Sotomayor Nomination Unites Hispanics

Residents of the Bronx neighborhood where Sonia Sotomayor grew up reacted joyfully to President Obama's nomination of Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Video by Travis Fox/The Washington Post
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sometime soon, Hispanics in the United States will once again subdivide into conservatives and liberals, natives and recent immigrants, Cuban Americans, Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans. Some will support the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court; others will oppose it. Some will monitor the daily details of her confirmation process; others will lose interest.

But for at least a few hours yesterday, America's largest ethnic minority seemed largely united in appreciation of a historic benchmark. At 10:17 a.m., President Obama nominated Sotomayor, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent who calls herself a "Newyorkrican," to become the first Hispanic to serve on the Supreme Court. Most of the country's 45 million Hispanics knew little or nothing about her, but those who heard of her appointment shared a collective reaction:

Finally. One of us.

A conservative Cuban judge canceled his morning appointments in Miami to watch Sotomayor's news conference on the television in his office. Puerto Rico's biggest newspaper published a story celebrating Sotomayor as a "boricua," a colloquial term reserved for familiar locals. Eight Hispanic civil rights organizations with varied backgrounds and disparate missions hosted a joint news conference at a Senate office building to offer Sotomayor their congratulations.

"This is the most important Hispanic appointment that has been made in this country's history," said Cesar Perales, executive director of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a New York-based civil rights group. "It is a recognition that we are coming of age."

Groups Within a Group

Yesterday's news was notable not because it touched one subgroup, Hispanics said, but because it managed to unite so many. In two years of demographic research by the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanics have been defined mainly by their own diversity: Two-thirds voted for Obama, and about one-third voted for Republican John McCain; 60 percent are native-born and 40 percent foreign-born; 64 percent are of Mexican heritage, and the other 36 percent are from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Central America and beyond.

As a united whole, Hispanics make up more than 15 percent of the U.S. population and accounted for about half of the country's growth in the past decade. For many of those who heard Obama's announcement, the moment served as the latest affirmation of Hispanics' imprint on the United States. Sotomayor -- previously anonymous -- became a sudden inspiration.

In Los Angeles, a Spanish-language radio station used the nomination to introduce a segment on becoming a successful Mexican American woman. Mireya Chavarria, a 34-year-old mother of three, heard the broadcast in her car while pulling into the parking lot at Ritmo Latino, a large Spanish music store. "When there's no one there representing your people, there's not as much interest," Chavarria said. "I'm not into politics that much. I care, I look at the news. But knowing there's a Latino person there, it's a little more real."

The instructive and inspirational qualities of Sotomayor's life story were also put to immediate use a couple of miles north of the White House, in Columbia Heights. Laura Ramirez Drain, who leads a nonprofit Latina mentoring group, gathered half a dozen schoolgirls and turned Sotomayor's success into part of their morning lesson. "You have to study very hard, and be good, and never break the law, and follow your dreams," Drain told them.

Joy Among Puerto Ricans

Puerto Ricans heralded Sotomayor's nomination as a sudden boost to the island's image. Liza Sabater, who lives in New York, threw on a T-shirt bearing an image of the Puerto Rican flag when she heard the news and sent out a message on Twitter: "Today I unapologetically wave my Puerto Rican flag at all of you as a proud boricua mami," she wrote. Puerto Rican officials sent out news releases to remind people that Sotomayor's parents were from Mayague and that she visits the island often.

"It's really important because Puerto Ricans have gotten so much bad press over the years -- stereotyped as being on welfare, involved in terrorism," said Charles S. Hey-Maestre, executive director of Puerto Rico Legal Services Inc. in San Juan. "They say, 'Puerto Ricans are really talented baseball players, but have you heard of them doing anything else?' . . . Now we have Sotomayor."

Perhaps no other place seized its ownership of Sotomayor yesterday quite like the Bronxdale Houses, the South Bronx public housing development where the judge grew up. Word of the nomination spread quickly through the brown-brick buildings -- in part thanks to Saomi Guzman, 39, a registered nurse of Puerto Rican descent who eagerly informed as many people as she could.

Guzman immediately told her 6-year-old son, even though he was too young to understand. "I want to inspire him, give him something to work toward," she said. Then Guzman pointedly informed a young man with an iPod bud dangling out of his ear who, she said, spends too much time hanging out with friends at the entrance to a local building.

"They need to motivate themselves to do better," Guzman said. "Not just trash comes out of the projects."

Countering the Stereotypes

Some veteran Hispanic civil rights activists said Sotomayor's confirmation created widespread joy because her biography offers an antidote to so many cultural stereotypes. "The Latino community doesn't agree all the time, but she offers something to everybody," said Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farmworkers of America. "Being Puerto Rican, a woman and growing up poor -- this inspires everybody."

Especially Luis Reyes, 49, a Salvadoran-born businessman who arrived almost penniless three decades ago and now lives in spacious house in upper Northwest Washington. He said he yelled for his 11-year-old daughter as soon as he heard the news anchor start to announce Obama's decision on his living-room television set. "I told her, 'Come! Come! You have to come see this! This is a historic occasion that should inspire you,' " he said. "When I first got to this country, this would have been unthinkable."

Several hours later, Reyes was still glowing as he recounted the moment to a group of construction workers who accompanied him to lunch at a local Mexican restaurant. Like many local Hispanic immigrants who work in blue-collar jobs that start shortly after dawn, the construction workers had not followed the morning's announcement closely, and they still knew little about Sotomayor in the early afternoon.

"Is she liberal or conservative?" asked Sergio Roa, 55, a Mexican immigrant who is applying for U.S. citizenship.

"She's more liberal," answered Reyes. "It's important because we're starting to be represented in all the levels of government," he continued. "Now there's only one thing we're still missing."

"What's that?" Roa asked.

"To have a Latino in the White House," Reyes said. "I think we'll have that in 30, 40 years."

He paused.

"Or you know what? Maybe much sooner," he said. "Today, everything seems possible."

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