Hispanic Heritage Month: Sonia Sotomayor

It’s Hispanic Heritage Month! Visit National Archives News for resources on related records in our holdings. Today’s post comes from Callie Belback from the National Archives History Office.

On August 8, 2009, Sonia Sotomayor became the third woman, the first woman of color, and the first Hispanic to serve on the Supreme Court.

Sotomayor was born on June 25, 1954, in the Bronx borough of New York City in, according to her autobiography, a “tiny microcosm of Hispanic New York City.” Her parents had both come from Puerto Rico separately in 1944. When she was three years old, the Sotomayor family moved to a newly constructed public housing complex, The Bronxdale Houses, located in the Soundview neighborhood of The Bronx. 

By the time Sotomayor entered high school in 1968, she had become a top student, pushed by both her mother and her own intrinsic love for learning. A poignant memory for Sotomayor was her freshman year Spanish class, taught by a teacher recently arrived from Spain. It soon became clear that the teacher was unaware how little formal Spanish education her students had received. In her autobiography she recalled, “Our teacher was totally unaware that Puerto Rican kids raised in the Bronx would have had no formal instruction in their native language…. And so I started high school having never studied Spanish grammar, conjugated a verb, or read more than a few sentences at a time. I had certainly never read a book in Spanish.” 

After advocating for herself and her classmates, Sotomayor was able to convince the teacher to completely change her lesson plan for the year to accommodate the students’ needs. As a teachable moment for Sotomayor, she wrote “[i]t was a good lesson in the value of learning to express your basic needs and trusting you will be heard. Teachers, I was finally realizing, were not the enemy.” 

Sotomayor graduated high school as valedictorian and was admitted to Princeton University. At Princeton, Sotomayor felt the pressure to perform due to her first-generation, minority status. In her autobiography she wrote, “There were vultures circling, ready to dive when we stumbled. The pressure to succeed was relentless, even if self-imposed out of fear and insecurity. For we all felt that if we did fail, we would be proving the critics right, and the doors that had opened just a crack to let us in would be slammed shut again.” 

Sotomayor became very active in an on-campus group, Acción Puertorriqueña, and advocated for minority students and Hispanics in general. One of the group’s most pressing objectives was to convince the Princeton administration “to honor its commitment to increase the hiring of qualified Hispanics.” In order to do so, the group filed a formal complaint with the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. This complaint generated dialogue between Acción Puertorriqueña and Princeton University’s president, along with the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education. Princeton University then hired its very first Hispanic administrator to the role of assistant dean of student affairs. 

After graduating from Princeton University, Sotomayor enrolled in Yale Law School. There she continued her advocacy for Puerto Ricans and the Hispanic community in general. She engaged in legal research about the historical, political, and economic impact of Puerto Rican citizenship and examined the effect of possible Puerto Rican statehood on the island’s mineral and ocean rights. 

After graduating from Yale Law School, Sotomayor spent a number of years working as an assistant district attorney and then a private corporate litigation law firm in New York City. She left corporate law in 1992 to become a judge. 

Five years later, in 1997, President Bill Clinton nominated Sotomayor for the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. This nomination became embroiled in partisan politics within the Senate, bringing up the issues of qualification, affirmative action, and tokenism that had followed Sotomayor all her life. However, Sotomayor was both a symbol and a role model for so many people across the United States. 

On September 29, 1998, the Puerto Rican Bar Association, in a coalition with nine other associations of women, Hispanic, and Asian American legal groups, issued a press release condemning the partisan politics of Sotomayor’s nomination. The press release condemned the Senate holdouts, writing “It is time for the Senate to explain to the Hispanic-American community why a highly qualified and respected judge is not being elevated to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.” These groups then organized a petition drive in New York State to demonstrate their support for Sotomayor’s nomination. The Senate then approved her nomination, and she served for over 10 years until President Barack Obama appointed her to the United States Supreme Court.

Sonia Sotomayor has become a role model, inspiration, and symbol for many Americans throughout the country. She is known for her outspoken advocacy for the Puerto Rican-American community and Hispanic community at large and continues to serve on the United States Supreme Court as its 111th justice in U.S. history. 

Read more about Sonia Sotomayor in the National Archives Text Message blog, From the Bronx to the Bench: Sonia Sotomayor’s Trailblazing Journey to the Supreme Court. You can also view online National Archives records pertaining to Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

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