Notes from the Book Group on November 21, 2013

Recollections of the Meeting of the Bryn Mawr Book Group on

Thursday, November 21, 2013

My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor

Present: Roo Dane, host, Anne Ipsen, Dorianne Low, Dodie Rees, Sydney Owens, and myself, Cornelia Robart.

“This book is brilliant right from the start!” Our first encounter with the ferocious will to thrive of 8-year-old Sonia, a little Puerto Rican raised in the Bronx, when, panicked by her diagnosis of diabetes, she hides under a car to escape the confusion and fear of her parents. In 1962 this was considered a portent of an early death. Her mother and father argued so over who would give her the life-saving shots of insulin that, faced with her parents’ incompetence and her own impatience, Sonia took on the job herself. This was to be her typical behavior: either with personal challenges or successes, she never showcased her role in achievement but always focused on the desired outcome.

Sonia was a hard worker. Considering herself neither beautiful nor clever, she immersed herself in learning and in her turbulent family. The men in her story seem, if not interchangeable, of secondary importance and quite forgettable. The women, however, rose from the pages of the book. Sonia understood the importance of having had two very strong influences in her life: her mother, whose early belief in education led her to buy The Encyclopedia Britannica on her slim wages, and Abuelita – Little Grandmother – who unfailingly enveloped her with love and approval. They pushed her and cherished her unreservedly. We reveled in these strong female figures in Sonia’s life, recognizing studies and other observations confirming this idea.

Sonia had the great quality of knowing when to seek help from others, and then accepting it – two very different aspects of inability. Her women friends were of great help to her in learning the Anglo world. When she realized that her study skills were woefully inadequate, she sought help (again from a female comrade) and studied even harder. All through her studies and professional life, she maintained the habit of tirelessly preparing every assignment. She is a discoverer, each difficulty becoming an opportunity to master a new subject or a new skill, and never complimenting itself on its accomplishment. In the 1970s there were few women in men’s colleges. There were even fewer Latinos, and they were considered second-class and left to struggle on their own. Sonia was urged to apply to major colleges for her education. Her first interview was with the elegantly coiffed Radcliffe admissions representative, whose dogs watched her from their post on the large Oriental carpet. Her fear of being out of place, unprepared, and totally unsuited to the Cambridge school was humorously told, with no self-pity or self-deprecation.  (One reader reminded us of the space reserved for women under the Harvard aegis – a bare basement room under Memorial Church). (She eventually graduated summa cum laude from Princeton.)Perhaps saved by her Spanish-speaking background, Sonia never used the speech patterns of many young Anglo women at that time, apologizing for asking a question in class and using an interrogative lift to the end of a sentence, implying weakness and uncertainty. A compliment to her academic excellence from a lawyer colleague might be, “You argue like a man!”

Latinos were poorly considered at U.S. colleges, isolated by not only a tinge of color difference but also a wholly different language and culture. Sonia was active in opening up the minority groups to appreciate / accept each other and also become available to the Anglo community. She worked at various other volunteer jobs, and amassed a large group of friends, many of whom over the years came to watch her academic and legal triumphs.

One delightful anecdote demonstrates her gentle but firm diplomatic approach to a man who continuously challenged and disagreed with her. She asks if there is any way she can help him change his attitude. “I don’t like brassy Jewish women,” he confesses. Sonia is quiet for a moment, then agrees, “I don’t think there is any way I can help you,” and walked away.