Whenever I read Justice Sonia Sotomayor's now-famous 2001 lecture, “A Latina Judge's Voice,” I think of my maternal grandmother's words at the kitchen table: "¡Ay nena, no tienes que decir que eres negra!" Yes, my Mama Cristina had a thing about my choosing to say I was black.
My mother is a white woman born of a Puerto Rican mestiza and a second-generation Puerto Rican criollo. She happened to have married a black man from a few towns over and spawned the two negritos among my grandmother's mass of grandchildren. And this one negrita grandchild decided one day she didn't want the color of her skin nuanced to the people who would ask her blond, green-eyed mother, "So who's the child with you?" Calling myself "negra" back when I was still a child was a very deliberate choice. Sonia Sotomayor reminds me of that choice when she writes: “In this time of great debate we must remember that it is not political struggles that create a Latino or Latina identity. I became a Latina by the way I love and the way I live my life.”
Princeton professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell brilliantly contextualized the politics of humiliation that we all witnessed during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. The unfortunate spectacle of bigotry in which every single white Republican male senator participated, especially the "pro-Sotomayor" Lindsey Graham, was absolutely about putting the “wise Latina" in her place. Yet the point I made to Melissa, Joan Walsh and others during an intense online discussion of the matter goes a bit beyond the fact that these senators were testing her ability to bear up under public degradation as a test of worth because she's Latina. Sotomayor was vilified for choosing to call herself a woman of color, a proud Puerto Rican, a wise Latina.
The power of choice in ethnic pride and political identity exploded the fear of not just "the Other" or "the Different," but also the very power anti-choice crusaders have warred since the days of Roe v. Wade: the power of an autonomous woman. And in this case, a Puerto Rican woman.
Here was a woman who didn't make any excuses for being Puerto Rican or for having a very specific definition of herself as "Latina." On the contrary, she celebrated it. Here's a light-skinned woman who felt incredibly comfortable with equating being Latina as being a woman of color. Here's a woman of color who rejected the idea that to be acceptable you have to look—or at least pass as—white. Here's a woman who not only called herself a proud and wise woman, but a feminist as well. Here's a woman who loves the United States, the country of her birth, in an un-nationalistic way, yet is also proud of her parents' nation of origin. Here's a woman who declared herself a lover of ideas, a nerd, a thinker, a woman open to the world and to learning from everything and anybody. Never a nativist. Always worldly and cosmopolitan. And here's a woman who, in the end, is willing to say her difference and her otherness are not liabilities but fonts of wisdom.
In a bout of summer boredom, one of my kids snapped: "I hate these stupid hearings. They're boring. They make no sense." I answered: "Honey, this is history in the making."
"What do you mean by history in the making?"
"Remember how I told you last year that as a kid of your age I just couldn't imagine a black man being elected president of the United States? Well, I never even thought there'd be a Puerto Rican woman out there who could be Supreme Court justice."
There was a great pause and then a "damn." My kids, bless them, live in the post-racist oasis of New York City's East Village. Bigotry of the kind Sonia Sotomayor experienced during the hearings seems not just rare to the point of being implausible, but as my little one said, "the stupidest thing anybody could do in the whole world."
Sonia Sotomayor didn't have to call herself a woman of color, a Puerto Rican, a Latina. Yet she did, and she did so with the full force of her love of difference, and life itself. As a proud woman of color and a wise Latina.
In the process, she has sledgehammered the walls of prejudice and bigotry.
I, for one, am looking forward to seeing that existential otherness in action at the Supreme Court.
Liza Sabater is founder and publisher of culturekitchen, a community blog committed to providing a platform to political activists and cultural creatives. She's launching TheWiseLatina.com project by the end of this month.
Blogdiva extraordinaire. Founder and publisher of culturekitchen.com and DailyGotham.com