Historical Note

A wise Latina

In this Sept. 29, 2009 file photo, the Supreme Court poses for a portrait at the Supreme Court in Washington. Seated, from left are: Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, and Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. Standing, from left are: Associate Justice Samuel Alito Jr., Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, and Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak. FILE )

By the time Sonia Sotomayor arrived on the Princeton campus in the fall of 1972, she was one of a handful of Latino students.

Latino professors or administrators were nowhere to be found. In fact, there weren’t that many women. The Ivy League school had just started admitting women three years earlier — over the objections of former students like Samuel A. Alito Jr., now like Sotomayor, a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

At the time, Sotomayor had her own objections about the white male bastion. “The facts imply and reflect a total absence of regard, concern and respect for an entire people and their culture,” she opined in the Daily Princetonian. “In effect they represent an effort — a successful effort so far — to relegate an important cultural sector of the population to oblivion.”

She was unafraid to challenge the status quo and was part of a Latino student organization that filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, charging the school with discrimination in hiring and admission.

Indeed, Sotomayor, a self-described Newyorkrican who grew up in an East Bronx project had a different path to the nation’s highest court. Her parents, both Puerto Ricans came to America during World War II, and like most people of color, wanted the best education they could find for their children. In Sotomayor’s case, that meant a Roman Catholic high school, then Princeton — where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa — and on to Yale Law School.

Linda Brown Smith
President Barack Obama announces federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor (right) as his nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court during a ceremony held on Tuesday, May 26, 2009, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. If confirmed, Sotomayor would become the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice. (AP photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The key word here is education, arguably the single greatest equalizer in the pursuit of the American Dream. But as Sotomayor discovered at Princeton, the doors were not always opened. Not to African Americans. Not to Latinos. And in many cases, not to women.

That fight to integrate schools across the country started the year she was born. In 1954, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled in the landmark Brown v. Topeka Board of Education that separate schools were not equal, and in fact, were damaging to blacks as well as whites.

“In these days,” Warren argued, “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”

In a sense, Warren had been sensitized to the issue of school integration while he served as governor of California. The specific case was Mendez v. Westminster and for the first time in U.S. history, a successful court challenge had been waged against the legal principle of “separate but equal.” In 1945, five Latino fathers (Gonzalo Mendez, Thomas Estrada, William Guzman, Frank Palomino, and Lorenzo Ramirez) filed suit in federal court to end the practice of segregating the roughly 5,000 school children of Mexican and Latin descent in Orange County, California.

The specifics of the Mendez case were eerily similar to those heard nine years later in the Brown case — and what in effect was still practiced some 30 years later through restrictive admission policies on Ivy League campuses. At the time, the Westminster school district had two elementary schools — the “whites-only” 17th Street Elementary school and Hoover Elementary, a two-room, wooden shack in the middle of the city’s Mexican neighborhood. Located amid a row of palm trees, the brick 17th Street schoolhouse had more and better resources.

Quite naturally, that’s where Mendez wanted to send his three children and several other nieces and nephews. When the family tried to enroll the children at the 17th Street, school officials there denied admission to those with dark-skinned but allowed the light-skinned ones to attend.

On Feb. 18, 1946, Judge Paul J. McCormick ruled enough was enough. In his decision, McCormick determined that the practice was unconstitutional. “A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality,” McCormick wrote. “[But] the methods of segregation prevalent in the defendant school districts foster antagonisms in the children and suggest inferiority among them were none exists.”

The newest Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, left, is embraced by her mother, Celina, right, outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2009, following an investiture ceremony with her colleagues. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Despite the ruling, school district officials remained steadfast in their way of thinking. They pleaded to the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. By then, the case had attracted some determined friends, including Thurgood Marshall and Robert Carter, two NAACP attorneys that would successfully argue the Brown case before Chief Justice Warren. Marshall later became the first African American Supreme Court justice. As Carter said later, the Mendez case was a “dry run for the future.”

And for future students like Sotomayor. In a 2001 speech, Sotomayor talked about the very real differences among ethnic groups as all have tried to flourish within the context of evolving democratic ideals too often dominated by privileged white males.

“America has a deeply confused image of itself that is in perpetual tension,” Sotomayor said. “We are a nation that takes pride in our ethnic diversity, recognizing its importance in shaping our society and in adding richness to its existence. Yet, we simultaneously insist that we can and must function and live in a race and color-blind way that ignore these very differences that in other contexts we laud.”

How that tension — and the experiences in America of Latino families like the Mendez’s -— will affect her decision-making on the Supreme Court, even Sotomayor doesn’t know the answer.

“My hope is that I will take the good from my experience and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar,” Sotomayor said in a 2001 speech titled “A Latina Judge’s voice.” “I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.”

It’s only human. “I can and do aspire to be greater than the sum total of my experiences but I accept my limitations,” Sotomayor said. “I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage, but attempt, as the Supreme Court suggests, continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate.”

Now that’s one wise Latina.