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Words of wisdom

‘I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” Those words, delivered by Judge Sonia Sotomayor in a 2001 speech, have come up repeatedly as the Senate Judiciary Committee considers Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court. It made us wonder: How were the questions playing with other “wise Latinas”? Times editorial writer Marjorie Miller asked several successful Latinas what the term means to them and how they have viewed the hearing. An edited transcript of their comments follows.

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Rossana Rosado

Publisher, El Diario, New York

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When I hear the phrase “wise Latina,” I think of my mom, and I think of women like Sonia’s mom, whose story of triumph is amazing. It’s a story that is common to those of us who are from immigrant families. My parents, like Sonia Sotomayor’s, are from Puerto Rico, so technically they’re not immigrants, but it’s still the experience of moving to a new land and struggling against the odds so kids in the next generation can become newspaper publishers or judges.

I’ve given a lot of thought to why the “wise Latina” speech caused such an uproar and how it plays to different audiences. Women in my professional and personal circles are busy ordering T-shirts and buttons with the phrase. We want to be wise Latinas.

The senators seem to be reacting to the second half of her statement, the part where she said a wise Latina was likely “to reach a better conclusion than a white man who had not lived that life.”

I must have been 8 or 10 when Billie Jean King played Bobby Riggs. I came up in that era of “women can do it better” and “you’ve come a long way, baby.” People said Ginger Rogers did the same thing Fred Astaire did, only backward and in high heels -- not to denigrate Fred Astaire. For us, all of that meant you could aspire. It was a time when the whole issue of women’s rights was dealing with fighting the perceptions.

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I think most women in this country embrace the concept that you bring something as a woman that you don’t bring as a man. “Better” in the context of that speech was fine. I think surely that if you knew something you said today was going on the record for something very important you were going to do years from now, surely you would say it very differently. But as we have watched a panel of predominantly white men questioning her, it’s no surprise that they might be put off by that description.

Perhaps, in many parts of this country, the words “wise” and “Latina” seem incongruous. But in Sonia, not only do you have a wise Latina, she stands on the shoulders of many wise Latinas, people like her mom and my mom who were not wise in the intellectual way that clearly Sonia is, but who have always guided, led families, been the matriarchs. In our culture, there is no question that the mother, the grandmother, the matriarch is a very important source of wisdom. It is the ability to handle the most adverse situations and maintain not only strong faith but optimism.

So, what is that Latina wisdom? It’s a strength of spirit and total command of the family. Our role models have been women. You have mothers like Celina Sotomayor, who raised a doctor and a judge while she herself went to school and became a nurse.

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Maria Elena Durazo

Executive secretary-treasurer, L.A. County Federation of Labor

I was very excited about Judge Sotomayor’s nomination. I was excited to see she wasn’t just a token Latina. She has so much experience behind her and both the formal education at such a prestigious university and the real-life experience of overcoming obstacles as part of a poor, working family.

I would not have been excited if it was someone who came from a silver-spoon background. The formal education side of this is really important to get across in our immigrant and Latino communities. In Los Angeles, 50% of kids are dropping out of school, and the majority of those are Latinos, so we really need to show what a formal education can lead to.

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For me, a wise Latina means diversity. I think she brings the experiences of people of color, the experiences of families struggling from lower socioecon backgrounds. She brings the experience of overcoming enormous obstacles to go to an Ivy League school and graduate cum laude. It’s a very good experience to bring to the judiciary because her background represents more people in this country than the background of those members of the court who come from well-to-do families.

She grew up in a community where Spanish was spoken, and a lot of people probably faced discrimination if they didn’t know English as well, or maybe had an accent. These are very real-life experiences, and put together with her formal education and judicial experience, it’s easy to see how she became a wise Latina.

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Antonia Hernandez

President and CEO of the California Community Foundation

We all bring our life experiences to our work -- our lenses. What Sonia Sotomayor brings is the lens of a woman, a Latina, a poor woman who struggled to obtain a college education. It’s no different from justices Alito or Roberts, who also bring the perspectives of their upbringings. Or Justice Ginsburg.

Many years ago, one of the first times I went to court, the bailiff stopped me and said, “Excuse me, you belong on the other side with the interpreters.” At least he didn’t think I was the defendant. You learn survival skills from this kind of experience. You learn how to bridge; you learn how to be entrepreneurial. It’s a cliche, but we are framed by our experiences.

Sotomayor is more experienced and qualified than anyone sitting on the Supreme Court today from a strictly legal perspective. She’s been a prosecutor, she worked at a firm, she’s been a District Court judge, a Court of Appeals judge, she’s had the best education from a qualified legal perspective. As a Latina, I really take offense when you’re supposed to work your hardest, you’re supposed to do everything they tell you to do, and then they hang you up for a speech you made years earlier.

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When she made the “wise Latina” comment, you have to understand the context. For her generation -- my generation -- there weren’t any role models. We are trying to be role models to our younger generation. And that speech was made in that context, an inspirational, motivational speech to motivate others.

I think her demeanor and comportment in these hearings have been a real positive for all young women. I think she is positioning herself so that girls can see, yes, even under very unpleasant circumstance, it’s possible to take the high road. That’s the positive.

But the negative is the way they have picked on her for being involved with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund. I don’t know many minorities of my generation -- black, brown, Asian -- who weren’t involved in social movements as volunteers. Tocqueville said that what made Americans unique was the way we volunteer and participate in civic life. But the message here is that, if you want to be appointed to any position as a lawyer, and particularly to the judiciary, you’d better not volunteer. What kind of message are they sending? Sessions, who took the lead on this, doesn’t come with clean hands -- he once called the NAACP “un-American.” He’s carrying forward his preconceived notions of race and ethnicity to what he’s doing today. They are attacking it because it’s racial identity, and they’re attacking someone for being on the board of a nonprofit organization that is seeking to change the system from within the system.

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Josefina Lopez

Author of the play/film “Real Women Have Curves” and the novel “Hungry Woman in Paris”

If you are the kind of person who society often rejects for a lot of reasons -- and if I can be explicit, nobody says, “Oh, yay, you’re a Puerto Rican female!” -- then you have to look within. To be as extraordinary as Judge Sotomayor, you have to really know yourself.

Many people seem to assume that because Sonia Sotomayor’s an ethnic woman, or because of the wise Latina comment, she’s going to be biased. That’s racist. They’re assuming they aren’t biased and that she is because she’s an ethnic person. All these white men who were on the Supreme Court for the first 200 years were supposed to be impartial and unbiased, but for 200 years they upheld laws that supported segregation and discrimination. You kind of have to laugh.

Working in Hollywood makes me jaded, but seeing her on the Supreme Court bench makes me think anything is possible. I think it will also make young women, young Latinas, take themselves seriously. There was a study done that Latina teenagers have the highest suicide rate. A lot of them suffer depression, which is a normal response to being told they don’t have options. To see this woman, who has behaved beautifully and powerfully and has earned this right to be there, makes other women like me go, “Yeah, it’s our turn, we’re not waiting anymore, we’re not just here to be your cleaning lady. We’re put on this Earth to contribute intellectually and creatively too!” I am so proud of her. We should be proud of ourselves as Americans for this moment in history.


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