As the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor already stands as a role model for Hispanics. Now she wants to expand on that role.
With the publication in English and Spanish of her strikingly candid memoir, My Beloved World, the associate justice hopes to inspire those facing disease, discrimination, drugs and alcoholism, divorce and the dire poverty she faced growing up.
Even her colleagues on the court and many of her longtime friends will be surprised by the book's revelations, she says in an interview with USA TODAY -- just as her own mother learned from its pages the worst fainting episodes caused by her type 1 diabetes. "Most of the things in this book they won't know ... and this was not a tell-all book in the least," Sotomayor, 58, says. "It is a book in which I speak from the heart, where I speak openly about things that people tend to hide rather than to discuss -- and about emotions."
She describes near-death experiences with diabetes and her decision not to have children in part because of it, the deaths of her alcoholic father and drug-addicted cousin, her former 31/2-pack-a-day cigarette habit and the breakup of her marriage.
Just 8 when she was diagnosed with diabetes and 9 when her father died, Sotomayor displayed a youthful determination and insatiable thirst for knowledge that she hopes to pass on to others facing similar hurdles. She quotes from page 178, where she describes learning from her first role model: "Someone like me can do this."
It's a message she wants to pass on -- that role models aren't perfect.
"When you're feeling really down and out, those idealized creatures are like gods, OK? They're not real," she says. "And what I wanted to provide people with -- people who face challenges similar to my own -- is an actual, living example of a person just like that."
What Sotomayor has done in her chosen field is the stuff of fables: a federal District Court judge before age 40, then to the Court of Appeals at 44 and the Supreme Court at 55. But those aren't the lessons she wants to convey as she prepares for an 11-city book tour beginning Friday.
Instead, President Obama's first Supreme Court nominee is reaching out to children facing disease, to minorities of all hues and dialects, to families whose lives have been touched by poverty and addiction.
"I think you can extrapolate from my experience and apply it to almost any diagnosis that scares a child and scares a parent," Sotomayor says. From early childhood, when she learned to give herself insulin shots, diabetes has been "an important motivation for how I've lived my life."
"The despair of it is no longer present, but the understanding of the great value of life, that has always stayed with me," she says. "I savor life. When you have anything that threatens life ... it prods you into stepping back and really appreciating the value of life and taking from it what you can."
Neither does she let the poverty and domestic tension of her years in South Bronx housing projects detract from the strong impact of family and community that bolstered her desire to make something of herself -- public servant, lawyer, judge, and now author, complete with a nearly $1.2 million advance. Latino children and adults should "come away with a renewed sense of pride in the richness of our culture," she says.
Her love of books comes from lonely days raised by an emotionally distant mother, her love of poker and baseball picked up along the way, and her single-minded drive to succeed is self-motivated. But for her opportunities to attend Princeton and Yale Law School, Sotomayor is careful to credit the same affirmative action programs that her colleague on the court, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, has decried.
"I had no need to apologize that the look-wider, search-more affirmative action that Princeton and Yale practiced had opened doors for me," she writes. "That was its purpose: to create the conditions whereby students from disadvantaged backgrounds could be brought to the starting line of a race many were unaware was even being run."
Beyond those programs, Sotomayor is quick to credit dozens of people real and fictitious for her steady march up the ladder of higher education, as a New York City prosecutor, in private law practice and the federal court system. It began with a doting grandmother, continued through Nancy Drew and Perry Mason, and was inspired by Robert Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
What no one should come away with, Sotomayor says, is a prediction for how she will rule as a Supreme Court justice during a tenure that began in 2009. She paints herself as a pragmatist and political independent who keeps an open mind -- and asks her law clerks to "argue the other side for me as forcefully as you can."
"If you are seeking predictability at all costs, that comes close to the dogmatism that I decry in my book," she says. "That is not who Sonia is."
Although she gives no hint about the court's upcoming decision in a University of Texas case testing affirmative action programs, she acknowledges society's perceptions of racial preferences have changed, and the courts must grapple with that.
Sotomayor hopes her memoir engenders in readers a greater respect for her profession and the nation's courts. "I want them to come away with a greater respect for law, lawyers and judges," she says. "If my passion for what I do, not just as a judge but my love for law, doesn't come across these pages, then I've failed."
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