Pop Justice

Sonia Sotomayor is not the only Supreme Court justice with a good story to tell. The tales of Thurgood Marshall or Clarence Thomas are, in some ways, no less dramatic. But Sotomayor may be unique in ...

Sonia Sotomayor is not the only Supreme Court justice with a good story to tell. The tales of Thurgood Marshall or Clarence Thomas are, in some ways, no less dramatic. But Sotomayor may be unique in that she sees the promotion of her story as her most essential mission as a Supreme Court justice: “It is my great hope that I’ll be a great justice, and that I’ll write opinions that will last the ages,” Sotomayor told journalist Jodi Kantor. “But … it’s only one measure of meaning in life. To me, the more important one is my values and my impact on people who feel inspired in any way by me.” And this belief is at the heart of the justice’s first memoir, My Beloved World, which in selling hundreds of thousands of copies and making it to the top of the New York Times best-seller list, has consolidated Sotomayor’s status as the nation’s first “pop” justice.

The “pop” here works on many levels. Like a Katy Perry song, My Beloved World aims to uplift; its overt objective, as the book’s preface indicates, is to show “[p]eople who live in difficult circumstances … that happy endings are possible.” Detailing her ascent from diabetic working-class Puerto Rican kid to tough-talking Supreme Court justice, the book promotes the familiar American Dream fable that there are no overwhelming obstacles to success in the US for those who work hard, have discipline, and stay positive. Or as Sotomayor writes, “Call it what you like: discipline, determination, perseverance, the force of will. … If only I could bottle it, I’d share it with every kid in America.”

At the same time, this is no ordinary American Dream story. Sotomayor’s literary self has a superhero feel to her: she is a feisty, if cerebral, figure who, in response to her father’s death and a mother who is too busy to take care of her, develops enormous talents of reason that she repeatedly and successfully uses to meet multiple challenges. True, as noted by most reviewers, Sotomayor admits to making mistakes, to being afraid and even lonely. But no matter how daunting the obstacle—poverty, illness, alcoholism—Sotomayor strikes back with rationality and controlled prose to reassure the reader that everything will be all right.

Sotomayor’s pop ambition is also evident in the book’s promotional tour, where she often appeared alongside celebrities. She made history by being the first Supreme Court justice to appear on both Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and The View. When on the road, Sotomayor was no less pop: the topics of discussion were sometimes quite risqué, particularly for a Justice. In an emblematic conversation with actress Rita Moreno, for instance, the Washington Post reported that Sotomayor engaged in a detailed exchange about “Moreno’s hot love affair with Marlon Brando.” And in her heart-to-heart interview with the greatest talk show diva of our time, Sotomayor daringly asked Oprah for help in finding a date.

That Sotomayor would become the court’s first pop justice is not, however, surprising. She became a household name for many during her gripping televised 2009 confirmation hearings, which made her a bona fide TV personality. Moreover, her pop status was recognized immediately by the media: in trying to envision Sotomayor as part of American culture, commentators on all sides compared her not to other Latino jurists or intellectuals—who are largely absent from the public sphere—but to popular culture figures like Jennifer Lopez. So, while conservative bloggers like Debbie Schlussel tried to diminish Sotomayor’s intellectual abilities by calling her “Justice J-Lo,” the Latino cultural entrepreneur Orlando Plaza hailed her as the “real Jenny from the block” in a New York Times interview.

Equally important, Sotomayor’s response to the relentless objections voiced by conservatives to the 2001 Berkeley speech in which she asserted that “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life” turned the future justice into an overnight star for millions of Latinos, particularly women. In tribute to Sotomayor’s steely determination not to be emotionally destabilized by what many thought were racist and sexist remarks, her image and words began to appear en masse on T-shirts, posters, bumper stickers, and coffee mugs. If since the beginning of cinema Latinas have demanded to see themselves on the small and big screens playing roles other than maids, hot tamales, and beautiful señoritas, Sotomayor finally delivered on these aspirations, becoming only the second Latina on TV to be famous for her brains—after the cartoon character Dora the Explorer.

Sotomayor finally delivered on these aspirations, becoming only the second Latina on TV to be famous for her brains—after the cartoon character Dora the Explorer.

Yet the justice’s “popness” is not solely about how she embodies the American Dream or the desires of Latinas for more nuanced representation. It is also a literary choice. In Sotomayor’s memoir, popular culture provides a public language to convey the pain of family life made triply invisible for being Puerto Rican, Spanish-speaking, and poor. So, to describe how her father’s personality soured when he drank, Sotomayor turns to the movies: “It was like being trapped in a horror film, complete with his lumbering Frankenstein walk.” And once her father dies, Sotomayor notes that while Frankenstein may have left the building, a new undead creature now lives among them: her mother Celina, who serves dinner “like a zombie, hardly saying a word.”

Although many scholars—myself included—often criticize the mass media and popular fiction for their exclusion or stereotyping of Latinos, Sotomayor’s narrative credits both with opening up worlds of possibility for her. According to Sotomayor, the path to another existence began “with me in Nancy [Drew]’s shoes.” Later, she writes, “[E]ven though it is fiction, I knew such a world did exist.” Similarly, once Sotomayor is told that she cannot aspire to be a detective due to her diabetes, it is the Perry Mason show that provides her with a new prospect: to be a judge, one who “called the shots” and “decided whether [a motion] was ‘over-ruled’ or ‘sustained’ when a lawyer said ‘Objection!’”

