Thursday, August 6, 2009

Sotomayor’s Success Stirs Pride

Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s success is a watershed event for Puerto Rican New York. “This is the real Jenny from the block,” said Orlando Plaza, pictured in Spanish Harlem.

"We feel pride that someone from a background like ours achieved something so enormous," said Orlando Plaza, the co-owner of Camaradas el Barrio, a bar and restaurant in Spanish Harlem.

In the summer of 1959, Edwin Torres landed a $60-a-week job and wound up on the front page of El Diario. He had just been hired as the first Puerto Rican assistant district attorney in New York — and probably, he thinks, the entire United States. He still recalls the headline: “Exemplary Son of El Barrio Becomes Prosecutor.”

“You would’ve thought I had been named attorney general,” he said. “That’s how big it was.”

Half a century later, the long and sometimes bittersweet history of Puerto Ricans in New York is expected to add a celebratory chapter today as the Senate confirms Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Her personal journey — from a single-parent home in the South Bronx projects to the Ivy League and an impressive legal career — has provoked a fierce pride in many other Puerto Ricans who glimpse reflections of their own struggles.

Right-wing Republicans are taking their last shots at her, partly to secure their political base, partly to try and define future nomination fights, partly as pay back for Democrats shooting down Republican nominees.

“This is about the acceptance that eluded us,” said Mr. Torres, 78, who himself earned distinction as a jurist, novelist and raconteur. “It is beyond anybody’s imagination when I started that a Puerto Rican could ascend to that position, to the Supreme Court.”

Arguably the highest rung that any Puerto Rican has reached in this country, the appointment of Judge Sotomayor is a watershed event for Puerto Rican New York. It builds on the achievements that others of her generation have made in business, politics, the arts and pop culture. It extends the legacy of an earlier, lesser-known generation who created social service and educational institutions that persist today, helping newcomers from Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

It is quite interesting that Puerto Ricans set up a social safety net that helped waves of future migrants.

Yet the city has also been a place of heartbreak. Though Puerto Ricans were granted citizenship in 1917 and large numbers of them arrived in New York in the 1950s, poverty and lack of opportunity still pockmark some of their neighborhoods. A 2004 report by a Hispanic advocacy group showed that compared with other Latino groups nationwide, Puerto Ricans had the highest poverty rate, the lowest average family income and the highest unemployment rate for men.


In politics, the trailblazer Herman Badillo saw his career go from a series of heady firsts in the 1960s to frustration in the 1980s when his dreams of becoming the city’s first Puerto Rican mayor were foiled by Harlem’s political bosses. Just four years ago, Fernando Ferrer was trounced in his bid against Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

Badillo foiled by Harlem bosses; back then relations between blacks and Puerto Ricans were quite tense. Ferrer just wasn't a very convincing candidate.

That history is in danger of disappearing in East Harlem, long the cradle of Puerto Rican New York. After waves of gentrification and development, parts of the area are now being advertised as Upper Yorkville, a new annex to the predominantly white Upper East Side. While the poor have stayed behind, many of East Harlem’s successful sons and daughters have scattered to the suburbs.

Upper Yorkville? What nonsense.

“She really came at a moment when there is a public reassessment of the value of identity politics through this brouhaha in the Senate,” said Ms. Davila, a professor of anthropology at New York University who has written extensively on Puerto Rican and Latino identity. “Here came this woman who reinvigorated us with the idea that a Latina can have a lot to contribute, not just to their own group, but to the entire American society.”

But it is among her own — in the South Bronx, East Harlem or the Los Sures neighborhood of Brooklyn — where Judge Sotomayor’s success resonates loudest, for the simple reason that many people understand the level of perseverance she needed to achieve it.

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