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Sotomayor debate hits home for Latinas

The phrase "wise Latina woman" has become inextricably linked with Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. The jurist again faced tough questions Wednesday about the meaning behind those words, which she used in a 2001 speech to law students at the University of California at Berkeley. In her speech, Sotomayor seemed to suggest that a "wise Latina woman" might reach better conclusions than a white man.

Earlier this week in response to criticism, Sotomayor said the remark "was bad, because it left an impression that I believed that life experiences commanded a result in a case. But that's clearly not what I do as a judge."

We asked some local Hispanic women how they interpreted the "wise Latina" remark and the debate around it.

A role model, inspiration

Maria Nieves Edmonds is a proud grandmother of triplet girls, who, she says, will grow up with Sotomayor as a role model.

"My granddaughters will grow up knowing you can be anything you want in this country," she said.

Critics of Sotomayor are "making a mountain out of a molehill," said Edmonds, a retired associate provost at St. Petersburg College and current chief of the Hispanic Leadership Council of Pinellas County.

"I don't think you can isolate one particular comment and make it a life statement. That is absolutely ridiculous," said Edmonds, a Puerto Rico native who lives in Tarpon Springs. "They have nothing against her, so they are using that."

Edmonds said she believes Sotomayor was trying to inspire young Hispanics to appreciate their backgrounds. Sotomayor's handling of senators' questions and accusations of racism impressed Edmonds.

"This woman, for all I've seen, has a very strong, even temperament, which is what we need on the court," she said. "She happens to be Latina from a beautiful, rich ethnicity. That is beside the point."

Bias not welcome

Julia Silva-Rettig is outraged at the outrage.

The 41-year-old commercial real estate developer in Tampa said she thinks the questions directed at Sotomayor about the "wise Latina" comment are appropriate.

"We need to figure out who she is and how she will behave," said Silva-Rettig, a Cuban-American born in New York.

Silva-Rettig considers Sotomayor a "brilliant woman," whom she admires. But she doesn't believe Sotomayor's explanation about the quote being an attempt to inspire pride of life experience in young Hispanics.

"If she makes a demeaning comment toward any race, we have the right as the public to see how she defends herself," she said. "We need to know that she is not going to take a biased position on a case because she is Hispanic or a minority. I don't want anyone on the bench to do that for any of us. I want it to be fair and abiding by the law."

As for what to make of Sotomayor and whether she should be the next Supreme Court justice? The jury's out.

Silva-Rettig said she hasn't made up her mind.

Diversity 'good for law'

You just can't divide who you are, said Maria Aranda.

She, for one, is a Puerto Rican who moved here for college. She's 39, a mother of three daughters. She's a child psychologist. She's a Harry Potter fan and a Democrat and a military daughter, always walking the line between stateside culture and her native home.

"Background is not just your heritage," said Aranda, who lives in Westchase. "It's your gender, your family dynamics, it's all of that. I don't know how you parcel that out."

She's married to a white man. Do they make different choices?

"Sometimes we come to the same decisions because we have the same value system, and that's why I married him," she said. "But sometimes we come to different decisions because of my gender and his gender. I see things differently sometimes.

"I'm not saying Sotomayor would be making better decisions than a white male judge. I just think it's important that we see diversity. It's good for the law and the country."

Speaking with fire

Josefa Gonzalez-Hastings has a broad perspective. She owns Habana Cafe in Gulfport, where she cooks the traditional Cuban cuisine of her family. She has seen the world — poor conditions in countries like Bolivia, political unrest in Cuba where she lived until the age of 5.

America, she says, is the greatest.

"There is just nowhere else you can live with the peace we have and the freedom that we have," said Gonzalez-Hastings, 50. That includes freedom to speak with fire and conviction, something she says Latinas are comfortable with.

"Hispanics are very passionate people, and we're very stubborn people," she said. Sotomayor is "obviously a brilliant woman. I'm sure she regrets saying something like that, but we all say things that come back and haunt us."

Does she think Latinas have a special wisdom?

"I don't care if you're white, black, Hispanic, if you're a man or a woman, your experiences are going to be different. Does being a Latina make her any wiser? I doubt it. It might make her more stubborn."

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at amrhein@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2441.

Sotomayor debate hits home for Latinas 07/15/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 17, 2009 11:30am]
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