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On Sonia Sotomayor: Words from 'wise Latinas'

Several successful women assess Sonia Sotomayor and the treatment she's receiving at her Judicial Committee nomination hearing.

July 17, 2009

'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

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.

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.

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

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