Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."


Aug 08, 2022 by Marlene Wagman-Geller



   A common belief is that those born on the wrong side of the tracks usually end up in the same place-that environment is destiny. But as one woman proved, it is possible to travel far afield from humble roots, especially when equipped with the mindset that dreams do not just have to be for sleeping.

     The Supremes- not a reference to Diana Ross and her backup singers- is nod to nine of the most powerful people in the United States. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled segregation in schools is unconstitutional; in 1973, they ruled women have a right to abortion; in 2015, they ruled on the legality of same sex marriage. Traditionally, the justices have been white, Protestant males from comfortable backgrounds. The paradigm altered with the admission of an African American, and a Jewish female. The color of the bench also transformed when it admitted its first Latina, a woman born into challenging circumstances whose mantra was always to rise. 

    Sonia Sotomayor, reflecting on her past, described herself as a child with dreams. Testimony to her indefatigable spirit was that they did not shrivel up under the harsh reality of her youth. The greatest influence on her life was her mother, Celina, who had left her orphanage in Puerto Rico at age seventeen to sign up for the woman's Army Corps, her contribution to the war effort. After her discharge, she married Juan, a fellow Islander, and they settled in a tenement in the East Bronx. While her husband worked at a tool- and-dye factory, Celina obtained a position as a telephone operator at Prospect Hospital where she later became a nurse. Her increased paycheck was especially important after the birth of Juan and Sonia. The projects were not the place to raise children, as it was populated with gangs carving up the neighborhood. Stairwells needed to be avoided because of muggers and addicts. Celina drilled into her son and daughter that though they were living in a crime-ridden neighborhood, they could still make the right choice: to be the flower that grows in the crack of a sidewalk. She also believed that education was the key to success in America, and she purchased the entire set of Encyclopedia Britannica, a novelty in the tenement.

     To add to this unsavory cocktail were problems at home, chiefly caused by Juan’s alcoholism. Because of his losing battle with the bottle, angry shouting matches ensued, and Celina worked nights and weekends to avoid being in her husband’s presence. When eight-year-old Sonia started wetting her bed, her doctor admitted her to the hospital with a diagnosis of diabetes. Her disease furthered the stress as Celina, who worked nights, was not able to administer the insulin needle. Because of alcoholic tremors, Juan was incapable of performing the procedure. Infuriated that she could not rely on her husband, the tension escalated until Sonia displayed the fortitude that was to sustain her to the struggles that lay ahead. In her memoir she recounted, “The last thing I wanted for them was to fight about me. It then dawned on me: if I needed to have these shots every day for the rest of my life, the only way it survived was to do it myself.” She learned to inject by practicing on an orange. Her mother showed her how to light a burner on the stove with a match, fill a pot with water to cover the syringe and needle, and wait till they sterilized. Her family referred to her affliction as “a deadly curse.” A positive effect of her illness was she learned self-reliance at an early age. In addition, because the 1960s was the era when a diagnosis of Type I diabetes came with dramatically shortened life expectancy, it ignited a desire to do more with her allotted time.

     And yet the valleys of the Sotomayors came with peaks as well. They spent summers in Puerto Rico where Sonia enjoyed eating her fill of mangoes (always keeping an eye on her blood sugar level). Another safe harbor from the chaos of her home was her abuelita (grandmother) Mercedes’ South Bronx apartment, a place of music and poetry. Her home held the aroma of her comfort foods of Puerto Rican delicacies: pigs’ feet with beans and pigs’ tongues and ears. She also delighted in the presence of her best friend, her cousin Nelson, and the two were as inseparable as twins. Sonia says that it was the love of her grandmother that allowed her “to imagine the most improbable of possibilities for my life.” From her and her great -Aunt Aurora she learned how to be diplomatic among her many relatives and their numerous confrontations. The biggest source of contention was between Celina and Mercedes, who blamed her daughter-in-law for Juan’s drinking that turned the man into a monster. Sonia later wrote of him drinking at parties, “I saw my father receding from us, disappearing behind that twisted mask. It was like being trapped in a horror film, complete with his lumbering Frankenstein walk as he made his exit and the looming certainty that they would be screaming when we got home.”

     When Sonia was nine, her mother delivered the news, “Dios se lo Llevo.” (“God took him”) when her father suddenly died from a combination of heart condition and alcoholism. Later, Sonia heard the liquor bottles clank during their removal from his deathbed. Because iJuan’s passing meant an end to the battles at home, Sonia felt, “Maybe it would be easier this way.” Surprisingly, Celina, for all her animosity against her husband, went into a state of protracted mourning. She shut herself in a dark bedroom and slid into a cocoon of depression.

      Juan and Sonia, reeling from the dual onslaught of their father’s loss and their mother’s emotional abandonment, were left to their own devices. Sonia retreated into the world of books, especially the Nancy Drew mysteries, and yearned for a career as a police detective. When she confided her aspiration to her doctor, he said that because of her diabetes, she would not be capable of such a job. Hours were also spent watching Perry Mason from her plastic-covered couch.  From the courtroom drama she realized that the most important person in the room was the man in the black robe who delivered the ruling. She had decided on her next career.

