My Beloved World opens with a parental spat. Sonia Sotomayor’s mother, Celina, tells her father, Juan Luis, called Juli, that he must give their daughter her insulin shot. He does not want to because he dreads hurting the child. The scene ends with 7-year-old Sonia, a Type 1 diabetic, learning to inject herself. Diabetes teaches her self-discipline and self-reliance. Once thought to cut life short, diabetes teaches her not to waste time, but to live in the moment. It is a better teacher than the nuns. At first, Sonia keeps her condition a secret outside the family, but gradually she learns another life skill, “the value of vulnerability.” It pays off. Friends who know of her condition save her life on occasion, even during adulthood, when her blood sugar inexplicably falls too low.
With a father who spent evenings in his room drinking and a mother who worked nights to avoid him, Sonia and Junior, her younger brother, learned to fend for themselves. Their grandmother Mercedes, Juli’s mother, whom Sonia calls “Abuelita,” was Sonia’s guide, the adult she could trust, the one who loved her unconditionally, the source of her strength. Her relationship with her mother grew over time with much effort, like so much else in Sonia’s life.
Juli, whose formal education ended at sixth grade, is a factory worker and math prodigy, a gift he passed on to Sonia. Celina is a well-dressed beauty and high school graduate, who joined the Women’s Army Corps in Puerto Rico at 17, moved to New York and married Juli. She works at Prospect Hospital as a practical nurse. She values education enough to put Sonia and Junior through 12 years of Catholic school, and invests in the Encyclopedia Britannica for her kids. Later Celina will quit her job to study so she can become a registered nurse. The family evinces grit and perseverance.
Puerto Rican identity and culture bind the Sotomayor family. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins gather to play dominoes, dance, cook, go on picnics, throw parties, make music and recite poetry. Not all of these adults are regular Mass-goers. Abuelita sometimes holds late night seances to call on the spirits. She also prays over Sonia, “May God bless you, favor you, and deliver you from all evil and danger,” and she feels blessed, protected. Danger lurks in the stairwells and alleyways of the Bronx public housing projects where the family lives and in the neighborhood streets.
But when Sonia is 9, things change. Juli drinks himself to death; Abuelita goes into extended mourning for her firstborn son and Celina is paralyzed by grief.
My Beloved World is a rags-to-riches story for our time. A Hispanic girl, raised in the projects by a single mother, wins a scholarship to Princeton and graduates with highest honors, then attends Yale Law School, where she publishes an article in the law journal. She moves from a position as assistant district attorney to Robert Morris Morgenthau in New York to become a partner at the law firm Pavia & Harcourt. The book ends when Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan appoints her to a federal judgeship and Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., then president of Fordham University, writes a recommendation. Sonia Sotomayor currently serves as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. She is the first Hispanic and the third female justice in U.S. history.
What distinguishes this book is that Sotomayor does not claim to be self-made. Yes, she extols the virtues of hard work and persistence toward one’s goals. Of force of will, she writes: “If only I could bottle it, I’d share it with every kid in America.” She also understands the importance of community, family, friends and mentors. These reflections are not intended to trumpet her success, but to help others achieve their dreams. She offers both example and wisdom, including how to learn from failure. When she was not offered a job after a summer internship at the law firm Paul Weiss, she writes: “I had only myself to blame, and knowing that, I was profoundly shaken.” When her marriage to Kevin Noonan, her high school sweetheart, failed after several years, she tried without acrimony and with Kevin to understand why. “Success is its own reward, but failure is a great teacher too, and not to be feared,” she writes.
Sotomayor’s experience of the Catholic Church is mixed. A local priest failed the Sotomayor family by refusing to visit Celina when Juli died, because “my mother didn’t go to church on Sunday.” The reforms of the Second Vatican Council heartened Sonia, as did what she read of Pope Paul VI’s desire to end the Vietnam War and promote dialogue among religions. But she was excluded from the school fieldtrip to see the pope at St. Patrick’s Cathedral—again because her family did not attend Mass. If that was the reason, her complaint is legitimate and sad.
Of the Sisters of Charity, she writes: “I often stewed with righteous anger over physical punishments...especially when they seemed disproportionate to the crime. I accepted what the Sisters taught in religion class: that God is loving, merciful, charitable, forgiving. That message didn’t jibe with adults smacking kids.” Nor did she see why the nuns criticized working mothers like Celina, who worked because they had to. Still, Sotomayor admits that Catholic schools launched many students on successful careers. And, she adds, “It was at Blessed Sacrament that I first discovered love of learning and a lust for gold stars.”
Cardinal Spellman High School furnished two early mentors. Miss Katz, a Jewish history teacher, urged students to “master abstract, conceptual thinking,” not just rote learning, as the nuns had taught. A progressive, Miss Katz told Sonia that she admired a Bronx priest who promoted tenants’ rights and the nuns and priests in Latin America who risked their lives to help the poor. Kenny Moy, a student coach of the Spellman forensics club, proved invaluable to Sonia. This Chinese-American teenager taught Sonia how to analyze both sides of a position, anticipate an opponent’s moves and argue convincingly. When the guidance counselor directed Sonia only to Catholic schools, Moy urged her to apply to the Ivy League. That advice unlocked doors for her.
While Sotomayor does not use religious language, she espouses many core values consistent with Catholic social teaching, including a life of service, community engagement, putting vocation before income and the extension of justice to all. “A synergy of love and gratitude, protection and purpose, was implanted in me at a very young age,” writes Sotomayor. “And it flowered in the determination to serve.”