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Sonia Sotomayor’s history resonates in New Mexico
From Catholic schools in New York, to Princeton — where she graduated at the top of her class — to Yale Law School, where she was editor of the law journal, Sonia Sotomayor was the classic overachiever.
Neither did she let up afterwards: big city prosecutor, corporate litigator, federal trial judge appointed by a Republican president, appellate court judge appointed by a Democratic president.
And all those achievements were grounded in humble origins in the south Bronx, where the daughter of Puerto Rican parents was at home flipping through the pages of the shiny encyclopedias her mother insisted she had.
At first glance, Sotomayor’s story might seem far removed from New Mexico.
But it’s a storyline native New Mexican and University of New Mexico law professor Margaret Montoya also knows well.
“As a kid in Las Vegas, my brother and my sister and I worked hard to learn. My mom and dad really pushed us on this,” Montoya tells NMI. “It was a real measure of them that we were a high achieving family.”
Montoya went from the small northern New Mexico town to San Diego State University, and then Harvard Law School, where she was the first Hispanic woman to be admitted.
“I think I understand the nature of the dedication it took her,” Montoya says of Sotomayor. “A lot of times it meant not doing a lot of things that the other people were doing. I wasn’t partying. I was a book worm.”
Like Sotomayor, Montoya also worked in corporate law and has been a UNM law professor for the past 17 years.
Montoya, who has met Sotomayor on more than one occasion but says she doesn’t know her personally, adds that “there was this expectation that went back to my grandparents about being readers and being attentive to grammar and about speaking well, whether you were speaking English or Spanish.”
The drive to achieve isn’t the only value Sotomayor’s south Bronx — New Yorican, as she has put it — culturally-infused story has in common with New Mexicans like Montoya.
Albuquerque native Laura Gomez, also a member of the UNM law school faculty, is a decade younger than Sotomayor and also an Ivy League alum.
“Those places are so closed and so hard,” Gomez explains, reflecting on the challenges Sotomayor must have faced.
“I knew a lot of Puerto Ricans (as an undergraduate at Harvard) and I know how much harder it was 10 years earlier, the class isolation she would have felt,” she said. “To me, it makes her accomplishments that much more.”
Gomez would go on to earn a law degree, as well as a masters and PhD in sociology, from Stanford University. Just this past weekend, she was elected president of the Law and Society Association, a prestigious scholarly organization. Gomez mentions that she’s the association’s first woman of color president.
Yet big differences between Sotomayor’s New York upbringing and those of New Mexico’s Latina lawyers are also notable.
Montoya, who has spent the fall 2009 semester teaching at the City University of New York School of Law (and was its commencement speaker last month), points to social mobility in New Mexico for Hispanics — and its absence elsewhere.
“I think a Puerto Rican girl growing up in the south Bronx looks around and sees a New York City that is largely immigrant, that is largely people of color and yet it is a power structure that is almost completely white,” she said. “I think that a young Latina in the Bronx is really swimming upstream even today.”
Referring to New Mexico’s many powerful Hispanic politicians and successful professionals of all sorts, Montoya credits “an infrastructure for social mobility that, after all, goes back centuries.”
Bernalillo County’s newest Metropolitian Court judge, Briana Zamora, points to an example that’s very close to home.
“Our judiciary here is very diverse,” Zamora says. “We’re lucky in New Mexico. And the nice thing about my court is it’s predominately women.”
Thirteen of the judges on the 19-judge metro court are female, she points out.
“When I came to the court there were quite a few Hispanic women, so I didn’t feel different in any way because we’re actually the majority.”
Zamora also notes that the New Mexico Supreme Court currently has a Latina justice, Petra Maez, its first.
Meanwhile, there are local voices who say Sotomayor would not be the nation’s first Hispanic justice.
In an e-mail to NMI, Albuquerque Journal columnist and attorney Jim Scarantino argues that Benjamin Cardozo deserves that accolade.
Of Cardozo, who served on the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1930s, Scarantino writes:
I do want to point out she is not the first Hispanic nominated to the Supreme Court. One of the greatest jurists in American history was Hispanic, Benjamin Cardozo. He grew up attending Spanish-Portuguese clubs. Portuguese background qualifies him for ‘Hispanic’ under federal law … I hope being Jewish doesn’t un-Hispanic him.
“I just think that’s the most ridiculous thing,” Gomez counters. “(Hispanic) was a meaningless category at the time. For his reality, it had no significance,” she says.
“The term ‘Hispanic’ arises in the (19)80s getting traction as a concept, as a pan-ethnic term to refer to all Spanish-speaking people, Mexicans, Cubans, others,” Gomez adds.
Gomez’s Harvard undergraduate thesis explored the origins and strategic use of the term ‘Hispanic’ by politicians like then-U.S. Rep. Bill Richardson and ex-Gov. Toney Anaya.
But if Sotomayor has encountered ugly prejudice over the course of her life, she probably does have something in common with Cardozo.
“I think Cardozo as a Jew in his time, he did deal with anti-Semitism that was significant,” Gomez says. “There were law firms that didn’t hire Jews, There were law schools that didn’t admit Jews.”
But beyond the “Cardozo controversy,” it seems clear that Hispanic identity is a much stronger concept today. Even if it’s something of a clunky concept.
That’s what Doña Ana County District Attorney Susana Martinez thinks.
“Often in America we tend to use the common term ‘Hispanic,’ which in fact lumps many ethnic backgrounds together,” the 20-year veteran GOP prosecutor says.
But, even while she says she’s still learning about Sotomayor’s judicial philosophy, she adds, “the pride is there.” And that’s the case even though Martinez is a Mexican American while Sotomayor is New Yorican.
Gomez seconds that motion.
“We’re totally excited about her, and that suggests that the idea of the pan-ethnic Hispanic identity has become meaningful in the last 30 years. We as Mexican Americans feel as connected to her as the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother,” she says. “That’s interesting. I think we should as Mexican Americans feel tremendously connected to her.”
And in Sonia Sotomayor, many Americans — and not just Latinos — see connections in the quintessential American story of her life’s journey.
Put newly-minted Bernalillo County Metro Court Judge Zamora in that category.
“Even though she’s just one Hispanic woman on the bench, I still think she’s a role model for all of us, that if we really set our minds to something, the doors are open.”