In Puerto Rico, Sotomayor Becomes a Celebrity and a Source of Hope for Self-Determination

San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Sonia Sotomayor has become a celebrity. (Photo: Valeria Fernández)

San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Sonia Sotomayor has become a celebrity. (Photo: Valeria Fernández)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Sonia Sotomayor has gone from virtually unknown to a symbol of national pride for Puerto Ricans after her nomination by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This has been a major event in our country, very flattering,” said Marcial Díaz, 61, a Humacao resident who chose the Spanish word país, or country, to refer to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

“In Puerto Rico, they might not know how she decided even one of her cases but for them, and for us, she’s Puerto Rican,” said Susanne Ramírez de Arellano, news director at the Univisión affiliate in Puerto Rico.

“She is a heroine, as (Joe) Acaba, the astronaut, is a hero, as Benicio del Toro is a hero.”

Sotomayor, 55, was born in New York to Puerto Rican parents and grew up in a South Bronx housing project. She has served as a federal district judge and, for more than a decade now, she has sat on a federal court of appeals.

Confirmation hearings are scheduled to begin on July 13 at the Senate Judiciary Committee and Puerto Ricans are following the process very closely through extensive media coverage of everything from Sotomayor’s stance on the status of Puerto Rico as a commonwealth to the incident in which she broke her ankle.

Some women in Puerto Rico publicly display their support with buttons that read “Confirm Sotomayor.”

Still, Sotomayor’s nomination says more for Latinos in the U.S. than it does about the Puerto Rico-U.S. relation.

“Obama didn’t pick Sotomayor because she’s Puerto Rican, she picked her because she is good at what she does,” said Ramírez de Arellano. “She represents a victory for the Hispanic population and the Hispanic community and not only that, for female Hispanics who had such a tough one to get to the top.”

Some boricuas –an indigenous name for Puerto Ricans– simply hope this is a positive step to eliminate disparities and discrimination towards Latinos in the U.S.

“I just grew tired and left (the U.S.), there’s too much persecution against Spanish-speaking people,” said José Cruz Candelaria, 57, a business owner in San Juan. “I hope she brings changes, after all she has something for Latinos in her heart because she grew up on ‘arroz y habichuelas’ (rice and beans) like us.”

Damery Burgos. (Photo: Judith Wolert-Maldonado)

Damery Burgos. (Photo: Judith Wolert-Maldonado)

Others view Sotomayor’s selection by the president with cautious optimism.

“It gives me a certain degree of anxiety. Before, people wanted sovereignty, but now they’re in love with Obama,” said Damery Burgos, an art professor in the city of Ponce who believes Puerto Rico should become an independent nation. “We need to remember that this is not a lifetime in the White House, it’s just a rental.”

Burgos thinks that if confirmed, Sotomayor would be in a unique position that would enable her to review or vote in favor of hearing cases related to Puerto Rico. Perhaps decisions that in the past have been unfavorable could be reversed, she said. Currently, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens who can serve in the Army, but can’t vote in the presidential elections unless they live in one of the 50 states. They have a representative in Congress who can’t vote.

Three years ago there was a lawsuit challenging Puerto Ricans’ lack of the right to elect the U.S. president. After a U.S. Circuit judge ruled against it, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

“I know she wants Puerto Rico to have a more dignified position, but she’s been very smart by not locking herself into an opinion about Puerto Rico’s situation,” Burgos said.

Puerto Rico‘s status as a commonwealth of the U.S. and whether it should become a state is a divisive issue for the local electorate. Currently, Congress is looking at the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2009, a resolution that would allow the U.S. federal government to start a process for Puerto Rico to decide about its status.

Luis Rivera. (Photo: Judith Wolert-Maldonado)

Luis Rivera. (Photo: Judith Wolert-Maldonado)

Expectations are high for a decision regarding the island’s status during this administration. Any conversation in Puerto Rico about Sotomayor inevitably leads to that subject.

Despite the fact that Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primaries in Puerto Rico, many are starting to see Obama as a “symbol of change and democracy,” said Luis Rivera, 28, a writer and photographer who lives in El Viejo (Old) San Juan.

“We’ll have to see if he does something radical to resume the issue about the status of Puerto Rico,” he said. “There’s just too much instability because of that.”

Ramírez de Arellano, the journalist, anticipates interest in the Sotomayor confirmation hearings will remain high in Puerto Rico, as was the case with the presidential elections. She was critical of the role mainstream media played in the coverage of the nomination.

“To call Puerto Ricans immigrants just shows ignorance. The media don’t take the time to understand the complexity of what the Puerto Rican situation is and how interesting the story is,” she said.

Some media outlets identified Sotomayor as the daughter of immigrants, which led the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) to issue a statement calling for accuracy in reporting about the judge’s background.

“America only thinks about people from Latin America in terms of immigrants,” Ramírez de Arellano said. “They don’t understand how far we have been woven into the framework of American society.”

AboutValeria Fernández
Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist from Uruguay with more than a 14 years experience as a bilingual documentary producer and reporter on Arizona’s immigrant community and the US-Mexico borderlands. She co-directed and produced "Two Americans,” a documentary that parallels the stories of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and a 9-year-old U.S. citizen whose parents were arrested by the sheriff’s deputies that aired in Al Jazeera America. Her work as reporter for the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting on the economic and social impacts of a mine spill in Northern Mexico broadcast in PBS, San Diego and won an Arizona Press Club recognition for environmental reporting in 2016. She freelances for a number of print, digital and broadcast media outlets, including Feet in 2 Worlds, CNN Español, Radio Bilingue, PRI's Global Nation, Al Jazeera, and Discovery Spanish.