Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor's achievement cheered in beach town where kin live

Sunday, May 31st 2009, 4:00 AM

Egan-Chin/News

Relatives of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor smile in Mayaguesa, Puerto Rico.

MAYAGUEZ, Puerto Rico - If only her father could see her now.

The woman poised to become the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court has attained superstar status in this beach town.

It's where Sonia Sotomayor escaped the Bronx's sea of concrete to splash in the ocean, where she sadly visits the humble grave of her father at Lajas Municipal cemetery.

Juan Sotomayor died of heart complications when his daughter was just 9 years old - decades before she would stand shoulder to shoulder with the President of the United States.

"It's something you can't even describe with words," said Tito Baez, 54, a cousin who lives in Mayaguez.

"When she is here, she just wants to spend time with family and always makes time to go see her dad.

"No matter how high up she is, she never forgets her roots."

Those roots are firmly planted in Mayaguez, about two hours west of San Juan, where Sonia fever has taken hold since her nomination.

Locals drive by Tito's Bakery and honk at Baez, yelling, "Congratulations!" and "Arriva Puerto Rican!" Baez bows humbly and whispers, "No, no - this is her honor, not mine."

The headlines in island newspapers proclaim: "Bravo Sonia!" and "From the Barrio to the Supreme Court."

Everyone here knows about Sotomayor's strong will and the inspiration she drew from her mother, Celina.

"Her mother was a strong woman," said cousin Eva Baez, 61.

Celina Sotomayor, now 82, left Mayaguez when she was about 16, and relatives were impressed to learn that in the U.S. she had become a nurse and joined the Army.

"She was a woman, pursuing her goals in that time," Eva said. "I always knew Sonia was going to be like her, if not better."

Sonia Sotomayor faced poverty and diabetes as a youngster, but she betrayed no scars of her struggles when she visited Mayaguez.

"You know, when she used to come here, she used to be a kid with us," Tito Baez said. "She took her shoes off and played with her cousins at the beach."

Relatives saw her determined side, though.

"She worked very hard and got very far with no money in her pockets," Tito Baez said. "She got into big-name universities with scholarships. Only rich kids go there."

Her Puerto Rico family rooted for her as she climbed the academic and legal ladder: Princeton, then a job with the Manhattan district attorney. Some of her relatives traveled to the U.S. when President Clinton nominated her to the Court of Appeals in 1997.

Cousin Irma Baez, who suffered a stroke a few years ago, has kept newspaper clippings detailing the achievements.

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