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Sotomayor's Hearing Captures Her Old Bronx Neighborhood

VERENA DOBNIK   07/14/09 08:16 PM ET   AP

Watching Sotomayor

NEW YORK — Hilda Maldonado is proud that Sonia Sotomayor rose to national prominence "like a phoenix from the ashes" of a burned-out Bronx.

The Puerto Rican-born resident of Sotomayor's childhood neigborhood says the U.S. Supreme Court nominee now faces another hurdle.

"I do believe there is an issue of racial discomfort," she says – of mostly white lawmakers grilling an accomplished Hispanic woman.

Sotomayor has lived in Manhattan's Greenwich Village for the past two decades, but her ties to the Bronx tug at still-painful social realities, said New Yorkers watching the proceedings on English and Spanish television playing live in restaurants and community centers around the city.

Some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee "don't want to be too obvious, so they're going about it as if they're trying to protect the Constitution, not attacking her," Maldonado said.

"But they are attacking her, by playing with words taken out of context," said the 75-year-old retired secretary, referring to several senators' demands that the nominee explain her remark that a "wise Latina woman" might reach a better legal conclusion than a white male.

Maldonado watched the second day of the Senate hearings at a senior citizen center in the Soundview neighborhood, a short walk from the housing project where Sotomayor lived as a child.

The neighborhood remained a hub of homicides and car thefts years after it fell into decay in the 1970s, amid drug gangs sowing fear in rising public developments.

Many of the issues discussed by Sotomayor and the senators affect life in the Bronx – including the right to bear arms.

"I believe that people should have protection," said John Torres, 20, who watched the hearings at Joe's Place, a popular storefront restaurant owned by his father. "Around here, they're sticking you up for nothing."

When questioned by Sen. Patrick Leahy about cases involving gun rights, Sotomayor said she understands "how important the right to bear arms is to many, many Americans."

Torres said he wasn't sure how Sotomayor might rule in cases involving firearms.

"We've got to wait and see," he said, glancing up at the TV as the lunch crowd trickled in.

Maldonado said that despite her admiration for Sotomayor's accomplishments, she also must hear more to fully assess the nominee. "I haven't formed an opinion about her, but from what I've heard so far, she's very qualified for the Supreme Court."

And she's a positive role model for a community whose members "are more often seen on TV as ignorant, running around with knives and guns," Torres said. "It's very rare that you see a Hispanic person who's accomplished something."

The director of the Rain Parkchester Senior Center, Jose Martinez, said she had achieved the kind of success that is in itself a paradox for a minority American – stuck between two worlds.

"Everyone is equal, if you ask me, but if you're in a higher position, you get it from both sides," said Martinez, 55, who has two master's degrees. "Some people in your own community act as if you think you're better then they are. And then, you have to prove to the mainstream that you're good enough."

In Soundview, where faces on the street are mostly Hispanic or black, building bridges to a broader America is still a challenge.

It's one that faces a growing number of "people of color getting appointed by President Obama and moving up," said Martinez. "Some conservative senators don't like change – like an intellectual woman who is also Latina. She really has to prove she can do the job."

In Washington, Sotoyamor was quick to concede to the senators that her "wise Latina" comment was "a rhetorical flourish that fell flat." In the Bronx, Puerto Rico-born restaurant owner Joe Torres said they blew her comment "out of proportion. She has lived this, and she knows what she's talking about. They've got to find an excuse to make her look bad."

Besides, Maldonado said later, "everybody has the right to be wrong, at least once."

Sotomayor is resilient – and as tough as the Bronx, said Joe Torres.

She doesn't base her legal decisions mostly on "empathy" – the quality President Obama cited when announcing her nomination, he said. "I don't think she's compassionate or soft. She's a straight-up woman."

In short, the community of her youth was reflected Tuesday in the lively, red-clad woman splashed across TV screens all over the Bronx.

In the end, to one and all in the Bronx, Sotomayor is a morale booster.

"You get motivated watching her," said John Torres.

At the senior center, open windows let in a warm summer breeze as Maldonado sat in a semi-circle around a giant television set.

"Sotomayor is like a phoenix shining from the people of the Bronx," she said. "And when she's confirmed, that'll be the icing on the cake for us."

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Filed by Katharine Zaleski  |