ANNA SALE: Hey. Here in the U.S., it’s now after Labor Day during a presidential election year. That means that over the coming months, all of us are going to be barraged with messages about what it means to be an American, and about the problems and potential of our government.
When I reflect on that, it’s not long before I think about this conversation between Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Sonia Manzano, the actor you might know as “Maria” from Sesame Street.
This was recorded back when I was on maternity leave in 2016, so it was the rare occasion I got to discover an episode as a listener, first. And I can still remember where I was when I first I heard it.
It’s really special, so we’re sharing it with you again. Enjoy.
SONIA SOTOMAYOR: Through and through I'm a lawyer and a judge, but my life experiences do permit me to see things that others may not.
SONIA MANZANO: This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot…
…and need to talk about more.
I’m Sonia Manzano, in for Anna Sale.
Last year, I was a guest on this show. It was right around the time that I announced my retirement from Sesame Street, where I played the role of Maria for more than 40 years. And I’d just finished writing my memoir, called "Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx."
When the Death, Sex & Money team asked me to come back and guest host an episode while Anna was out on maternity leave, I knew right away who I wanted to ask to join me in the studio.
SS: Hello my love.
SONIA MANZANO: Hello!
SS: How are you doing?
SM: I'm good!
I sent an email off to the other Sonia from the Bronx, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
SM: Do you remember how we met? Our first meeting?
SS: Our first meeting, I think, was at the Bronx Children's Museum's Dream Big event that happened the summer of 2010 when, um - my first summer after becoming a Supreme Court Justice. And you hosted the event that year.
SM: Right, right, I hosted the event. But I did meet you before.
SS: Oh, now you'll have to remind me.
SM: This was - you were not confirmed yet and it was in your apartment.
SS: In my apartment?
SM: In your apartment - I was one—there were a lot of brilliant women judges and me, somehow I got into that group -
SS: Oh no, I forgot you were there!
SM: And you - and you served a brie plate.
SS: Oh my gosh, I had forgotten that day, that first meeting, but you're absolutely right. That was such a fun evening.
SM: It was a fun evening and it was eye-opening for me. And, you are the most relatable Supreme Court Justice ever. And I think it's because you shared so much of your personal life so candidly in your wonderful book, "My Beloved World," and being Latina I relate to you even more and being a Nuyorican and—we have so much in common. I mean, first of all our names. I hated my name when I was a ki-
SS: So did I!
SM: Oh! I mean, where did you - I mean it was so un-Puerto Rican to me. I wanted to be a Lourdes.
SS: It was completely un-Puerto Rican. And in fact, I always wanted my mother's name, Celina, because I thought she had a beautiful name. And I would ask her, "Where did you get this?" And she doesn't remember. She just said, "But I love the name." And...but I didn't. Isn't that -
SM: I know. I wanted to be Carmen. I wanted Lourdes. I wanted Magali. Awilda. Awilda I thought was a hot name.
SS: I think Sonia's much better -
SM: Than maybe that.
SS: Than maybe that.
The Justice and I both grew up in the South Bronx in the 1950s and '60s. And our childhoods were challenging. She was diagnosed with diabetes at a young age. And, the Justice's father died when she was 9 years old. We both dealt with the consequences of our fathers’ alcoholism.
SS: Your life, I think, was filled with more violence than mine was. There was a little bit of violence, and I wouldn't call it quite violence, but my mother and father argued a lot.
SM: Right, right.
SS: But it didn't feel like the kinds of arguments that your parents had.
SM: No, no, right.
SS: And, I thought that you had more sadness in your life.
SM: Probably, probably.
SS: Did you have that self-perception?
SM: Yes, yes. I think that both our lives were impacted by alcohol, but in different ways. My father was a - I was raised in an environment of domestic violence and, and we would run away and come back and uh, my mother insisted upon keeping us in that situation. And I would, I think as you did, try to rep- fix it. If they argued over the food, I would say, "Well all we need to do is get some Corningware." For some reason, that was the answer. If we got Corningware, there wouldn't be any arguments.
SS: The food would be better.
SM: The food would be better and then there wouldn't be arguments about dirty dishes. Well obv- they weren't arguing about dirty dishes. They were arguing about their marital state. And so I related to you when you, in your book, when you said, "Okay, no arguing over the insulin shots. I'll give myself the insulin shots." It's like you - you took the the thing that was making them argue to remedy things.
SS: I think that one difference is—and I actually thought this many years after my father's death—I've often wondered if my - if the outcome of my life would have been the same if my father had remained alive. Alcoholism can be such a destructive force in every family. But your mother's situation lasted a lot longer -
SM: Oh yes.
