Inner Views with Justice Sonia Sotomayor
I am deeply grateful to have sat down with Justice Sonia Sotomayor last week in The Bronx for Loyal Nana’s Inner Views series, a one-on-one interview series featuring the modern day luminaries changing our cultural landscape.
Last week we got a glimpse into our interview with Justice Sotomayor through a rapid -fire round of This or That where we learned that she prefers bracelets over earrings (though she loves them both equally), and flan over tres leches.
Throughout our interview, we talked about the creative process behind Sotomayor’s new children’s book, Turning Pages: My Life Story, self-care as a judge in the highest court, and the natural fear and doubt that never go away.
And without further ado…
Amanda Saviñón: We have a lot of things in common, we’re both Latinas, we’re from the Bronx, our parents were born in the Caribbean, we were raised by our grandmothers, we both attended Catholic high schools, we worked in the retail and medical fields through high school, we both love hot dogs, and we have birthdays in June. You’re an inspiration to me because we’re so alike in the smaller ways.
Sonia Sotomayor: And in the big ways! You have a big heart, I hope I do.
AS: You definitely do. Thank you again for taking the time to speak with Loyal Nana about your newest project, Turning Pages: My Life Story, which is your new children’s book following your life story as a little girl in the Bronx through college and into the Supreme Court. Were there any similarities between your parent book My Beloved World and Turning Pages creatively for you?
SS: Creatively they were different enterprises. My Beloved World was my life story in a detailed way, it was about searching my memory banks to find all of the recollections that I could dig up. It was storytelling at its best because I sat at the very beginning, probably for most of a year with a Dictaphone, telling my stories. I spent two or three months doing that, and then it was transcribed. I had a friend look at all the stories and she came back with 50 questions of things I had left out. Those 50 questions provoked six months more of memories because each memory would provoke a different recollection. At any rate, Turning Pages was very, very different. The theme of it was the influence of books on me, then it was a matter of thinking about my life and figuring out what written words influenced that part of my life. And so in some ways, Turning Pages was a more directive writing process then My Beloved World was initially.
AS: On the cover is you walking up the stairs leading to the U.S. Supreme Court, a Coqui, and you have a key in your left hand. What insight can you give us in the cover?
SS: The writing on the side of the steps is a copy of an opinion I wrote involving children and their rights if they’re being questioned by police. Lulu (Delacre, the illustrator) found a way of integrating that opinion that I wrote in the steps of the Supreme Court. Toward the bottom, you will also see a Coqui – and the Coqui, as everyone should know, is the symbol of Puerto Rico. In my left hand is the little key you mentioned. That little key symbolizes what this book is about – books were the key to my success.
AS: How is it for you to see such strong and important parts of your life be illustrated, and how did your collaboration with illustrator Lulu Delacre come about?
SS: Ah, Lulu Delacre. If you look at my book you can tell how talented, creative, and inspired she is. I didn’t find her, my publisher did. They first came to me with five or six different illustrators and examples of their work. I looked at them and there was a different reason I didn’t like that initial grouping. For each artist, there was a different reason. Sometimes their colors, the ones they favored, were not me. Some of their characters were a little bit too cartoonish for what I had in mind. There were a lot of different reasons. I saw a piece by Lulu and I said: “That’s the one”. And I didn’t know that she had been born and raised in Puerto Rico and to Argentinian parents. It was perfect because she knew Puerto Rico intimately but, more importantly, she had lived in the States and was living in the States. It was a little bit of me finding myself in her.
AS: You’ve mentioned before that as a result of not having children you’re a godmother to more people than you know.
SS: I’m an official godmother to seven, unofficially I’ve stopped counting. Laughs.
AS: What message did you want them and other children to get out of Turning Pages? Why a children's book?
SS: I was thinking about young readers. I knew that if I could create a book like this one, then I had a shot at engaging them in looking at my life as a potential example of what they could become. That’s the purpose of telling my life story, to tell kids, “I was just like you growing up and look what I became. This is not only possible, but you can do it too”.
AS: Why is that important?
