A Justice’s Life as Prism for a Larger World

This weekend when I was clearing out book shelves, trying to make room for new volumes, I discovered a little book about Arizona’s distinctive state Capitol and copper dome. I had bought it years ago when I was researching Sandra Day O’Connor. I believed her tenure as a state senator in the 1970s was critical to understanding the justice who so skillfully counted votes among the brethren, and I had gathered all I could find about Arizona state politics and the legislature during her time there. I somehow found even the architecture of the Capitol intriguing.

I thought I had cleared out all the Arizona works as I later acquired books on all things Italian for my Justice Scalia biography. This weekend, I discovered a few of those books still on my shelves, too. One that I knew I had resisted packing up was Luigi Barzini’s consummate work on Italians, whose sweep included the importance of spectacle and power of the family. Barzini offered many insights toward my subject and when I came across this line — “The vigorous passions of a turbulent and restless people are always ready to flare up unexpectedly like hot coals under the ashes” – it was only a question of where in American Original I’d use it.

Now, I am in the middle of researching a book using Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s life as the scaffolding of a broader story about Latinos and the law. This will not be a biography as the O’Connor and Scalia works were, so it is even more important for me to understand the parallels of her life and those of a people. My shelves are filling with volumes about Puerto Rican history, Latinos and the law, and nomination politics. Among my favorites so far, however, have been works of Esmeralda Santiago, a beautiful writer who was born in Puerto Rico and came here when she was thirteen.

I had not read Santiago before and I find her memoirs deeply moving, independent of anything related to my research. Santiago’s life story mirrors some of Sotomayor’s, including methods for catching up in school. Toward the end of When I Was Puerto Rican, Santiago reveals that as she tried to get used to life in Brooklyn, “Every day after school I went to the library and took out as many children’s books as I was allowed. I figured that if American children learned English through books, so could I, even if I was starting later. I studied the bright illustrations and learned the words for the unfamiliar objects of our new life in the United States: A is for Apple, B for Bear, C for Cabbage.”

Sonia Sotomayor was born in New York, yet as a child of Spanish-speaking parents, she similarly struggled with English. When Sotomayor hit a wall on language and literature at Princeton, she did what Santiago did. She turned to grammar books, vocabulary builders and the classics that other students had read when they were young. A grade-school chum of Sotomayor, also of Puerto Rican heritage, told me recently that the same was true for him. He put in the extra time in college to compensate and catch up. He said there really was no choice: you sought out what you needed or you wouldn’t move ahead.

Some of that holds true for an author: You read up. You learn all sorts of new things. And the discoveries keep you going.