WASHINGTON — She was "a child with dreams," as she once said, the little girl who learned at 8 that she had diabetes, who lost her father when she was 9, who devoured "Nancy Drew" books and spent Saturday nights playing bingo, marking the cards with chickpeas in the squat red brick housing projects of the East Bronx.
She was the history major and Puerto Rican student activist at Princeton who spent her first year at that bastion of the Ivy League "too intimidated to ask questions." She was the tough-minded New York City prosecutor and later the corporate lawyer with the dazzling international clients. She was the federal judge who "saved baseball" by siding with the players union during a strike.
Now Sonia Sotomayor — a self-described "Nuyorican" whose mother, a nurse, and father, a factory worker, left Puerto Rico during World War II — is President Barack Obama's nominee to the Supreme Court, with a chance to make history as only the third woman and first Hispanic to sit on the highest court in the land. Her up-from-the-bootstraps tale, an only-in-America story that in many ways mirrors Obama's own, is one reason for her selection, and it is the animating characteristic of her approach to both life and the law.
"Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see," Sotomayor said in 2001 in a lecture titled "A Latina Judge's Voice." "My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage."
From her days going to the movies with cousins to see Cantinflas — a Mexican comedian whom she once called the "Abbott and Costello of my generation" — to her life in the rarefied world of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Sotomayor, 54, has traveled what Obama called "an extraordinary journey."
In her 2001 address, she spoke longingly of the "sound of merengue at all our family parties" and the Puerto Rican delicacies — patitas de cerdo con garbanzos (pigs' feet with beans) and la lengua y orejas de cuchifrito (pigs' tongue and ears) — that appealed to the "particularly adventurous taste buds" that she called "a very special part of my being Latina."
Today, Sotomayor's culinary tastes range from tuna fish and cottage cheese for lunch with clerks in her chambers to her standard order at the Blue Ribbon Bakery: smoked sturgeon on toast with Dijon mustard, onions and capers.
She works out three times a week, putting in three miles on the treadmill in the court's gym. Divorced and with no children, she enjoys the ballet and theater and lives in a condominium in Greenwich Village, both a subway ride and a world away from the housing projects where she grew up.
Yet a few things have not changed: her feeling that she's not completely a part of the worlds she inhabits, as she said in one speech; her drive and ambition; and her willingness to speak up about her own identity as a Latina and a woman. In many ways, she is walking through a door she pushed open herself. On the bench, Sotomayor may be a careful deliberator, but off it, she has been a tireless advocate for Latinos.
In 1976, she wrote her senior thesis at Princeton on Luis Munoz Marin, the first democratically elected governor of Puerto Rico, considered the father of the modern state, and dedicated it in part "to the people of my island — for the rich history that is mine." In 2001, she was a guest speaker at the University of Puerto Rico School of Law, where she delivered a talk titled "Puerto Ricans: Second-Class Citizens in 'Our' Democracy?"
In describing his criteria for a Supreme Court pick, Obama said he was looking for empathy, a word that conservatives have described as code for an activist judge with liberal views who will impose her own agenda on the law. Sotomayor's critics also raise questions about her judicial temperament, saying she can be abrupt and impatient on the bench.
But Sotomayor's friends say she is simply someone who will bring the "common touch" that the president has said he prizes to her understanding of the law.
"I think she's compassionate and empathetic, and I think she is going to really listen to people who are alleging that they have been victimized in some way," said Robert H. Klonoff, dean of the Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., who attended Yale Law with Sotomayor and considers her a friend.
Dean Klonoff, who last saw the judge in her New York chambers the day after Obama's election, compares her to Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court's first black justice, for the perspective he says she will bring to the court.
"She had such a different path," he said. "There were so many people that had Roman numerals after their names and long histories of family members who had gone to Yale, and here was this woman who was from the projects, not hiding her views at all, just totally outspoken."