The U.S. Supreme Court justice discussed her journey to the nation’s highest court with local K-12 students and actress Eva Longoria Bastón in Lisner Auditorium.
By Tatyana Hopkins
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said as a child she never dreamed of being a justice.
“I didn’t even know what one was,” she said. “How can you dream about something you don’t know about?”
In fact, she said, even after learning about the court when she got older, she never considered that she would sit on the bench.
“I didn’t think it was possible,” Ms. Sotomayor said. “I didn’t imagine that it was real until I heard the White House operator’s voice on my telephone say, ‘Please hold for the president.’”
She recalled for an audience of young students at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium Friday her journey to the Supreme Court from her origins in the South Bronx through becoming the first Latina and only the third woman appointed to the highest court in the United States.
“All of you are far ahead of me because you’re kids and you know what a Supreme Court justice is,” she said. “I didn’t.”
Ms. Sotomayor came to GW to speak about the abridged versions of her 2013 memoir “My Beloved World” for elementary and middle school students. Actress and activist Eva Longoria Bastón moderated the conversation and a post-discussion Q & A session with the audience.
The picture book “Turning Pages” and young readers chapter book “The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor” cover the justice’s upbringing in a New York housing project, the death of her father when she was 9 and her battle with Type 1 diabetes.
Printed in both English and Spanish, the books illustrate how she overcame those obstacles. graduated from Princeton University and Yale Law School, became a New York District Court judge and eventually was appointed a Supreme Court justice in 2009.
Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-Calif.), B.A. ’94, his wife, Jacki Cisneros, and the Eva Longoria Foundation sponsored 350 elementary, middle and high school students from 11 schools in D.C., Maryland and Virginia to attend the conversation and an earlier event where they got to meet the justice. The GW Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute also sponsored the family event.
Ms. Sotomayor encouraged the students to follow their dreams and shared how her life and career were shaped by her family, her Puerto Rican culture and the many books she read.
“The pictures of this book are the pictures of my life, and they can be the pictures of your life,” she said to the students. “You can have a special life even if sometimes some hard things happen to you.”
She said when she was growing up there were not a lot of books about people and kids of her background.
Elizabeth Vaquera, director of the GW Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute, said later that the justice’s emphasis on the importance of education and the value of embracing culture fits squarely with the institute’s mission. “Justice Sotomayor exemplifies how young Latinos can have dreams as big as the Supreme Court without sacrificing who they are,” Dr. Vaquera said.
Ms. Longoria Bastón noted that the two books now provide opportunities for Latino students to go to the library and see themselves in a book.
“Representation matters,” Ms. Longoria Bastón said. “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Ms. Sotomayor said though she rules on the basis of law, her background allows her to understand the arguments raised before the court from a unique perspective. She said while it is “wonderful” to be a voice in the room where the nation’s most important legal decisions are made, she hopes to see more diversity.
“So, for all the Latinos and Latinas in this room, I don’t want to be the only Latina justice on the Supreme Court,” she said. “Hurry, grow up, work hard and either join me or take my place.”
She told the students that people are “melting pot[s]” made up of their culture, religion, schools and life experiences and that they should proudly carry each of these items with them.
She also said that education was the key to success, and they should study the issues they are passionate about in order to develop an “informed voice.”
“There's a lot of people who watch television, but don't really study the questions,” Ms. Sotomayor said. “People will listen to persuasive arguments, and to be persuasive, you have to learn.”