For Some Latinos, Hearing Is Believing
Sotomayor's Ascension Trickles Down

By David Montgomery and Kate Kilpatrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

South Bronx arrived in pinstripes and was first in line, at about 3 a.m. Albuquerque showed up with sensible tennis shoes, a hot-pink jacket and a fold-up camp chair at 5. Puerto Rico rolled in around 7:30, waving the island's flag.

Three Latino strangers were on a pilgrimage to get inside the confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor. Watching on television wasn't an indelible enough experience for them. After passing the hours by exchanging life stories, they felt like friends -- so much in common with each other, so much in common with the self-made arc of Sotomayor's life.

"Our stories seem to be unique and yet they're not," said Ephraim Cruz, 36, a union organizer whose Puerto Rican mother raised seven children near Sotomayor's South Bronx, N.Y., neighborhood. He still lives not far away. "People who are working every day, if they apply themselves, they can obtain a certain height."

"Her journey is my journey," said Lynette Oliver, 56, who runs a women's support group in Puerto Rico. She recalled slights from doctors who assumed she was just an underqualified affirmative action case during her medical studies at Michigan State. Oliver brought her hankie-size Puerto Rican flag because "I want her to know people from the island are here."

Claudine Martinez, the lawyer in pink, exchanged her sneakers and slacks for elegant wedge-heeled black sandals and a skirt to enter the hearing, all the while thinking of her father, Ted Martinez, a self-made businessman. Whenever Sotomayor credits her own mother's hard work and support, Claudine is reminded of Ted, who told her no one could take away her education. She was the first in the family to leave the ancestral ranch land of Trujillo, N.M., with few models for the new role she was undertaking -- just the simple, unwavering support of home. She remembers what she was doing when she heard President Obama had nominated Sotomayor.

"I nearly choked on my toothbrush," she said. "I knew then I was going to be there. . . . It's much different when you are there to feel the energy." She held out her arm. "It's electric. My hair is standing on end and I have goose bumps."

Non-Latinos also joined the queue at the corner of First and C streets NE to obtain free green-bordered tickets to witness history unfold in Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building. Senate staffers escorted groups of 24 into the back of the hearing room for 20-minute stays. By early afternoon, more than 650 people had cycled through.

The Latinos in the room often found personal meaning in the proceedings, describing how just seeing Sotomayor is like seeing an idealized, more accomplished version of themselves. "Being here is being part of a person we all admire," said Suleika Cabrera Drinane, a New Yorker who moved from Puerto Rico as a child.

Those who couldn't journey to Washington found other ways to participate. At least 28 viewing parties were organized across the country, according to Latino legal activists. Latinos also held a demonstration in support of Sotomayor late yesterday afternoon near Union Station.

Talking about Sotomayor led them back to their own stories. "There are so few Latinos at the top of the legal profession," said Brigida Benitez, a partner at WilmerHale who hosted a viewing party for a dozen lawyers at her firm's downtown Washington offices. "That's why it's so meaningful to me for her to be where she is," Benitez said, describing her upbringing north of Miami where few, including her parents, found opportunities to attend college.

In the ticket line, under the summer sun, Cruz, Martinez, Oliver and other new friends found a way to maximize the minutes in Sotomayor's presence. As soon as Senate staffers began handing out the tickets for the next time period, they would get back in line for another ticket. They accumulated several. Their goal was to be in the hearing room during the lucky time slot when Sotomayor would give her opening statement.

Frances Marquez, an assistant professor of American government at Gallaudet University, introduced herself to the out-of-towners. At 41, she's a third-generation Mexican American whose father and grandfather were farmers in California. Her parents raised six children who each graduated from college and, among them, earned seven advanced degrees. "Young Latinos will see her and know anything is possible," Marquez said.

She compared notes with the others on Sotomayor's reportedly extensive preparation for the hearing. "It shows her work ethic," Marquez said. "It's the same work ethic you guys were raised with and I was raised with."

Word circulated from a friend of a friend of Sotomayor's that the nominee was "bien tranquila" -- very calm -- this morning before the hearing, and that a member of her security team knew that people had come from as far as Albuquerque. Maybe Sotomayor herself would learn of their presence! The spirits of the pilgrims soared.

"That's the object of today, make her feel that no matter what people say, she has that support," Martinez said. Cabrera Drinane and Cruz teased Oliver for not bringing a Puerto Rican fruit basket -- mangoes, quenepas, among others -- along with her flag.

It's hard to say which of their 20-minute repeat visits was the most memorable. After one, Martinez emerged and said: "I got the moment I was waiting for. She came back from break and embraced her mother and kissed her mother. I just burst into tears."

The scene moved Martinez to call her father. "I wanted to tell you how amazing it was to see her," she said into her cellphone. She told him how she'd told her new friends about him. "I told them how you were always there for me. . . . If it hadn't been for you, I wouldn't be a lawyer."

But there's no time like the first time. At about 10 a.m., the first group was ushered across the street to Hart for the opening gavel. Cruz led the way. Oliver promised a staffer that she would keep the Puerto Rican flag in her lap.

Just before she entered the hearing room, Martinez turned and said, "When I come out, I'll be on the other side of history."

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