SS: - than mine. And so I think, I wonder if that had an impact on -
SM: Oh, of course it did, of course it did. And, you know, I actually thought, "As soon as they get a divorce, we're all going to live happily ever after." Of course, they did get a divorce at my insistence and they didn't live happily ever after. As, you know, when your father passed away, he wa- there wasn't an alcoholic in the house anymore, but there was still issues. Your mother was unhappy in her room.
SS: It takes a long, long time to undo the effects of such a destructive presence in someone's life. And for my mother, it took years for her to come out of her own personal shell and to feel self-confident about being in the world. But I think the absence of that constant battle made a big difference in my self-perceptions of my life.
SM: I love the way you wrote about your cousin, your beloved cousin, Nelson. I also had a, uh - I wonder if it's a Puerto Rican thing, a Latino thing of having close cousin relationships. And I - I always felt that Eddie "Gua Gua" Rivera, who was a bass player—he's passed away now—as kids, we could always look at each other over the fray. You know, when he would come over, we never even talked about the insanity that was going on with the violence that was going on, in his family as well, but we could always sort of connect on some level. How was your relationship with Nelson?
SS: There is not a picture that you see of me as a child in a group setting where Nelson's just not directly at my side. We were inseparable as children.
SM: Was he older than you or younger?
SS: He was six months older.
SM: And he was very smart, you say.
SS: Oh no, much smarter -
SM: School was easy for him.
SS: He never had to study and he got straight A's. He was involved in science projects and received many awards. There was one year where he was doing a science project on frogs, on tadpoles really, on little ones, and was such a sophisticated science experiment that the science committee thought that he had not thought it up. His father, thankfully, my Uncle Benny, who I greatly admired, probably the best speaker of English in the group, Benny went and fought for Nelson and he finally got the award. But I knew, because I know my uncle, he was no scientist. He certainly - no one in the family was capable of helping Nelson with the project that he had conceived and done.
SM: Well if Nelson had these supportive parents, why do you think he succumbed to drugs and ultimately died of AIDS? Is there - some of us are a product of what's around us, some of us overcome it. Was it society? Was it him?
SS: For Nelson, it was the lure of drugs on the street. He was out there and it was very, very hard for him to resist.
SM: You know, maybe it worked to my benefit as a girl. I couldn't go out as much as Eddie could go out. So Eddie could be in the street all day and I envied that, that capability, that they let him -
SS: But I think -
SM: And as a girl, I couldn't.
SS: But that was the difference between me and Nelson. I was not let out. I couldn't go outside without a chaperone. I was a girl. I was protected in the way you were. Nelson wasn't. But, I-I will tell a story about my book. When I finally had a draft that was close to publishing, I decided that I needed to show it to one member of my family. And that member was my cousin Miriam. In part because she's a school teacher and my other relatives could not read English in the same way that she could. But also because I was disclosing Nelson's drug addiction and his death with AIDS for the first time publicly. And I knew that there were some members of our family that did not know that history. And so I sent the book to her. And the next morning, she called me up crying. And she was - I couldn't console her, she just kept crying and she said, "I've been up the entire night reading your book, and it's brought Nelson back to life for me. You brought him back to life for the world. And if his story can help one child understand how to better manage life, then it's worth telling his story. Go ahead."
Nelson died when he was in his late 20s. By then, the Justice had been away from the neighborhood for about a decade. At 18, she left to go to Princeton. As someone who also left the Bronx for college…I can relate to the culture shock that she felt.
SM: I went to Carnegie Mellon University and I felt very, very out of place. I felt so out of place there that I went to the nearest ghetto and then I was surprised to find that ghettos in Pittsburgh have lawns. [Laughs.]
SS: Like palm trees in California.
SM: Yeah, I thought well - so that was interesting to me. And then you also straddled two worlds when you got to Princeton.
SS: Princeton was a shock for me. I talk in my book about the first week of hearing the cricket that I thought was in the room and every single night I went through every corner of that room, under every piece of furniture, looking for a cricket, that I didn't know what it looked like. The most I had seen a cricket was in the cartoon -
SM: Right, Jiminy. Jiminy Cricket.