SS: I don’t believe that you can really motivate yourself to become something important in the world unless it’s tied to doing something better for the world. At some point even making money becomes old. You look at all of the billionaires in the world – whether it’s Steve Jobs or the Apple people – they all start foundations to help people. They do that because at a certain point the money-making becomes less important than what their contributions are to improving the world.
I actually open up the book for most kids and tell them, “If you don’t believe I was a kid like you, I have pictures of my life on both the front and back and in the pages to prove it”.
AS: And as a photographer, I appreciate that you decided to include photography with the illustrations in your book. Actually, those photographs were how I realized your mom was so fashionable.
SS: My mother was a typical Borinqueña. You had to be beautifully dressed, everything matched, and you always wore makeup – she didn’t go out without wearing makeup.
AS: Do you identify as American or Puerto Rican?
SS: It’s interesting – I do both. If I’m abroad and someone asks me where I come from, I say America. If I’m here I tend to say Puerto Rican, because when people here in the U.S. ask you where you’re from, the sense is they’re asking you what your cultural background is – what your ethnic and racial background is. They’re not really asking you where you’re from – my accent tells everybody I’m from New York so they know that already. But generally, when people ask me what I am, here, I say I’m Puertoriqueña.
AS: In the book, there is a page that shows your library card. It is one of my favorite details…
SS: Lulu did this with such dedication and research. She went so far as to look on the internet for a copy of what my library card would have looked like back then. The illustration in which I talk about discovering the Parkchester Library, I am depicted riding a boat that is made out of a page of a book. In the boat with me is a copy of a library card that looks exactly like mine did. It even has my name and address typed in!
AS: Too good. You describe going to Princeton University from The Bronx as having "landed in an alien land" and felt you didn't belong. Today, do you ever feel like you don't belong places and what do you do about it?
SS: Given the life I lead since I’ve been on the Supreme Court, I’ve gotten to meet presidents, vice presidents, senators, and congressmen and governors and, just about anybody in the political scene. And also have been blessed with throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium, and I even got to eat with Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez at their home one night and met their twins. They’re no longer together but I got to meet them when they were together. I’m blessed with living a very different life than the one I grew up in. It's not all so strange anymore. But does it mean that I feel like I’m completely a part of that world that I grew up in? The answer is no. I walk into some of these really fancy homes of rich people and also know that it is not a life I grew up in. It’s a life I can have a dinner in, I might even on occasion sleepover someone’s home who has that kind of wealth, but I recognize that for me, I’m still more comfortable in the world I grew up in. Coming back to the Bronx and visiting, it really fills my heart in a way living that life doesn’t.
AS: In a previous interview you said: "Somehow, very early on I figured out that pain passes and the fear of failure passes – so I jump into things head on.” That’s a very big and important thing to know at such a young age, especially when you even didn’t know some of the world classics like the Phi Beta Kappa, the meaning of Summa Cum Lade, or Alice in Wonderland. Is there anything you learned recently that you’re surprised you didn’t know before?
SS: That’s an interesting question because there are things I learn about on the job all the time but are hard to describe in a way people can identify with because they’re more legal ideas and thinking.
I think it’s a lesson I’ve learned before but I keep learning it, even on the Supreme Court. I know I’m smart, I’ve done well in school, I’ve done well in life and a little bit of smarts helps you do that. But as I describe in my book, going to Princeton and Yale, and especially Yale, I met people who were so much smarter than me. And that humbles you. That makes you realize that you don’t know it all. And every day at work I learn that anew.
As I listen to lawyers argue cases before me, as I talk with the other justices in the room about cases and listen to their perspectives, I realize how important it is that our judging doesn’t involve only the opinion of one person. There is a method and madness to what the Founding Fathers did in creating a Supreme Court with more than one judge. No one person is actually smart enough, knowledgeable enough, or wise enough to make all decisions alone.
AS: Today, with social media 90% of all of the information we intake is visual. You are on the board of Icivics.org, a computer game-like program geared toward bringing civic education for kids to the classroom which you work on with Justice Neil Gorsuch. I got the chance to play "Do I Have The Right?"
SS: You did! And how many questions did you get right?
AS: Okay so, I refused six cases correctly, won 21 cases, and lost 11. What do you think? How did I do?