    Finally, after months of reading and evenings spent sitting quietly with Juan watching television, Sonia hurtled herself at her mother’s closed door and screamed at her not to die as well. Her daughter’s plea worked, and Celina worked six days a week to support her family on a single income.

     Her mother’s emphasis about the importance of education had struck a respondent note, and Sonia excelled academically at Cardinal Spellman, the Roman Catholic school Celina had enrolled her as the neighborhood public ones were beset with problems. When she graduated as valedictorian in 1972, her friend told her about the Ivy League -something she had never heard of- and urged her to apply to Princeton. He cautioned her of the pitfalls she would face as a Puerto Rican female from a modest background. There would be students with Roman numerals after their names who came from families that had been Princeton alumni for many generations, those who would boast of ancestors who had landed on Plymouth Rock. However versed in adversary, she put in her application. She stated, “qualifying for financial aid was the easiest part. There were no assets to report.” Her parents never had a bank account.

     When Sonia enrolled in the Ivy League university- on a full scholarship- she was one of the only Latinos on campus; the same situation applied to its professors. Princeton women were sharply outnumbered as well; the first ones had been admitted only a few years before. Because of the strikes against her, Sonia was too intimidated to ask questions. She also felt insecure that she could “barely write” and her first essay received a C. Another strike was she was ignorant of the classics that the other students had studied at prestigious private schools. To help even the playing field, Sonia immersed herself in the library. However, she was not a complete bookworm, and her free time smoke, drank beer, and danced a mean salsa. Eventually, Sonia gave up her three-and-a half packs of cigarettes a day when her young niece held a pencil between her fingers and blew imaginary smoke rings. After five days in a residential program, she was free of her habit. Sonia married her high school sweetheart, Kevin Noonan. During this time a source of pain were the regular letters to the Daily Princeton complaining that students like her-those who had been helped by affirmative action-were displacing worthier applicants. Her mantra was her mother's own, “A surplus of effort can overcome a deficit of confidence.” She graduated summa cum laude; unfamiliar with the Latin, she had to look up its translation.

      She continued her studies at Yale law school- shades of Perry Mason. In 1979, the Manhattan District attorney hired Sonia as a prosecutor in a city struggling with a drug- related crime wave, and she joined a unit that handled everything from misdemeanors to homicides. What distilled her joy at her accomplishments were two crushing blows. Her marriage ended in divorce, partly because of the demands of her career and her husband’s belief she did not really need him. She had remained childless in fear of passing on her diabetes as well as her concern she would die at an early age. Another tragedy occurred when Nelson asked her to drive him to- what she later learned was a drug den in the Bronx-where he took heroin. Nelson contracted AIDS from a contaminated needle that culminated in his death.

     A few years later, Sonia left to join a private law firm in Manhattan. If the firm had a tip from the United States costumes office about a suspicious shipment, Sonia would often be involved in the risky business of going to the warehouse to have the merchandise confiscated. On one occasion in Chinatown, where the criminals ran away, Sonia jumped on a motorcycle and gave chase.

      Her youthful aspiration came to fruition when the first President George Bush nominated her to be a federal judge. On her first day her knees knocked together as she began addressing the courtroom. However, just as Stella found her groove so did Sonia, and the minute she jumped in with a question for the litigants the panic passed. She told her friend of her newfound confidence, “I think this fish has found her pond.”

    She struck down as unconstitutional a White Plains law that prohibited the displaying of a menorah in a park. The following year she ordered New York prison officials to allow inmates to wear beads of the Santeria religion under their belts, even though the jail staff argued they were gang symbols. Another notable case included a ruling in which she maintained the government make public a photocopy of a torn-up note found in the briefcase of a former White House counsel, Vincent Foster, who later committed suicide. Her most celebrated case was when she ended a baseball strike by ruling against the team owners in favor of the ballplayers; her admirers touted her as the savior of the sport. She said of her position, “Each day on the bench I learn something new about the judicial process and about being a professional Latina woman in a world that sometimes looks at me with suspicion.” A fruit of her labor was the purchase of a condominium in Greenwich Village- both a subway ride and a world away from the housing projects of her youth. President Bill Clinton nominated her as a judge in the Court of Appeals. To be recognized by two Chief Executives was heady fair for the Puerto Rican girl from the projects- but the best was yet to come.

     In a transition from the Bronx to the bench, President Barack Obama nominated Judge Sotomayor to the highest court in the land, making her its third woman and its first Hispanic. He pointed out that Sonia’s story was an extraordinary journey that was the embodiment of the American Dream. Her up- by- the- bootstraps tale mirrored the president's own life and achievement as the only African American Chief Executive. Sonia stated, “It's our nation’s faith in a more perfect union that allows a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx to stand here now. I am struck again by the wonder of my own life and the life we in America are so privileged to lead.”

    Sonya Sotomayor’s biography can be divided into two halves (though they are intricately interwoven): her pre and post judge days. If one wants to understand the political woman, one need read her rulings. To gain a glimpse of what lies under the black robes can be found in her memoir whose title is her encapsulated, emotional biography, My Beloved World.