SS: But I figured whatever insect it was, it had long legs. I mean, it was deductive thinking, okay? Until my then-fiance came to visit me, he had lived in Westchester. And he knew what crickets were and I asked him when the cricket started making noise later that evening, "Help me find the cricket." And he started to laugh and he said, "It's on the tree outside your window. It's not in here." And I felt so chagrined. It was - it made me feel stupid. And, but there is—and this is something that a friend said to me one day—"There's a difference between stupidity and ignorance." Even today when I'm in conference at - with the other justices, often they'll say something that will refer to things that they learnt when they were children—and understand, for some of the justices, they're 20-30 years older than I am. And I don't hesitate in saying, "Tell me what you're talking about." And every once in awhile one of my colleagues who's closer in age to me will say, "I didn't know that either."
SM: [Laughs] But you have the nerve to ask the question and they didn't.
SS: I don't know if it's nerve, but I do know that the worst thing in the world is to make believe you know something you don't know.
SM: Yes, yeah. Right, right.
Coming up…I talk with the Justice more about what it’s like to go from the South Bronx to the Supreme Court. And, we talk about how she’s learned to see many different sides of the law over the years.
SM: Last time we were together, I asked you what books were on your bedstand, and you said you were reading Justice Scalia's book.
SS: I was.
SM: And I was taken aback. And you said, "I want to see that point of view. I pride myself in understanding another point of view."
SS: And I do. And so I'm very balanced in my reading. I try to go back and forth between those things that I might understand more easily. I read Bryan Stevenson’s "Just Mercy." That's a very different perspective from Justice Scalia about the criminal law system. And so, yes, I do pride myself on that.
ANNA SALE: Again, this was recorded in the summer of 2016, before Donald Trump was elected President. In the weeks after those election results, I hosted a live Death, Sex & Money call-in show, called Other Americans, centered around the question that Justice Sotomayor was talking about right there. We asked, “What’s something you wish other Americans understood about you...that they don’t?” There’s a link back to that episode in our show notes.
And we’re also putting a link in our show notes to the Pandemic Toolkit spreadsheet that we started together nearly six months ago now, when cities and towns across the country were just shutting down. We’ve made it through this long, weird, tough, summer. And as we head into fall, especially in the midst of a charged, strange election season, we thought we could all use reminders of ways to take care of ourselves, and ways to feel connected.
In our Pandemic Toolkit, there are ideas from you about things to read, to listen to, to cook, to do to take care of your mental health, and so on. We may feel used to pandemic restrictions by now, but I’m here to remind you, this is not normal and taking care of ourselves and each other right now takes extra effort.
Plus, we all may need some new ideas to change things up! My September project, for example, is to figure out how to use the many, many accumulated cans of coconut milk in my pantry. If you have ideas for that, head to the spreadsheet and help me out.
SONIA MANZANO: This is Death, Sex & Money. I’m Sonia Manzano, in for Anna Sale.
After years as an attorney and a district court judge, Sonia Sotomayor was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Obama in 2009. I remember watching her confirmation hearings on TV that summer…and feeling like a nervous wreck.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: What's the - what's the best way to society to change, generally speaking?
LG: What's the most legitimate way for society to change?
SS: I don't know if I can use the words 'change'...
SM: I thought the senators were trying to trick you and you seemed so cool and I just couldn't believe how cool you were. And I was like, hyperventilating in the living room. How did you prepare? And how did you feel?
SS: When you watch political debates you should know that almost every one of the people who are getting up there have been vetted. They've gone through mock debates. And the same thing happened for me. The White House and the Justice Department pulled together a fine, fine team of preparers and there's even a name for what they do. They call it the "Murder Boards."
SS: And every day for days, weeks, this Murder Board team would come together and fire questions at me and tell me what they thought might be wrong with my answers. But in the end, it was Senator Lindsey Graham, who in his introductory statement said to the audience, that my nomination was a given as long as I didn't blow up. And you have to remember, I'm a competitive soul, and when he told me what it took to survive, oh that's all he had to say. [Laughs]
SM: Oh that's all he had to say. How do you deal with insecurities? I - when I was at Sesame Street, I was always very surprised that some of the greatest minds of Sesame Street would sometimes be struck with a tax of insecurity. And I'd think to myself, "But you created the Bird. But you created this groundbreaking show. But you - how can you possibly ever have a moment of insecurity?" And I would see it at moments. How do you deal with it? Are you ever - of course you're insecure sometimes.
SS: All the time. No, not sometimes, all the time. And I'd be surprised if you weren't, too.
SM: Of course.
SS: We all are.
SM: Of course.
SS: Anyone presented with a new challenge has to always have that moment of insecurity, of not knowing whether they can do it. I live with that. I've lived with it my entire life. I don't believe that I'm an impostor or that I suffer from impostor syndrome, but I do look at a new situation, a new challenge, and I wonder whether I'm up to it. I think it's just natural.
