There is a touching image at the beginning of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography.
As a little girl living in the projects in the Bronx, she recalls joining her cousins in her grandmother’s bedroom to make faces at passengers speeding by on the elevated train that ran at the height of the window.
As I read her story, “My Beloved World,” that picture intrigued me. What would those commuters have thought, I wondered, if they knew as they zipped by that amid the little Puerto Rican faces sticking their tongues out at them was a future Supreme Court justice?
Only in America, they might say. But that confidence in opportunity is taking some bashing during our current election cycle.
Reading Sotomayor’s autobiography has offered an interesting juxtaposition to the hateful comments we’ve been subjected to by some of our current presidential candidates. Suggesting that Mexican migrants are predominantly rapists and criminals or that Muslims are not qualified to be president takes us back to some of the worst of American nativism.
Not that long ago, help-wanted signs read, “No Irish Need Apply.” But how soon we forget that all of us, except the beleaguered Native Americans, were immigrants once.
Sotomayor was born in the Bronx, but her family’s roots run deep in Puerto Rico. She visited the island as a child, and its foods, language and customs enveloped her youth in a poor, tightknit Puerto Rican community.
I think of myself as one who understands and appreciates diversity. Yet “My Beloved World” made me realize how much I take for granted about “the other.”
Sotomayor had the benefit of intellectual brilliance, but her great gift was self-confidence. When people called her derogatory ethnic names, she saw it not as a reflection on her, but on the person doing the labeling.
Although the nuns at her Catholic high school recommended Jesuit-run Fordham University to her, a friend who made it into Princeton told her to go Ivy League. Sotomayor didn’t know what that meant.
Her first campus visit to Harvard opened her eyes to a new world, beginning with the white couch in the interviewer’s office. She’d never seen a white couch or, for that matter, a couch not covered in plastic.
When someone suggested it was like “Alice in Wonderland,” Sotomayor’s reaction was, “Alice who?” Cultural differences lie so much deeper than we realize.
Sotomayor went on to success at Princeton.
I’m roughly the same generation as Sotomayor, and yet we grew up in different worlds. I attended a one-room country schoolhouse. But our parents did one thing in common in those pre-Internet days: They bought us a set of encyclopedias to bolster our education.
We were so isolated then, living in ethnic or geographic enclaves. Today, considering the access to information we have, you would think we would understand and appreciate one another more.
Instead, we find ourselves in the midst of hate talk. Jeb Bush was roundly criticized for a comment he made earlier that many people who come to the U.S. illegally do so as “an act of love” for their families. Of course they do.
How could anyone argue with that statement? The discussion should begin from a vantage point of love and mercy.
The U.S. Catholic bishops have proposed paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the United States. But instead of constructive discussion, we hear talk of walls.
What we should hear in the coming Year of Mercy is talk of how to begin a prayerful discernment based on love for the other, about whom we have so much to learn.