In other words, given the dearth of well-stocked libraries and flesh-and-blood professional role models in the hood, popular culture nurtured the imagination and kept hope alive. Yet at this point in Sotomayor’s career, the deployment of these cultural allusions is more likely to be strategic than nostalgic. At one level, by relating herself through pop references, Sotomayor is able to fashion a widely accessible narrative that seeks to deliver a degree of media justice to others who share her origins and to put her story at the center of a sympathy revolution for Latinas, especially Latinas who do not look like Sofía Vergara. At another level, by calling attention to her humble origins and unlikely rise through a pop culture repertoire, Sotomayor suggests that balanced judgment and knowledge are not only the province of elite education and good breeding.

The pop strategy, however, is not without costs. In pursuing a feel-good story, Sotomayor’s tale largely avoids politics and intellectual debate. Moreover, when tackling complex issues like Puerto Rico’s political status, the book’s commentary can at times verge on the nonsensical. An early example in the memoir is when she explains the island’s colonial history as the result of “poor governance … compounded by bad luck …” Later she makes the inexplicable assertion that Nuyoricans have a lot to learn from Puerto Ricans because islanders “took it for granted that they were fully American: American citizens born to American parents on American territory.”

It is the rejection of left-Wing—not right-wing—politics that define Sotomayor’s own more balanced temperament, even if it was the labor of many leftists that made her career possible.

In an attempt to accentuate the potential of individual agency over social constraints, Sotomayor also dismisses the idea that racism and sexism are systemic or structural. Rather, she proposes that bigotry is simply “narrow-mindedness” and “a matter of old habits dying hard.” Steep differences of class and wealth are likewise naturalized through domestic tropes. “What mattered most of all,” writes Sotomayor, after noting the tremendous affluence of her corporate clients the Fendis, “was that they became family.” In addition, Sotomayor understands Latino identity as narrowly cultural, not political, suggesting that what Latinos seek is primarily cultural “accommodation,” to be allowed to salsa dance rather than two-step to the top.

Sotomayor also goes out of her way to distance herself from leftist “militant[s]” and “Marxist[s].” The issue here is not that she should be a radical or that radicals cannot be foolish. It is rather that while the reader is invited to see the privileged—whether they are rich, male, and/or white—as complex individuals, Sotomayor tends to offer reductive portraits of Latino activists. Declaring that “being a rabble-rouser did not appeal to me,” the justice at times displays an edgy hostility for those who publicly holler to challenge the status quo.

A key example is a passage in the memoir’s final pages where Sotomayor recounts the arguments she had in high school with a black “Hispanic girl who identified herself as a Marxist” and accused the future justice of having “no principles.” Despite acknowledging that she is haunted by the accusation, Sotomayor nevertheless chooses to portray radicals as inflexible beings who place “principle above even reason” while “abdicating the responsibilities of a thinking person.” Significantly, in My Beloved World, it is the rejection of left-wing—not right-wing—politics that defines Sotomayor’s own more balanced temperament, even if it was the labor of many leftists that made her career possible.

Fortunately, despite Sotomayor’s avowed need to appear completely rational and in control, her writing cannot entirely redress all of her journey’s wounds. Although this aspect of the book has been overlooked by critics, My Beloved World is not only about inspiring readers to achieve. It is also about a struggle to come to terms with the fact that upward mobility has not come without a price; in climbing so high, Sotomayor may have irrevocably yanked her own roots from the ground, leaving her unanchored.

This anxiety is manifest throughout, but is particularly obvious in the book’s title, which comes from a poem by the 19th-century Puerto Rican poet José Gautier Benítez. In Gautier’s text, the poetic voice declares himself an exile and asks readers to allow him the “sweetness” of returning once more to his “beloved world.” While Sotomayor asserts that she “moved easily between different worlds,” in invoking Gautier, she seems to view the fulfillment of her lifelong dream to become a Supreme Court justice as a form of exile from her beloved Nueva York. Sotomayor’s memoir thus articulates the classic problem of exile: it is as impossible to return home as it is to be at home anywhere—except in stories.

The memoir also cannot help but be a restless—if not outright vengeful—plot against her mother, Celina. The ways that Sotomayor wrestles with perhaps the greatest emotional injury of her life—the lack of maternal affection—brings to mind writer Colm Tóibin’s recent book New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families. In this text, Tóibin elaborates on the longstanding feminist argument that 19th-century female authors like Jane Austen could only narrate the autonomous self through the creation of fictional universes that “killed” their mothers by rendering them irrelevant and/or making them absent (dead or missing).

In My Beloved World, Sotomayor metaphorically kills her mother in at least two creative ways. First, by writing a widely loved familial memoir of reconciliation, Sotomayor proves that she is nothing like the mother she describes as cold and detached, “perfectly dressed and made up, like a movie star, the Jacqueline Kennedy of the Bronxdale Houses, refusing to pick me up and wrinkle her spotless outfit.” Second, she makes the painful claim that, given Celina’s unreliability as a caretaker, she had to mother herself. What Tóibin wrote about Austen’s heroines could, then, equally be said of Sotomayor’s presentation of her younger self: “Power arises from the quality of her own intelligence. It is her own ability to be alone, to move alone, to be seen alone, to come to conclusions alone, that sets her apart.”

Ultimately, My Beloved World is a carefully crafted tale about a disciplined and hard-working girl who grew up to inspire others into productive citizenry. For those who want more from (our) justice, this narrative may not be enough. In fact, while reading the book, I frequently found myself drawn to Sotomayor’s aloof mother, who, despite her movie star glamour, might be the story’s most real character. Unlike Sotomayor, Celina is often impulsive and vulnerable, and broken in ways that can never be repaired—not even by writing. She embodies a truth that the memoir cannot entirely embrace but is nevertheless there: that despite professional success or upward mobility, we may still hurt from a journey that no one, not even the nation’s chief pop justice, could ever fully control. This may be the best reason to read My Beloved Worldicon

Featured image: Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor appears on the second day of her Senate confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill on July 14, 2009. Photograph by Karen Bleier. AFP / Getty / Wikimedia Commons