice Sonia Sotomayor responded with a question. “Do you think the right to vote is a racial entitlement?” she asked the lawyer seeking to have the law overturned. As every Court watcher on the planet reported, her tone was sharp. And as My Beloved World makes clear, that response was nothing new: Sotomayor has spent a lifetime challenging offensive remarks about minorities and the poor.

This memoir focuses on Sotomayor’s early years, taking us up to her first appointment as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York when she was thirty-eight. Most of her remarks about the law and the legal profession are quite judicious, lacking the edge of her “racial entitlement” question. The book’s power comes from Sotomayor’s evident excitement in uncovering rich memories of growing up poor in Bronx housing projects and dreaming of becoming a judge. My Beloved World’s unveiling of the personal details of the author’s life, from the failure of her youthful marriage to a discussion of her body image (“great I don’t look”), is more personal than anything we have seen from a sitting justice. But frank though she is about many of her physical and emotional struggles, Sotomayor is also possessed of an old-fashioned sense of privacy that prevents her from indulging in the self-serving exhibitionism of so many contemporary memoirs.

She is also scrupulous about giving all parties—well, almost all parties—the benefit of the doubt. Hers is a generous sensibility, and her memoir is an idiosyncratic and often funny portrayal  of upward mobility. She clearly wants to offer hope to the struggling: to the children of immigrants like herself; to working women and mothers; to those who live with chronic disease and disability, as she has lived with diabetes since childhood. She does not exclude the privileged from her big embrace, either. One of her most delightful anecdotes is how she invited members of the elegant Fendi family, whose Italian design firm she was representing during her brief stint practicing corporate law, to her mother’s modest apartment in Co-op City, the Bronx, for Thanksgiving dinner.

Sotomayor warmly thanks her collaborator, Zara Houshmand, for helping her keep the unpretentious story moving. Much of this book’s appeal is how it revels in sensory details. The memoir’s title is taken from the poet José Gautier Benitez’s “To Puerto Rico,” and the telling is rich with Spanish phrases and appreciations of Nuyorican culture. Vibrant family gatherings and the importance of food—a subject about which Sotomayor is wryly self-aware—are central themes.

The outlines of Sotomayor’s story became familiar to the public when she was nominated to the High Court, but this engaging narrative fills in crucial details. Her diabetes diagnosis, while she was still in grammar school, was viewed as a catastrophe by her family, and she grew up anticipating a shortened lifespan. Her father drank himself to death when she was eight. Devastated by the loss of her husband, Sotomayor’s mother was unable to offer her daughter much emotional comfort. She concentrated instead on supporting her children’s education by working long hours as a practical nurse in order to put Sonia and her brother Junior through Catholic school (and later to return to school herself to become a registered nurse). Sotomayor’s attitude toward the church that provided her early education is ambivalent, however. She is frank about how the nuns who taught her were quick to quash girls’ ambitions. At the same time, she was inspired by Paul VI’s antiwar activism and by the social justice work of Bronx clergy.

My Beloved World provides a vivid picture of the author’s extended family and daily neighborhood life in the Bronx during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Sotomayor did not hit her stride in school at an early age, but once she discovered the allure of gold stars, she was off and running. One of the future justice’s most endearing revelations is how she struggled with English and with her writing throughout her education, including law school. She also tells the poignant story of her bright and beloved cousin Nelson, who died young, an addict and AIDS victim. Sotomayor notes that as an ambitious girl she was to some extent shielded from the machismo culture that destroyed many of her male peers. As a result, she was able to reach out to mentors (including other kids) to ask for help.

It was a male high school friend, Kenny Moy, who urged her to apply to Princeton. Moy, already an undergraduate at the Ivy League school, was her guide to that world of wealth and power as well as to the school’s exacting academic standards. “It’s a bunch of very strange, privileged human beings,” he told her, “and you’re not going to understand any of them. But intellectually…they’re not that smart.”

One thing that this memoir makes completely clear is the prodigious effort Sotomayor has expended in pursuing her career. She will not let anyone devalue her labor. She is wonderfully tough whenever a clear principle is at stake, far more measured when it comes to the practical aspects of making one’s way in the world. She does not apologize for forging powerful connections, whether at Yale Law or in the New York City District Attorney’s office, where she was a twelve-hour-a-day prosecutor. As she justifies pragmatic decisions, her belief in compromise, or her own strong will, Sotomayor’s judicial voice intrudes, and the pace of the storytelling slows down. It is important to remember, however, that her tendency to blurt out the truth, often in a sharp tone, is what has made her determined to pursue a more judicious approach to overcoming obstacles. She has taught herself to slow down but not to back down.

Published in the 2013-05-03 issue: 

Valerie Sayers, professor of English at Notre Dame, is the author of six novels and many stories, essays, and reviews.

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