SM: Your first day on the court, were you - was it what you expected, or was it the feelings of - obviously you must have been a little kind of insecure of the new world?
SS: I remember the first time I stepped on the bench when I was a judge, a district court judge, in 1992, and my knees knocked so loud that I thought the courtroom could hear it. My assistant told me that it was within my own ears I was hearing the knocking. But the first day that I was on the bench was for the now quite famed case, Citizens United. And my knees were knocking even then. But what got me over that moment the first time and the second, was to become totally engaged in what was happening before me, and the knocking finally stopped without my realizing it.
SM: As you know, I'm a writer now and, or I -
SS: You've been a writer for awhile.
SM: I've been a writer for awhile, I wrote for Sesame Street for many years. Writing is something that was so foreign to me, I can't believe that I started doing it. Actually, I always tell a crummy joke where my father is on the phone with his boss and he had to write down a phone number and he frantically looks around the kitchen for a pen and there's no pen in the house. There's no pencil in the house. There's no paper in the house. And he gets my mother's eyebrow pencil and he writes the phone number on the kitchen wall. Well I thought that was a hilarious joke and then I thought how terribly pathetic it was because wri- there was no literature, there were no words in my house. So, so writing was something to me that Puerto Ricans didn't do. It wasn't until I was aware of it, and I saw people writing at Sesame Street, and our producer said to me, "Why don't you try writing this stuff instead of complaining about it all the time?" You know, she put it into my own hands. So that was an example of not being aware of something and that's why I didn't pursue it. And you pursued law. But you were aware - were you aware of it very early on as something that you wanted to do?
SS: I was exposed to law basically through TV. And the only character on TV that I was aware of was Perry Mason.
PERRY MASON: And you didn't plant Fallon's note in his pocket?
MR. NICHOLS: No, no!
PM: No, Mr. Nichols. You didn't kill Thompson. But you did, Mr. Wells!
MR. WELLS: Yes! Yes I killed Ned Thompson!
SS: As I went to high school and did more reading, as I went to college and began to learn history and to watch and understand the Civil Rights movement, then I began to understand the power of law. But I also at the same time began to understand the power of writing. Words can kill. They can drive people to do acts that are horrible. We use words in fights to instigate people to do things they might, in calmness, not think of doing. And words can evoke emotions. And used properly, they can inform. And they can lead people to think about things in radically different ways than they might not otherwise. But it took me a long time to love words that way and to understand their power.
SM: Your dissents are very, very emotional. Now I'll just read a few. I quote, "Race matters to a young man's view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter the neighborhood where he grew up. Race matters to a young woman's sense of self when she states her hometown and then is pressed, 'No, where are you really from?' regardless of-" [Pauses, tears up.] Your words move me, my dear.
SM: [Laughs] "Regardless of how many generations her family has been in this country. Race matters because of the slights, and the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce the most crippling of thoughts: 'I do not belong here.'" How do you - how do you make such statements without blowing up, getting emotional, wanting to take your shoe off and throw it at somebody?
SS: Well, you're assuming I don't have those emotions. [Laughs] And, and there is no question that I chose as early as my years in college to be the negotiator with the people in power and not to be the protester in the street. When I was in college there were still some protests and I didn't participate in the protests. But I was always one of the negotiators between the students and the administration. And so, for me, I can feel those things, but I know that for people to hear me, I have to be able to explain it in terms that people can sit in the shoes of the other person. I suspect that there are many people who have read the lines you have who never thought about what the impact is of snickering at a person of a different race when they walk by or of asking someone, "Where are you really from?" when that kid has been born and raised here. And so, I think that it's important to bring people into a different world.
The Justice has continued to bring people into that different world that she and I grew up in. Earlier this year she wrote, in a dissent about police searches, "For generations, black and brown parents have given their children 'the talk'—instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger—all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them."
SS: People will often ask me, "Does your being Latina affect the decisions you make?" And my response is usually, "No more than my being a woman, from being a former prosecutor, being a former lawyer of high-end business enterprises, of being a district court judge, a circuit court judge." Clearly, when I am acting as a lawyer or a judge and I'm thinking through a legal problem, I'm not saying, "Ah, the Latina part of me is saying this." When I am thinking about the consequences of what I'm doing, and by that I mean, what people are telling me their arguments are, and why these things are important to them and what the effect can be on their lives, which are issues we have to look at day in and day out, then my life experiences, including a Latina, become very important.
