NEW YORK — Inside the red brick walls of the Bronxdale housing projects, 24-year-old mother of two Geisha Sas says she still hears echoes of music from the 1950s, when her building’s most famous former resident, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, lived there. “Older people still listen to Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri inside their apartments,” said Sas, a salsa and hip-hop fan. Before morphing into the embodiment of urban decay that they became in the 60s and 70s, these public housing projects provided the young Sotomayor the new, lower-middle class housing that facilitated her early pursuit of justice. For Puerto Ricans of Sas’s generation living here, the Bronxdale experience of justice is quite different.
“I’ve also heard gunshots and saw a boy killed on that grass,” said Sas, looking at a large patch of grass surrounded by several seven-story buildings. Asked what expectations for justice she has from fellow Bronxdale Boricua (Puerto Rican) Sotomayor, Sas declared, “I hope she knows how to tell the difference between justicia and injusticia. I hope she does the right thing and that she doesn’t forget where she’s from.
Sas’s clamor for justice echoes the very particular concerns expressed by many Nuyoricans (Puerto Ricans in New York). Lost in debates about Sotomayor’s “ethnic allegiances” and what they consider the story of her rise from poverty, are the contributions of the silenced majority living in and beyond the Bronxdale projects: the Puerto Rican community whose political thought and action made Sotomayor’s rise possible.
“The media keeps telling us that she (Sotomayor) has a ‘one in a million’ story,” says Miriam Jimenez Roman, a visiting scholar in Africana Studies at NYU and director of the Afro-Latino Project. “But what they forget to tell us is how the million made the one possible. Many people struggled so that she might become the first Latina on the Supreme Court.” Roman notes that, for example, most news reports and commentaries about Sotomayor frame her life as an up-from-the-bootstraps story of individual accomplishment. This story, says Roman, is partial, at best, in that it excludes mention of the many and ongoing efforts of Puerto Ricans in the Bronx and other areas who fought to improve educational, health, employment, electoral, and other institutions.
Most importantly, says Roman, Sotomayor was very likely exposed to a broad spectrum of political thought about “justicia” that is not mentioned in the current national discussion surrounding her nomination. “I suspect that she heard and was influenced by the Puerto Ricans who were fighting for social justice,” said Roman. “We’re all glad about the nomination. But collapsing the story of an entire people into the story of a single individual is extremely problematic.”
Groups like United Bronx Parents, ASPIRA and the Puerto Rican Student Union organized for improved educational opportunities for young Puerto Ricans like Sotomayor, who herself was active in student access and curriculum issues while at Princeton. More militant groups like the the Young Lords, the Health Revolutionary Unity Movement and the Think Lincoln Committee took over Lincoln Hospital — one of the only health facilities in the Bronx — and forced it to provide better services and greater access to the community when 16-year-old Sotomayor lived in Coop City. A long line of Puerto Rican independistas (those who support ending what they consider the colonial status imposed on the island by the United States), from Pedro Albizu Campos and the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party to the activists who took over the Statue of Liberty, have kept the issue of Boricua identity in the minds of many like Sotomayor, who wrote her graduate thesis about Luis Muñoz Marin, the former nationalist who went on to become the island’s first elected governor. And the hometown associations that doubled as political organizations — fighting housing discrimination, racism and police brutality — were the first to organize the annual Puerto Rican Day parade that took place last weekend along Fifth Avenue.
Beneath the signs marchers in last Sunday’s parade were holding in support of Sotomayor was the long march of Puerto Rican political history, a history many believe helped raise the judge to the pinnacle of legal and political power as much as her much-lauded personal efforts. “There were many institutions that have helped her (Sotomayor) and many others,” said Angelo Falcon, director of the National Institute for Latino Policy.
“Different people took different routes to social justice,” said Falcon, who knows Sotomayor and supports her nomination. “She took the legal route, but is still a product of her community.”
Roman, who is around the same age as Sotomayor, agrees. She says she hears the workings of Puerto Rican political struggle in the music heard in Bronxdale since the 50s. “Back then,” said Roman, “even listening to booglaoo and salsa — Spanish language music created in the United States by the children of immigrants — was a statement, an assertion of our history and culture. It was normal for us to listen to it, but, in the larger context of an English-speaking country, it was radical in a way.”