OPRAH: More than anything, your book feels like a love letter to your life growing up in the Bronx.
SONIA SOTOMAYOR: Because that's what it is. So many people grew up with challenges, as I did. There weren't always happy things happening to me or around me. But when you look at the core of goodness within yourself—at the optimism and hope—you realize it comes from the environment you grew up in.
O: You say in the book that there was a depth of happiness there that fueled your optimism. Still, there were, as you say, challenges.
SS: Yes. An alcoholic father, poverty, my own juvenile diabetes, the limited English my parents spoke—although my mother has become completely bilingual since. All these things intrude on what most people think of as happiness.
O: It had never occurred to me that growing up in a household where everyone speaks Spanish could make you feel embarrassed.
SS: When everyone at school is speaking one language, and a lot of your classmates' parents also speak it, and you go home and see that your community is different—there is a sense of shame attached to that. It really takes growing up to treasure the specialness of being different. Now I understand that I've gotten to enjoy things that others have not, whether it's the laughter, the poetry of my Spanish language—I love Spanish poetry, because my grandmother loved it—our food, our music. Everything about my culture has given me enormous education and joy.
O: In the book, you describe Saturdays at your grandmother's house, when your titis, or aunts, would be in the kitchen, making—
SS: The sofrito. It's the base for all Puerto Rican cooking.
O: I actually underlined that, because I thought, "Would like to have some of that someday."
SS: Those Saturdays were so special to me. My aunts and my grandmother would have one blender going for eight hours, and they'd be chopping and cutting up vegetables of all kinds. Hearing them talking, laughing, gossiping—I was always the inquisitive one, trying to listen in on their conversations.
O: Literally, with your ear against the door! You also write about being at your grandmother's house as an 8-year-old, watching for the signs—which you could see even before your mother could—that your father was spiraling out of control. He'd get drunk and drunker, your mother would get angry, he'd leave, and then you'd all get home later and there would be an argument. How do you think you were affected by growing up with an alcoholic father?
SS: You become a watchful child. I listened very, very carefully to the world around me to pick up the signals of when trouble was coming. Not that I could stop it. But it made me observant. That was helpful when I became a lawyer, because I knew how to read people's signals. When a witness hesitated, my mind would race to the conclusion that he was trying to hide something. What was it? I'd dissect the story in my brain and nine times out of ten figure out a hole they were trying to avoid.
O: One of the most compelling stories you tell in My Beloved World is about discovering when you were not yet 8 that you had juvenile diabetes. You had to give yourself a shot every day. You still do?
SS: I give myself three to six shots a day now. Back then it was only one.
O: You paint the picture so vividly of when your father went to give you that first shot, and his hands were shaking. Was that because he was nervous, or drinking?
SS: I don't know if he was drinking in that moment. You couldn't really tell in the mornings. I think he had alcoholic neuropathy, the shaking that happens to some alcoholics. But I'm sure the nerves just compounded it that day. It's terrifying for a parent to have a child diagnosed with a chronic disease. The prognosis back then was very bad. I don't want to scare children with diabetes, so I underscore that it's not this way today, but when I was diagnosed you could expect to die in your 40s. If you were lucky, you'd make 50.
O: Did this knowledge affect how you lived your life?
SS: Absolutely. I never thought of taking a year off school or out of my career to go do something else. I was so anxious to live life to its fullest, to wring out of every minute as much as I could, that there was a sort of hunger in me. To do as much and learn as much as I could in the limited time I thought I had.
Next: What Sonia Sotomayor says about human nature