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Humble Sotomayor wows crowd

The first Hispanic U.S. Supreme Court justice told nearly 2,000 people at the Auraria Events Center on Thursday that she was “nothing special.”

May 6, 2013

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke with attendees about the challenges she faced growing up in the Bronx, N.Y., including poverty, an alcoholic father who died when she was 9 years old and juvenile diabetes.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke with attendees about the challenges she faced growing up in the Bronx, N.Y., including poverty, an alcoholic father who died when she was 9 years old and juvenile diabetes.

By Doug McPherson

The first Hispanic U.S. Supreme Court justice told nearly 2,000 people at the Auraria Events Center on Thursday that she was “nothing special.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that from the day President Barack Obama nominated her for a seat on the Supreme Court, she told everyone that “I was an ordinary person who’d been blessed with extraordinary experiences.”

Her remarks came during an event titled, “A Conversation with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor: An Evening of Hispanic Cultural History and Success,” co-sponsored by MSU Denver and the Center for Colorado and the West at the Auraria Library. MSU Denver Deputy Provost Luis Torres and Polly Baca, the first Hispanic woman elected to the Colorado State Senate and a friend of Sotomayor, sat on stage and moderated the presentation.

 “I met Polly when I was baby—more than 25 years ago,” the justice said as the crowd laughed. “I’ve gotten to know Colorado and Denver, about the spirit and beauty of the state. I’m grateful for everyone for giving me such a warm welcome. It’s an extraordinary welcome from an extraordinary city.”

Before Sotomayor appeared, Su Teatro, Denver’s multicultural performance arts organization, set the stage with Hispanic music and poetry about the diversity of Denver and Colorado.

Baca began the dialogue by listing several challenges Sotomayor faced when she was growing up in public housing in the Bronx, N.Y., including poverty, an alcoholic father who died when she was 9 years old and juvenile diabetes.

Baca asked, “What is the courage that’s within you and the personal characteristics you possess that you not only used to meet, but also to excel to get where you are today?”

“Your question assumes something that’s not true,” Sotomayor said gravely. She paused enough for discomfort. Then she added, “That I’m somehow special. I’m nothing special. I’m just like everyone else.”  

She maintained that humble tone throughout the evening, especially as she talked about her new memoir, “My Beloved World.”

“As I was writing the book, my goal was to have someone read and see a little piece of themselves in the book—young and old—to come away saying just one thing: ‘I’m just like her and if she can do it, so can I.’”

She spoke about perseverance and told those facing adversity not to go it alone.

“First, you have to recognize that every human has people around them, even if it’s not their immediate family—some families are tough—I know that. But there are people who can love you and who can help you come out of your sense of despair; know that these people care and they can give you the strength to succeed. I lived in poverty—but I had people in my life who loved me. The moment you can be humble enough to tell yourself that you can’t do it alone and accept help from others, that’s an important step.”

Fear was another topic. “People let fear conquer them. I’m afraid a lot, and it can be painful. But fear doesn’t kill you. I just tell myself to keep trying. That’s something everybody can do; you don’t need a special skill for that.

“I’m talking to the choir because I met a bunch of you and I know you’re working hard and I’m proud of your students.”

Stephen Jordan, MSU Denver president, told the crowd that Sotomayor’s love of books, learning and dedication to fairness and social justice propelled her to the highest court in the land. He then presented her with the Golda Meir Award from the Golda Meir Center for Political Leadership at MSU Denver.

As the crowd stood and applauded, the justice shook her head as in disbelief she was being given the award.

Sotomayor was extraordinarily accessible during her visit. Before the evening began, she met with students from local high schools and several MSU Denver students. At the end of the event, she walked through the crowd greeting and talking to attendees while shaking hands.

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