She Isn't a Supreme Court Justice, But She Raised One

Celina Sotomayor
Celina Sotomayor always believed that education would launch her two children from their home in an East Bronx housing project to a bright future.

"I always wanted them to do their best," she says of daughter Sonia, the first Hispanic and third woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, and son Juan, a medical doctor with a private practice. "But I never envisioned them becoming what they are."

The importance of schooling wasn't just talk in the Sotomayor household. At age 44 Sotomayor, a widow who had to support her children alone, enrolled at Hostos Community College in the Bronx to become a registered nurse.

"I dreamed of being an RN," she says, adding that she was also looking for a profession that would increase her paycheck. "It was a rough two years for us. I was always running around and trying to keep up with younger people at the college."

Juan Sotomayor, a 1979 graduate of The Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education at City College, remembers his mother's calm, steady manner.

"We were good kids, and my mom wasn't strict," he says, "She was the railroad track, my sister was the engine. Mom set the rules of the house, and I followed my sister. We studied when we came home, it was natural and we enjoyed it. There was never any negative energy about it because Mom used to say, 'Just do the best you can'."

He remembers studying for hours at the kitchen table with his sister and mother in the evenings and on weekends.

"My sister's strength was English, and mine was math," he says. "We helped her get organized because it was a big shock for her to go back to school. But she did very well."

Sonia Sotomayor also recalled those long evenings hitting the books when she honored her mother during a 1998 appeals court ceremony, according to The New York Times. "My mom was like no student I knew," she said. "She got home from school or work and literally immersed herself in her studies, working until midnight or beyond, only to get up again before all of us [the next day]."

Celina Sotomayor, now 82, had faced hardship before. She was born Celina Baez, in Lajas, Puerto Rico, in 1927. Her family was so poor that she and her four siblings had to share one pencil.

Long plagued with health problems, her mother died when she was 9. Soon after, her father left the family and an older sister stepped in to raise the children.

Celina Sotomayor left Puerto Rico at 17 to enlist in the Women's Army Corps, settling in Georgia. Although she didn't speak English very well, the corps trained her as a telephone operator.

After leaving the corps, she married Juan Luis Sotomayor, a tool-and-die worker who supported the family while she earned a high school equivalency diploma at James Monroe High School. She then got a job as a telephone operator at Prospect Hospital in the South Bronx.

When her husband died of a heart attack at 42, Celina Sotomayor suddenly became the head of the family and its only breadwinner. Still, according to her son, she saved every spare penny to pay for a Catholic school education for her children and to buy a set of Encyclopedia Britannica - the only set in their housing project.

"I can remember the enormous financial burden that purchase placed on my mother," recalled Sonia Sotomayor in 1998.

Sonia Sotomayor went on to graduate from Princeton and Yale Law School. After attending City College, Juan Sotomayor earned his medical degree from New York University. He completed his pediatric sub-specialty training at the Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse and did a fellowship in allergy, immunology and pulmonology at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania. He has a private practice - the Allergy & Asthma Diagnostic Office - in North Syracuse.

Juan Sotomayor decided to become a doctor while in high school but he says that "CUNY played a pivotal role" in pointing him in the right direction. "I enjoyed the electives and my science courses there, they really grabbed me."

After graduating from Hostos in 1973, Celina Sotomayor left her telephone operator's post at Prospect Hospital to become its emergency room supervisor. She stayed at the hospital until it closed in the 1980s and then worked at a methadone clinic in the South Bronx, retiring in the early 1990s. Along the way she married Omar Lopez. They now live in a retirement community in south Florida.