Much as been made of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's rise from a poor girl from the Bonx to an Ivy League-educated assistant district attorney for New York and eventual judgeships before becoming the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice in 2009.
In her recently-released best-selling memoir of her early years, My Beloved World, Sotomayor tells of her recollections of these events. She shared some of these stories — and a lot of inspiration for others like her — on Saturday when actress/activist Eva Longoria interviewed her at the Saban Theatre as part of the Writers Bloc series of events.
“You'll read in the book how much I struggled to learn English and how to write it down,” Sotomayor said on Saturday. “My background is no different from any migrant or immigrant who speaks another language and comes to America and tries to master both a foreign language and a foreign culture.”
While Sotomayor couldn't speak about specific cases or issues surrounding them due to pending decisions, she did have some thoughts on education, relationships, “having it all” and never giving up:
7. On failure:
I do think that for every failure in life, you have an opportunity to learn something. And you don't concentrate on the pain, because you accept that pain is a natural, inevitable part of life — we will fail at something.
In my book, I detail failures because I thought that if I wasn't honest about them, people will think that all I have had is a successful life. But none of us do. Part of the reason was to give people hope even when they have doubt … Recognize it as a learning experience … do not let adversity knock you down. Get up and up time and again. Really we have no choice.
6. On accepting our parents' human limitations:
I know each one of us as kids felt our parents had failed us … because we don't think of them initially as human. We expect more of them. What I learned … in my conversations with my mother is I grew to understand how far she had traveled to come to the place she had in her life. She had many more challenges than I did and she produced a Supreme Court Justice.
One of the messages I've been trying to deliver during this book tour is to tell everyone who has a living parent, grandparent, a living relative, aunt or uncle: Put aside your preconceived notions of the stories they've been telling you all of your life.
Have you ever attended a Sunday dinner when you grandfather or grandmother or somebody else starts telling a story and everybody walks out of the room? I'm encouraging you not to do that. To actually sit and listen and to ask simple questions like why. Why did that happen? … Why was that important to you? Step out of yourself and stop asking why it's important to you. Ask why it's important to them.
5. On the idea of not being “feminine” enough:
Sometimes women are so differential that they forget their voices are important and they don't speak up. … There's nothing wrong with being feminine and there's certainly nothing wrong with saying things in a less confrontational way, but it's not a technique that should be used in every situation.
4. On her divorce and the idea of women “having it all”:
You can't forget that you have a partner that needs attention; finding that balance between your devotion to work and letting someone else know that they're important to you. You have to pay attention and sometimes we become so absorbed.
… There's a constant conversation [about if] women can have it all and my book says, “What a silly conversation.” You can never have it all every single moment that you're doing something. Whether you're a woman or a caring father, if your child is doing something that you want to be at then you're feeling guilty. And if you're with your child at the event that you wanted to be at, you're thinking about what's on your desk. It's a perpetual state of tension.
If you accept that and you accept that that's the way it has to be to be able to give your children the life you want for them and an example of how to be a person that's passionate about what they do and be home at the same time, the tension will exist.
3. On the importance of education:
It's regrettable but there are a lot … of children from every background whose parents might be like my dad and have difficulties with addiction [Ed note: Sotomayor's father was an alcoholic who died when she was nine] and don't know how to guide their children. Sometimes there are parents missing completely, who've walked, out and sometimes there are parents who are working … and they hardly see them. And sometimes there are parents who just don't know. If you've never been educated yourself and all you've done is struggle from paycheck to paycheck, day to day for survival, sometimes you have no conception that education may be a way out.
One of the things that has helped me enormously in my life was that from an early age I knew that it was OK to say “I don't know” and to ask for help — and that you didn't have to do it by asking your parents. You can look around your world, whether it's at school, at church, at your community center … do it anywhere you can and look for someone who seems to know what they're doing and ask them for help.
2. On her job responsibilities:
Every Justice is a great lawyer … and you read our decisions and we make the answers seem simple. But we don't take a case unless there's a split among the lower courts. And that generally means that the answer is not clear.
The obligation that I feel as a justice is enormous because we are the court of final resort. We're the last word on what the Constitution means and what the laws mean. Now Congress can overrule us on the law, but it's truly hard to get to that point. And that really is a burden that I don't forget every single case I'm deciding. It makes me try even harder than I already did that I come out with what I think is the right answer; to be aware that the answer I give is going to hurt somebody because somebody is on the losing end.
1. On immigration and other hot-button issues:
I get questions from people all the time about what do I feel about immigration laws, what do I feel about the Second Amendment debate, what do I feel about Affirmative Action today? Most of the time I say I can't talk about it because there's a case pending, but I always come back and say why are you asking me? Are you asking yourself? What do you feel about it? Do you like it? Don't you like it? And the next question is what are you doing to change what you don't like?
We can't let things happen to us. Every citizen in this room, every non-citizen who's living here and working here, has an obligation to create a better America and that means getting out there and making sure your voice is heard, making sure no one is silent about what they want and they're working to have laws passed about what they want. … It's not enough to go out and vote, it's important to go out and be active in your communities and get a change.