When Sonia Sotomayor was only seven months old, according to family lore, she abruptly stood up one day—and ran. There was no crawling or walking for her; she simply took off. It was a fitting start for a woman whose will and intellect have propelled her from growing up in a Bronx housing project to being the first Hispanic justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sotomayor has faced some big challenges. At seven, she learned she had type 1 diabetes and started giving herself three to six insulin shots a day. Her father was an alcoholic and died of heart disease at 42, when Sotomayor was nine. Her mother then fell into a deep grief and often locked herself in her bedroom, until one day her daughter confronted her, demanding to know if her mother intended to leave her and her younger brother, Juan, too.
Sotomayor escaped into books, but it was a TV show that set her on the path to her future career. While watching an episode of the legal drama Perry Mason, she noticed that the judge wielded all the power in the courtroom and decided that someday she would be one.
As a freshman at Princeton University, Sotomayor felt like an outsider among her largely white, affluent, better-educated classmates. (She shared her feelings of not belonging with a friend, who then compared her to Alice in Wonderland; Sotomayor replied, “Alice who?”) Yet she graduated summa cum laude and became a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
Sotomayor went on to attend Yale Law School and became a district court judge at 38, making her the first Hispanic federal judge in New York State. In May 2009, President Barack Obama nominated her to the U.S. Supreme Court (she was confirmed that August). Her memoir, My Beloved World, comes out in paperback this month. On a recent afternoon, RD sat down with the associate justice in her bright, airy chambers at the Supreme Court.
Next: The best part of being on the Supreme Court »
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