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Sonia Sotomayor Built Successful Life on Then-Solid Ground of Bronxdale Houses

Stories of gang violence and vandalism seemed distant from the rhythms of life at Bronxdale, residents of the time said. Sotomayor recalled the new apartment was "spacious, pristine white" the day her family moved in, and she celebrated by pedaling her tricycle around until she bumped into a wall and left an ugly black tread mark. Three-year-old Sonia guiltily hid under a bed for two hours. "Marring that wall was the single most traumatic event of my childhood," she said in the housing authority publication.

Back then, the grounds at Bronxdale were so carefully maintained that if you walked on the grass, you might get a ticket, and your parents would surely get a call from some neighbor about your misdeed. Mothers would prop open the front door with a chair to get a breeze while they were cooking, and kids would run from apartment to apartment, said Taur Orange, who is 54, the same age as Sotomayor, and whose family was one of the first to move into the project. Residents could leave their bicycles and baby carriages downstairs without locks or fear of theft, said Shaunee Butler, also 54, who also grew up at Bronxdale.

"We had the run of the projects," Sotomayor said in the housing authority article. "We had freedom."

Sotomayor's parents became close with neighbors, but the family also had its own social world. Each weekend, cousins, aunts and uncles met at the Bronx home of her paternal grandmother, Mercedes Ortega, for dominoes and a feast. In summer, the whole extended family would spend the day at the Orchard Beach in the northeast Bronx and bring sandwiches, pernil and arroz con gandules. Sonia's parents, aunts and uncles used to dance guaguaco and merengue in each other's living rooms, said friends of the family.

Friends who frequented the Sotomayor home were impressed by two qualities: warmth and aspiration.

Sonia's father, Juan, who worked at a tool and die factory, used to tell her, "Someday, you're going to go to the moon," her cousin Miriam Gonzerelli has said.

Sonia's mother, Celina, who had grown up poor in a sugar-plantation town in Puerto Rico, subscribed to a mail-order encyclopedia set, as well as Nancy Drew books that first piqued Sonia's interest in criminal justice. "She really valued education," Sonia's brother, Juan, said of his mother. "She said, 'Listen. This is your path.' "

After her father's death from a heart problem when Sonia was 9, the family moved to Bronxdale Building 24, where the two children shared a room. The new second-floor apartment looked out over Blessed Sacrament, the private Catholic school both children attended. Celina would watch from the window and pick out Sonia and Juan, three years younger, from the slew of boys and girls in navy-and-plaid uniforms to track their progress home.

"She was eagle-eyed," said Juan. At Bronxdale, only kids from "hard households" dropped out of school, and most would do no worse than drink cheap wine and Colt 45 malt liquor. Neighborhood crime was still mostly limited to theft of bicycles and lunch money. But, said Juan, "I was always worried." Celina, who was training to be a registered nurse, taught Sonia and Juan to be vigilant outside and check the little mirrors affixed to the walls in the stairwells.

"My mother is like a lioness," said Juan, an allergist in Syracuse. "She was a protective lioness. My mother was going to make sure we never went down the wrong side," he said.

Then heroin surged through the Houses.

"People started sniffing heroin, then skin-popping heroin, then shooting heroin," said Shaunee Butler, an unemployed dental assistant who still lives in Bronxdale. "You would see friends or people you knew and now they're getting high, they're no longer the same person."

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