What does it mean to be a person of Latin American descent in the United States in 2013? For one, it means being part of an oxymoron: the majority minority, an increasingly growing population marked by the great success of very particular individuals accompanied by overall persistent social challenges such as poverty, lack of representation in many spheres of power, and aggressive harassment, particularly for the undocumented. This paradox is worthy of sustained attention, precisely of the sort we offer in many of the undergraduate and graduate Latina/o Studies classes we teach at the University of Michigan. How can we go about understanding this?
The publication in January of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir My Beloved World sheds light on some of these complexities. In her book, Justice Sotomayor traces her life experiences in great detail, from her birth to Puerto Rican parents in the Bronx in 1954, her educational experiences in Catholic parochial schools and later at Princeton and Yale Law School, to her experiences as an Assistant District Attorney in NY under Robert Morgenthau, her life in private practice in the law firm of Pavia and Harcourt, and her eventual confirmation as a judge, first at a federal District Court, then at the Court of Appeals, and in 2009 to the Supreme Court. Her memoir is filled with lucid details and moving anecdotes about the benefits of affirmative action, which she wholeheartedly endorses; the health challenges of living with type 1 diabetes; and her difficulties at successfully maintaining a personal relationship, which led to her divorce from Kevin Noonan. Sotomayor’s book is an engrossing read filled with inspiring stories and profound insights about the meanings of a life well lived. It is a profoundly optimistic story that emphasizes the importance of public service, of helping others and living in community, be it that of your friends, family, or the nation-state. Fiercely insistent in her non-partisanship as an independent voter, we can see in many of her positions a historic link to causes espoused by the Democratic Party, to which she also owes her judicial career: she first became a judge due to the nomination of a Democrat, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan from New York, and was appointed to the Supreme Court after being nominated by President Barack Obama.
Sotomayor’s story is enormously inspiring but it is sobering to realize how unusual it is; how few Latinas/os there actually are at the upper echelons of power in Washington, D.C., in spite of the fact that the entire Mexican-American Southwest has been part of the U.S. since 1848, that Puerto Rico has been a colony since 1898, and that Cubans have been arriving in large numbers since 1959. Professor John A. García’s book Latino Politics in America: Community, Culture, and Interests (revised edition 2012) discusses this uneven electoral integration; he includes a list of the Mexican-American and Cuban-American men who have served on the Senate, listing only four, the first three from New Mexico, plus Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey); we can now add the dramatic rise of Cuban-American Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in 2013. (Fortunately, Latinas/os have been better represented in the House.) Professor García, who is a faculty associate of our Latina/o Studies Program, has spent his life analyzing the role of Latinas/os in American politics, be it at the local, regional, state, national, or international level, nudging his fellow political scientists to engage with this matter in a serious way. In his book he offers a nuanced story of the many challenges faced and of many strategies for effectively overcoming some of these.
Sonia Sotomayor is just one of many wise Latinas to leave her mark in the United States, as we learn from Professor María Cotera’s groundbreaking book Native Speakers: Ella Deloria, Zora Neale Hurston, Jovita González and the Poetics of Culture, published in 2008. As Cotera describes, González’s efforts at documenting South Texas history and folklore led her to write books such as Dew on the Thorn and the novel Caballero (co-authored with Margaret Eimer); her political interests led to her participation in the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in the 1930s and 40s and later motivated her struggle to institute bilingual education for Spanish-speaking students with her husband Edmundo E. Mireles. Professor Cotera highlights how in spite of her fervor and talent, González (1904-1983) was frequently unable to find publishers for her books, and how it was only recently (in the 1990s) that some of these pioneering texts have seen the light.
The struggle for social justice embodied by Sonia Sotomayor’s life has impacts on our own Ann Arbor campus, for example in the Coalition for Tuition Equality’s efforts to achieve in-state tuition for undocumented immigrant students who have graduated from a Michigan high school but currently have to pay out-of-state fees. The Latina/o Studies Program is an active member of this coalition and has lent its voice at Board of Regents’ meetings and through letter writing, for example in support of Kellogg Community College’s affirmative measures on this matter. Latina/o Studies alumna Carla Fernandez (Class of 2011) works with many of these youth at the Voces Community and Cultural Center in Battle Creek, Michigan, before they enroll in KCC. Her work is a close-to-home example of how activist efforts can lead to actual change: how the positive labor of transforming American society happens at a local level as much as at the national one.
Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes
Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes is Associate Professor of American Culture, Romance Languages and Literatures, and Women’s Studies, and director of the Latina/o Studies Program. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in American Culture News (Spring 2013), Department of American Culture, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (page 13).