I never thought I'd have much in common with a potential Supreme Court justice.
I grew up down the block from Sonia Sotomayor — she was in the Bronxdale Houses, which abut the north side of the Bruckner Expressway in New York; I was in the James Monroe housing project, a few hundred yards to the south. Her family moved to Co-op City, a massive apartment complex in the northeast Bronx; my family stayed put, but I ended up going to Truman High School in Co-op City. She was 9 years old when her father died of heart complications at age 42; I was 14 when my father died of heart complications at 44. She ended up in a way, Way, WAY more successful career than I did, but I haven't done so badly.
Bronxdale Houses, the childhood home of Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama's U.S. Supreme Court nominee, remains a low-income residential community in the Bronx. AP
And we're both of Puerto Rican descent — Nuyoricans, as we're known, and if President Obama has his way, she's going to end up in Washington, D.C., too. (Note to the judge: I make a pretty good arroz con pollo — con gandules y pimientos, of course, but my trick is to use capers instead of olives.)
We probably share a lot of the same memories — the White Castle on Bruckner Boulevard, the vendors on Story Avenue, the Bx27 bus (that's an entire story unto itself) — and a lot of the same frustrations, not the least of which are the common misconceptions about Puerto Ricans and about the Bronx. So considering the errors I've already seen, heard and read in just the last day or so, allow me to take this opportunity to clear up a few things:
1. First, let's get a couple of Bronx facts straight. Not every New York City Housing Authority project or other low-income development is in the South Bronx. The Bronxdale Houses are in the East Bronx. Here's a good example of media ignorance about the Bronx: Several newspapers and TV stations reported yesterday that Judge Sotomayor grew up in the shadow of Yankee Stadium. I'd hate to see what's casting that shadow, since Yankee Stadium is about four miles away.
2. Puerto Ricans are not immigrants. NPR and a bunch of other media outlets made that mistake when Judge Sotomayor's nomination was announced. (NPR, to its credit, quickly corrected the error.) Puerto Ricans have been American citizens since 1917, when the Jones-Shafroth Act was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson — ironic, given that he wasn't at all progressive when it came to race relations. Speaking of which ...
3. Puerto Rican is not a race. Neither is Mexican or Cuban or Salvadoran or any of the other Latino groups. You're talking ethnicity or nationality, not race. It's so obviously wrong that it's a wonder so many people can't get it right. What makes it obvious? As my friend Ruben Rosario of the St. Paul Pioneer Press once told me, "We're the original Rainbow Coalition." Our skin tones range from very dark to very light. Our eyes are every color a human iris can be. Our hair is straight, wavy and tightly curled.
Yet, because the larger American society seems to have one vision of what Latinos should look like, nationality notwithstanding, the media continually get this wrong. It's a battle I've been fighting for 25 years.
Here's an example: Years ago, when I was an editor at The New York Times, I dispatched a young reporter to do a story in a Dominican community about a racially touchy incident. When he returned to the newsroom, I asked him who he had talked to. (This is a rough recreation of a conversation that happened about 15 years ago, so don't take the quotes literally.)
"I talked to some people who were speaking Spanish, but I don't think they were Dominicans."
"Well, they were black."
"You mean African-Americans who were speaking Spanish?"
"No, they said they were from the Dominican Republic. But they were black."
"So they're Dominicans ..."
"I'm not sure. They were speaking Spanish. But they were black."
"You mean, like me?"
I'm not sure if he ever really sorted out the concept.
4. Not only do all Latinos not look alike, there are wide variations in culture. NPR noted that after the announcement of Judge Sotomayor, President Obama flew to a fundraiser for Sen. Harry Reid in Nevada, which has a large Latino population — which is to say, a large Mexican and Central American population, not a large Puerto Rican population.
We often make the mistake of assuming that a common language means a common culture, with common needs and common desires. For example, Puerto Ricans may care about the immigration issue, but as American citizens it can't resonate in the same way as it does for Mexicans and other nationalities, for whom it is a deeply personal matter.
I'm sure Latinos everywhere feel a sense of pride in Judge Sotomayor's nomination. But failing to make the distinction between her background and those of other Latinas would be the same as saying that there's no difference between Americans and Canadians because we speaking the same language (not to dismiss the Quebecois) or eat the same food.
And while we're on the subject of food I sure hope at least one decent Puerto Rican restaurant follows her from the Bronx if Judge Sotomayor is confirmed — or even if she isn't. They don't know from mofongo down here.