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Sotomayor's "Wise Latinas"

08/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Monday, July 13, 2009 is the day Sonia Sotomayor makes history, again! The Nuyorican Latina lauded for her extensive judicial experience and intellect sits before the Senate Judiciary Committee for confirmation as a justice of the Supreme Court. She will enter the history books as the first Puerto Rican, the first Latina and the third woman to experience this honor.

Speaking on her behalf, supporters will recollect her achievements as a practicing lawyer, a judge of the Southern District of New York, and the Court of Appeals. The New Yorkers among them will not fail to mention that Sotomayor saved baseball. Her detractors will probably resurrect her now famous "wise Latina" quote.

By now, everyone knows that in a speech to students at UC Berkeley School of Law in 2001, Judge Sotomayor hoped that a "wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not (my emphasis) reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life and those life experiences." Repeatedly taken out of context, the quote helped unleash an unprecedented smear campaign of unfounded attacks. But is Sotomayor's statement so preposterous, so imbued with identity politics? It really depends on the wise Latina. Before we bury the quote once and for all, let's consider one more variation on the theme. Who might have been Sotomayor's wise Latinas?

Was Sotomayor thinking of someone like Felicita Mendez, the Puerto Rican mother of three children who figured in the landmark case, Mendez v. Westminster (1946) that ended the segregation of Mexican-American children in California public schools nine years before Brown v. Topeka Board of Education? NAACP attorneys,Thurgood Marshall and Robert Carter, filed an amicus curiae brief in this case which Carter believed was a "dry run for the future." This wise Latina's actions not only challenged discrimination under the 14th amendment but changed the course of our national history.

Or did Sotomayor think of Antonia Pantoja's role in ASPIRA v. New York City Board of Education, (1974). Pantoja collaborated with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, PRLDEF (presently LatinoJustice PRLDEF) to mount a class action suit on behalf of all Spanish-speaking or surnamed public school students denied equal opportunity, and won. The resulting ASPIRA Consent Decree mandates transitional bilingual and ESL instruction for all non-English speaking students, regardless of country of origin, in the city's schools.

Of course, as a product of the Civil Rights era and a student of history, Sotomayor knew about Dolores Huerta who led the farm workers' movement with Cesar Chavez. The mother of eleven children and former school teacher, Huerta was known as the "Dragon Lady" by the California growers. A tough contract negotiator, Huerta fought for the rights of migrant and non-migrant workers.

Then again as a Bronx bred, Yankee loving, New Yorker, Sotomayor might have thought of Dolores Fernandez, the out-going president of the City University's Hostos Community College. Influenced by her own obstacles in pursuing higher education, Fernandez headed Hostos since 1998, a college with its own long history of community struggle. Its mission, to serve the South Bronx community and educate its students regardless of linguistic backgrounds, instituted the only bilingual curriculum in the CUNY system. Fernandez led the college in expanding its services to the borough through innovative academic and cultural programs.

Informed initially by their own experiences, these Latinas galvanized efforts to effect societal change that produced results far beyond identity politics. Each could serve as a worthy role model for Latina and non-Latina professionals.

Sotomayor's audience at Berkeley's "Raising the Bar: Latino and Latina Presence in the Judiciary and the Struggle for Representation" symposium in 2001 included a sizable number of aspiring Latina and Latino professionals. The program, after all, was co-hosted by the La Raza Law Journal, La Raza Law Students' Association, the Boalt Hall Center for Social Justice, and the Center for Latino Policy Research. Addressing a theme with multiple interpretations, she spoke frankly that day about her own modest upbringing, and the cultural touchstones of being a puertorriqena, as if to say "if I could do this, then you can do it too." It was the right speech in the right place at the right time.

In each age the wisdom of the Founding Fathers is expressed through different voices. In this age, it may be the voices of "wise Latinas" who speak for us all.

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