SM: Talking a little bit about race, I have two brothers. One is lighter-skinned than the other. And I always worry about the darker-skinned one in - he has any interaction with the police. The lighter skinned one could be Greek or Italian, but the darker-skinned one could be African-American.
SS: We have-
SM: Have you ever talked to a child about "the talk?"
SS: I haven't, but it's interesting, I was at an event this weekend with a grandmother, who is white. Her daughter is married to a black man. They have a daughter, and she was talking to her father and saying, "You're dark brown. I'm light brown. I'm not black." And her father apparently said to his child, "It doesn't matter whether we're light or dark. There are boxes in the world and there's a black box, there's a white box, and there's an Asian box. And we are always going to be put into the black box.” It is inescapable for any child in this society who is of color of any kind, or who comes from a different background where the language becomes noticeable, that they will experience that difference. And they will have to cope with it. We have not become colorblind yet.
SM: No, and you say the only way to become colorblind, if that's a goal, is to face these problems head on—in a recent article I read, you said something of that nature.
SS: We have to face it. For me, I remember doing one of my college projects in my class about Puerto Rico that I had helped organize, was to interview family members and tell a family history. I remember asking my uncle, who is a dark-skinned Puerto Rican, what it was like to be black in America. And his response to me was, "I'm not black." And I was speechless. I didn't know what to do with that when he said it because it was so self-evident to me that in the greater world that I lived in, he was black.
SM: He was considered black, of course.
SS: It was inescapable given his skin color. But I do think that that reflects that there are people who deny and who purposely choose not to see.
SM: Right. So many dark-skinned Puerto Ricans consider themselves white or not black or et cetera.
SS: I think it's - no, no, I don't know if you saw on TV Soledad O'Brien's "Black Like Me."
SM: I did see it. I did see it. Very good.
SS: And it was a very interesting conversation with children of mixed backgrounds about their self-perceptions. There were some who thought of themselves, even though others would think of themselves - would think them to be black, their self-perception were that they were white.
SM: Right, exactly.
SS: And, but there are many kids who can't avoid hearing the sneers, hearing the side comments, or hearing someone say, "That black girl." It can be inescapable, and the sensitivity that it brings up is born from the sneer that goes with it. It's not like just, "That person happens to be black." It's usually said with a measure of derision -
SM: Derision, of course.
SS: That - that affects you, that affects many people.
SM: Thank you, my dear, for sharing all of your thoughts. It's wonderful to talk to you, I can talk to you about 15 other subjects.
SS: We've done a lot of talking through the years -
SM: We've done a lot of talking. And -
SS: And we've done a lot of fun things together.
SM: A lot of fun things. We went to your offices -
SS: Oh, yes!
SM: In D.C. And Abby Cadabby was there, the Muppets were there...
SS: I was going to say to you, I remember watching my first episode of Sesame Street, I was not a child. I was a young adult at the time and it was at the home of a friend who had a child. But I remember seeing an episode where you were speaking Spanish, or you - or there was a conversation in Spanish with words and thinking to myself, "Maybe things are changing. Maybe we're being accepted on television." Because I had never seen a Latin actor or actress playing a role like you did. There was Lucy and Ricky, and he was prototypically Hispanic, which was not what you were doing. You were bringing the soul of being a Latina on the air without the stereotypes. So thank you for having done that.
SM: Thank you and they certainly said, "Be yourself," and I ran with it on that show. I love quoting you.
SM: I just love quoting you.
SS: I feel inadequate. I should have gotten your book and quoted you.
SM: No, no. And I will quote this, I quote, "The Latina in me is an ember that blazes forever." Gracias, mi amiga, in my heart, I love having you in the world.
SS: Te quiero mucho Sonia.
AS: That’s Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, talking to Sonia Manzano in 2016. These days, Sonia Manzano has a new children’s book out from National Geographic, called A World Together. And, she’s working on an upcoming animated series with Fred Rogers Productions.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios. The team includes Katie Bishop, Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. Chester Jesus Soria and Chase Culpon helped produce this episode.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m @annasale and the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. You can find Sonia Manzano on Twitter @soniammanzano.
And I’m going to let her take us out:
SM: So, the legal drama Perry Mason was where the Justice got her first taste of the courtroom. But as someone who was on TV for more than 40 years, I had to ask…
SM: Do you watch television?
SS: Hardly at all.
SM: Oh so you're not one to -
SS: I watch the news.
SM: Not Law and Order?
SS: Mm mm. Mm mm. I watch two things. The Yankee games and, but more often, the news.
I’m Sonia Manzano, in for Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.