The visit by the first Latina Supreme Court justice was an unscheduled stop on her book tour.
Sotomayor greeted a large crowd of students and teachers Tuesday morning as she entered the Law School of the University of Puerto Rico, where she spoke about her memoir, “My Beloved World.” The book gives a personal account of her rise from an impoverished New York City tenement to becoming a federal judge in 1992.
Before talking about her book, Sotomayor moved her chair to the edge of the stage to be closer to the audience, which applauded her gesture. During the two-hour discussion with Puerto Rican writer Mayra Santos-Febres, Sotomayor said it was important that her readers get to know and understand Puerto Rico.
“I wanted to introduce them to our culture,” she said. “That’s a theme I had to include in every page of the book.”
The self-described “Nuyorican,” or Puerto Rican from New York, later met with the general public at the Plaza Las Americas mall, where she signed copies of the book.
As she strode onstage in a bright orange jacket, Sotomayor waved to the crowd below and smiled. “It’s important to be here, because this is the place of the people,” she said in Spanish as the crowd cheered and held cameras aloft to take pictures and videos.
First in line to meet her was Karlos Rijos, a 67-year-old retired business owner from San Juan who arrived at 6 a.m. and waited seven hours for Sotomayor to arrive.
“I admire women who rise a lot higher than many men,” he said. “She rose up from nothing. You have to admire that.”
Event organizers warned that Sotomayor would not be taking pictures with her fans, but the justice made an exception when 11-year-old Annette Margaret Laureano was ushered first onstage. She had convinced her father to drive from the northeast coast of Fajardo to the capital of San Juan so she could meet the justice.
Laureano adjusted her bangs and gave her father a nervous smile before she walked onstage to receive a hug, a kiss and encouraging words from Sotomayor.
“That she’s a judge, Hispanic and a woman gives me a lot of hope,” Laureano said. “I’ve always wanted to be a judge, but she has further inspired me … She overcame a lot of things.”
Several people in the crowd said they identified with Sotomayor because they, too, were born to Puerto Rican parents and grew up in housing projects in New York’s borough of the Bronx. Among them was Ramon Zapata, 61, who now lives in Puerto Rico and owns a remodeling company.
“She has been an inspiration to me and to my two daughters,” Zapata said. “I literally fell from my chair when I heard they had appointed a Puerto Rican, from the Bronx no less, to the Supreme Court.”
Before Sotomayor began signing books, she introduced her mother, Celina, to the crowd, prompting someone to yell, “Congratulations on producing such a success!” Celina Sotomayor smiled as her daughter also thanked her and her grandmother for their support.
“This book was written by all of you,” Sotomayor said, thanking grandparents in the crowd, some of whom were then hugged by their nieces or nephews.
Jose Antonio Rodriguez Sotomayor, 86, smiled as he heard those words. In his right hand, he clutched a cane, and in his left, a sepia-colored picture showing a relative of Sonia Sotomayor that they have in common. He was later introduced to Sonia Sotomayor’s mother, who he had not previously met.
“She saw the picture and was so happy,” Rodriguez said.
Sonia Sotomayor’s mother, a nurse, is from San German, a rural town near the southwest coast. Her father, who died when she was 9, was from San Juan. Many of Sotomayor’s relatives, including Rodriguez, live around the island’s northwest coast.
Sotomayor previously visited Puerto Rico in May 2012 and in December 2009, shortly after being named justice.
On Tuesday, Sotomayor said that many people have told her they visited Puerto Rico for the first time after reading her book.
“You should make me Puerto Rico’s tourism minister,” she joked.