SS: You did pretty well, but you should continue playing our games because it means you have a lot to learn about civics. It’s a wonderful game program, isn’t it?
AS: It is! Why is civic education important to you and Justice Neil Gorsuch?
SS: The founder of Icivics.org was Sandra Day O’Connor and I give her full credit for the idea. She was of the opinion that the deterioration in bipartisanship in the United States tracked the time in which civics stopped being taught in schools. In the 1970s and 80s, there was a move toward a STEM education, and STEM became important – and still is important – but one of the subjects that most schools cut out or reduced dramatically was civics education. After consulting with experts, she became convinced that the best way to reach kids was through games. Video games captivate young people and she knew that there could be a way to use that learning mode to actually get children engaged in learning about civics. And I bet you found it works!
AS: It works! I myself learned some rights I didn’t even know I had, shamefully so.
SS: I came up with the idea of translating the games because 10% of the school-age population in the country is Latino. Moreover, in places like New York, Chicago, LA, and other big cities – I knew that if Icivics was going to reach every school-age child, which we want to do, we had to reach the Latino population. I really believe that kids are our future, that if we can engage them in understanding that they’re capable of growing up and making a difference in the world, that they’ll believe it and they’ll do it – that’s the most important for me.
AS: At Loyal Nana, we honor and talk a lot about self-care and self-love and I imagine being a judge at the highest court comes with a lot of stress. What do you do for self-care?
SS: I exercise! Most of the justices do. Six of us use the gym. There’s a small gym there for the justices -- there’s a bigger gym for all the employees. I try to use the bigger gym, and every time I went up there everybody was so afraid that I was up there that they left the room. I don’t know what they were afraid of but they left the room. Laughs.
AS: How about the other justices, your colleagues?
SS: Some justices do a lot of walking. Justice Kennedy used to walk religiously before dinner all of the time, a long walk he and his wife would take. And others like Neil Gorsuch -- I don’t know if he uses our gym as much-- but he does a lot of outside exercises. He rides his bike from Maryland to the courthouse in lower Washington D.C. whenever the weather permits. All of us try to take care of ourselves. I also love cooking and playing poker with my girlfriends.
AS: 2019 has big things in store for you like this Summer you’re turning 65 --
SS: Do you have to remind me?
AS: That is the age when most people consider retiring, but we know you’re just getting started. Then, a couple of months later you’ll be celebrating a decade at the Supreme Court. Do you have any fun plans for this big year?
SS: You know for my 60th birthday my friends were so excited for me (partly too because I had just come to the court a few years before) that I had seven parties. I am trying to reduce that for my 65th, I don’t want so many parties! My brother came to a few of them with me and during the last one of the night, he said, “Are we through now? Finally?”
AS: That's love!
SS: I’m going to spend a part of my celebration in Portugal, a place I’ve always wanted to see. I travel a lot to Spain because probably of all the countries in the world, Spain is one of my favorites – in part because I can speak the language and love the food, and in part, because it’s history is so extraordinary. But I’ve always wanted to go to Portugal.
AS: In My Beloved World you mentioned that you used to be afraid of dying young but it’s been 58 years since you were diagnosed with diabetes and you’re still here with a deep interest in helping people and changing the world instead. What are you afraid of today?
SS: Oh, everything and everything. [laughs] I’m still insecure. Every time I take on a new big project in the court, I worry - am I going to be good enough, smart enough, thoughtful enough, creative enough, to think of an answer that will move people, to change their minds?
Hopefully so. If not, I hope to lead people in the future to think about an issue in a different way.
I still feel insecure enough to know I don’t know it all. Insecure enough to hope that I live and continue to live a meaningful life. But I’m still afraid of failing. I still want to work very hard to try to avoid the failure, even though I know the pain is not so great – but you can get over a failure. I think failure drives us to do things better, to make an impact that’s important. Today, I keep doing things in the hopes of doing just that. I’ve written the children’s book in the hope of reaching a wider audience of children and inspiring them to become greater than they think they can be.
AS: Thank you for letting me know that self-doubt and fear never really go away. I am beyond grateful for your time today.
SS: Thank YOU for having me.