The slight older woman with the curly white hair sat quietly for hours in the vast Senate hearing room Monday—directly behind her daughter, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Then, as always, Celina Sotomayor was clearly a reassuring presence, calm, steady, an unshakable friend and determined ally.
With her daughter at the witness table and her son, Juan Sotomayor, by her side in the first row of the audience, the 82-year-old Sotomayor of Margate, Fla., was a featured player at the opening of this week’s confirmation hearings that could make her child the first Hispanic member of the United States Supreme Court.
Wearing a print skirt and brown jacket, the mother of the judge kept her composure, mostly. But when Judge Sotomayor told the senators about her and singled her out for thanks, Celina Sotomayor dabbed at her eyes as the tears welled up.
“I want to make one special note of thanks to my mom. I am here today because of her aspirations and sacrifices for both my brother, Juan, and me,” said Judge Sotomayor, a native New Yorker educated at Ivy League schools who went on to serve as a federal court judge. “Mom, I love that we are sharing this together.”
The judge was raised in housing projects in the Bronx by her widowed mother.
“On her own, my mother raised my brother and me,” the judge said in her opening remarks. “She taught us that the key to success in America is a good education. And she set the example, studying alongside my brother and me at our kitchen table so that she could become a registered nurse.”
The two locked eyes at least once, words unspoken, meaning clear. They have a special relationship built on hardship, determination and mutual respect.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., in her opening statement, said she was as impressed with the elder Sotomayor as she was with her highly accomplished daughter.
“I loved the story about how your mom saved all of her money to buy you and your brother the first set of encyclopedias in the neighborhood,” Klobuchar said, as Celina Sotomayor nodded slightly. “She struggled to buy those encyclopedias on a nurse’s salary. But she did it because she believed deeply in the value of education,” Klobuchar said.
And Sotomayor’s mother showed her pride in both of her children. When Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., in his introductory remarks, noted that Juan Sotomayor is a “doctor in Syracuse,” his mother turned to Juan with a broad smile that could only have signaled delight in, as the cliché goes, “my son the doctor.”
Judge Sotomayor’s parents, Celina Baez and Juan Luis Sotomayor, met and married during World War II, after Celina was discharged from the Women’s Army Corps. Celina had left Puerto Rico at age 17 to join the WACS and was sent to Georgia for training. Neither parent had much formal education, though Celina had more than her husband, who left school after the third grade. A heart ailment kept him out of the service in World War II.
Juan Luis worked at a tool-and-die factory and Celina initially took a job as a telephone operator at a New York hospital. Juan Luis died at age 42 from heart complications, leaving Celina to raise Sonia, then 9, and Juan alone.
To cope, she borrowed and saved, scraping by, sometimes working six days a week. She eventually went on to become a nurse.
Jamie Woolf, author ofMom in Chief: How Wisdom From the Workplace Can Save Your Family From Chaos,says all of the resilience that she talks about in her book is “played out with this mother.” Sotomayor, Woolf says, focused on the things over which she had control.
“Yes, she lived in the projects; yes, her husband died; OK, now go get educated,” Woolf says. And, Woolf adds, Sotomayor involved her children in the cause, rather than sheltering them.
“She sat them down, and said I’m going to need your help when I go back to school,” Woolf says. “She said here’s what I want to do and here’s why.”
Sotomayor’s admiration for her mother is a theme that runs throughout her public career. When President Obama nominated her to the Supreme Court, she politely thanked him but quickly gave tribute to her mother.
“I stand on the shoulders of countless people,” the Supreme Court nominee said. “Yet there is one extraordinary person who is my life aspiration. That person is my mother, Celina Sotomayor.”
Elaine S. Povich writes about politics and health.