Sotomayor is Sworn in: Latina Wisdom Personified

Today, September 8, 2009, Sonia Sotomayor is being sworn into the Supreme Court for a second time, officially welcoming her as a justice. The first Hispanic, the third woman, and the first woman of color to serve the court, her investiture is a truly historical moment. And yet it is buried in the news.

It is a moment that I, as a Latina born and raised in the United States, could not even imagine happening as a young child in this country. There were no women of color and no Hispanics taught in my textbooks as political leaders, as intellectual resources, as sources of reason. The Hispanics in my midst were wise; yet they were wise about culture, identity, and religion. Wisdom, especially about matters of faith, was the realm of our grandparents, particularly our grandmothers.

I have watched with outraged horror throughout the summer as Sotomayor’s name has been distorted and mispronounced. I read with anger and disgust when Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies stated that English speakers should not be forced to adapt to the Spanish pronunciation of her name. I listened with equal disappointment as the assumed partiality of her views became the constant focus of her confirmation hearings. The disdain over the possibility of a brown woman becoming an agent of reason in this nation’s highest court was palpable. And of course, I watched with special interest the accusations surrounding the expression “wise Latina.”

The Religion of Our Grandparents

As a scholar that focuses on the religious practices and culture of Latino/as in the United States, the expression “wise Latina” hit a special note. Ours is a culture that venerates the elderly, especially our grandmothers, so much so that Latino/a theology has been described as abuelita theology.

Our abuelas symbolize our heritage, our language, our customs, and the core of our identity. When I think about the theology we write—the theology I write—we often reference the home altar in our grandmother’s house, her veneration of a particular saint. The scholarly questions so many of us pursue are shaped by our grandparents, the culture and religion they transmitted to us. In fact, I have noted that among Latino/a scholars of religion it is the religion of the grandparents, not the parents, that is often highlighted. Our grandparents represent wisdom. I am struck that the “wise Latina” comment, which reveals a core belief in Latino/a cultures, has sparked accusations of bias and outrage. I am also flabbergasted that in an age where the contextuality of all knowledge is a given, to challenge Sotomayor for being honest about this is normative.

While I listened to all the bulla (ruckus) over Sotomayor, my eye was comforted by other sights: Latinas of my mother’s generations glued to CNN watching the confirmation hearing; T-shirts with the words “wise Latina” on them sold on the Internet; Sonia Sotomayor’s face. Why her face? As a child the only Hispanics that were my role models were in entertainment: Charo and her “cuchi-cuchi” on The Love Boat, Gloria Estefan singing “Conga,” Ricky Ricardo drumming to “Bablu- Ayé.” As an adult: Shakira shaking her hips, Jennifer Lopez’s booty, and Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” While they are all talented, while they are all significant cultural icons, they do not look or act like the majority of Hispanics.

And now we have Sonia Sotomayor, a woman that looks like most Latinas; especially those Latinas that are the bearers of our traditions, our religions, and our identity. She looks like a wise Latina. I find it appropriate that today, her first day serving the court, is the feast day of La Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity), the patron saint of Cuba. And as I type in my office, thousands of Cuban exiles and Cuban-Americans are descending upon my University’s sporting/concert venue to hear a mass in her honor, for there is no church in Miami big enough to house her devotees.

Hers is the story of a statue discovered by two indigenous men and an African slave, and later accompanying a slave community in Cuba. Her statue still remains in a shrine in Cuba, and a duplicate accompanied Cubans into exile here in the United States. She is the most powerful symbol of Cuban religious and cultural identity both on the island and in the Cuban Diaspora. Her face is brown. She too is a wise Latina, a devotion brought to the United States by the abuelas in our midst—much like the statue of her my own grandmother brought with her from Cuba, a symbol of my identity, my religion, and my raza.