Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s 1972 yearbook photograph from Cardinal Spellman High in North Bronx, New York.


by Diana Cristales

“I would hope 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.” These were the words spoken by former appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor.

Intrigued by the amount of press Sotomayor and her statement had attracted, I decided that I wanted to gain a better understand of what she really meant by those words. So, a couple of YouTube videos and online articles later I found the original text to which this statement belonged. The entire speech can be found in the text of the Judge Mario G. Olmos Memorial Lecture in 2001, delivered at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. It was published in the Spring 2002 issue of Berkeley La Raza Law Journal, a symposium issue entitled “Raising the Bar: Latino and Latina Presence in the Judiciary and the Struggle for Representation.”

My first impression was that these words, within the context of the entire speech, were intended to serve as an acknowledgement that there is value in cultural understanding, representation and activism, for people of all cultures, in regard to law. My second thought was, ”she shouldn’t have said that out loud.”

That made me think about a social behavior that is not only common, but expected. We don’t always say what we mean in front of just anyone. Either, because we are afraid to say what we think, or perhaps because it is bad social etiquette.

The truth is that, wives don’t always say what they really think to their husbands in the same way that they do to their best friends, especially about sex. Employees do not usually speak as openly with their bosses as they do with their co-workers. Teens do not share as much about their most intimate thoughts with their parents as they do with bff’s. And a person of color is not always going to share their cultural perspective with people outside of their immediate social circle. How do I know? I know because I am a person of color. I will even go as far to say that some white people will only say certain things in front of other white people. How do I know? Because my ex husband was white and that’s what he told me.

Does that surprise you? Well when I found that out, it surprised me too! He told me the truth….not all white people like Latin people and even if they won’t tell you that themselves….they tell one another. I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had with Latino’s where they vent their frustrations about how they are treated or about how they perceive other cultures. They would never say these things to a person outside of their culture because it’s just not polite.

So what is really the problem with Sonia Sotomayor’s words? That she actually said what she was thinking out loud. She said it and it was recorded and now…it can be used to define her beliefs as a Latina woman and as a judge. She spoke to the public in way that is best reserved for private conversations. Not having been a public figure to the extent that she is now, she allowed herself to be candid “in public”. Sotomayor felt comfortable expressing her concerns with this specific group in a way that was relevant to that group and now the world has access to those same words without having heard the entire speech.

The real questions that can be derived from her words are: Can one person with a diverse cultural background make better decisions that a person without a more homogeneous cultural background? Is one culture more objective than the other? Do all decisions require objectivity in order to be the right decision or do other factors need to be taken into account? Perhaps what she was saying is that a person with a limited understanding of other cultures is at a disadvantage.

Isn’t it possible that a group of people who have shared similar experiences, come from a similar tier of society, and have a similar educational background would make decisions based on shared values. Is it possible to be completely objective given our cultural histories? Now what about our educational background? If we are privy to the same information, wouldn’t we then develop a somewhat common idea of what is right and wrong?

To be quite honest I didn’t like what she said when I first read it. I didn’t like the way it sounded, but after reading more about where and when she said it, I feel that she acknowledged, what she considered, her social responsibility for a part of the population that is not always represented or valued.

Did those words give us an insight into the way she thinks and what she believes? Yes they did, for that time. However, it has been eight years after she spoke those words and I’m sure she is that much wiser.

As to her ability to serve as a judge in the highest court…… I for one would like to be culturally represented in a country where I have spent all but four years of my life. I would like to see a wise Latina woman make an impact in the life of people she serves. I am excited that she is looking at the things that might have been overlooked. We deserve people in government who are willing to speak their truth, even when we do not agree or understand. At their best, lawyers and judges should serve as stewards of the law who have the integrity and insight to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.

It is August 6, 2009 and the Senate has approved Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court. The rest is herstory, I mean history.

–Diana Cristales

Further Reading:

In So Many Words: The over-intellectualization of art, culture and politics by Diana Cristales, 7/20/09

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