National Hispanic Heritage Month

'You can't give up who you are'

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor visits Hofstra University Law School


Part 4 in a Hispanic Heritage Month mini-series.

Students in gray-and-black suits, carrying briefcases and backpacks, filled Hofstra University’s Helene Fortunoff Theater at the Monroe Lecture Center on Monday, eagerly awaiting U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s arrival. 

The Bronx native’s appearance sparked interest among students at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law. As Sotomayor, 63, walked across the stage to nestle in an armchair opposite Judge A. Gail Prudenti, Hofstra Law’s dean, students prepped their notepads. 

“What time do you want this to end,” Prudenti asked, “so you can get home to watch the Yankee game?”

“No later than 8 o’clock,” Sotomayor laughed. 

Sotomayor, who said she grew up in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, had visited Queens College earlier on Monday to celebrate its 80th anniversary. In her opening remarks, she said that after her nomination by President Obama as the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice in U.S. history in 2009, her Puerto Rican heritage — along with her “unique background” — became widely known. 

She grew up in the South Bronx with a younger brother/sister and parents, Juan and Celina Baez Sotomayor. Her mother was a nurse and her father a factory worker. She spoke Spanish, as her family lived near Puerto Rican communities. When she was 9, her father died. She then became fluent in English. “My mother stressed the value of education,” she said. 

After a brief introduction, Prudenti asked Sotomayor questions submitted by students. She answered them slowly, giving detailed answers. Students jotted down notes and nodded. 

Some of them, chosen by a lottery, were able to query her directly. When second-year law student Danielle Leavy, 25, asked her question, Sotomayor stood and walked up the hall steps to greet her in the audience, shaking other students’ hands as well. Leavy asked her how she kept herself grounded, and how she knew when to ask for help. 

“My friends keep me going,” Sotomayor confessed. “My family were not talkers about our emotions. I was stubborn and independent. Learning how to deal with my own emotional health was important.” 

In her book “My Beloved World,” Sotomayor details emotional passages of her dissolved marriage, her type 1 diabetic diagnosis at age 8 and the death of her father. Emotions, she said, often try to peek through her decision-making. “You can’t do human activity without having human emotions,” she said. “Judging is a human activity. But the sense of how you deal with it is to acknowledge it. I look at it, and examine it to try to figure out the effect it’s having. And then I adjust my behavior in accordance.”

She insisted that students walk away with one message: “You can’t give up who you are,” she said. “I embraced who I am. I come from a very — and trust me when say very — unique background. You may have self-doubt. But sometimes, good enough is good enough. And you can do a lot with good enough.”