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Culture Shock: Sotomayor and the Rule of Law

Updated: Apr 15

(Guest post by Cory Allen Cox)

It is rightly said that travel enlightens and gives you perspective that no textbook can provide. December 2007 found me in the enchanting old town of Segovia, Spain. Tired from a morning of sightseeing, my small group found a restaurant whose menu promised wonderful local cuisine.

A member of our party was a native Spanish speaker, born and raised in Puerto Rico. She had been kind enough to act as a translator, as many people outside Madrid spoke little English. A waiter approached, pad in hand, and asked a question in Spanish. My friend replied, in Spanish.

“Do not speak to me in your filth,” he said in English. Stunned, she turned to us with a puzzled look.

“You butcher our language,” he continued. “If you speak to me, speak to me in English.”

“I’m sorry,” she said in English. “I grew up speaking Spanish; it is my language.”

“What you speak may be your language,” the waiter responded. “But it is not Spanish.”

Shocked, we gathered our things and left. As we walked my friend began to cry. Later that night, back in Madrid, I asked another friend who was a native of Spain why the waiter had responded so.

He explained that some Spanish were prejudiced against Hispanics and did not consider them the “children of Spain” as they have little or no Spanish blood in them. Spain did not colonize the new world with thousands of their own people like the English did, so the Spanish did not see them as equals. “Some say a true Spaniard would never leave Spain for the Americas,“ he explained.

“But you share a language,” I pointed out.

“But not culture,” he replied. “We are united in that we are from Spain, and though one region differs from the next, we share that heritage and culture. It makes us unique. And those in the Americas simply do not share that with us nor with each other.”

Later, I thought of that conversation and how Americans are a mish-mash of cultures. Sometimes our cultures blend and give us something uniquely American, like rock and roll or Creole food. Other times they stay separate and unique like the Irish in a Boston ghetto.

What we share is mainly history and zeitgeist we call “pop culture.” Real culture in the U.S. changes from region to region. Appalachian culture is vastly different than the quasi-aboriginal culture of the Pima River region.

And it seems more and more, as we struggle to break down racial barriers, cultural barriers are erected in their place—even if such barriers have the same net effect as racism because they limit or promote individuals based on the condition of their birth rather than their individual merits.

This is why some find some of the statements by Judge Sonia Sotomayor troubling.

In a 2002 article for the Berkeley La Raza law Journal entitled “A Latina Judge’s Voice,” Judge Sotomayor said, “Our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions In the same article she said, “Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see.”

There is no doubt that her unique experience has given her a different perspective on the world than mine. But as John Adams’ said in his ‘Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials,’ “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Honestly, her heritage should have nothing to do with the facts.

What unites us is greater than culture. It is stronger than any bond uniting people elsewhere. It is the rule of law and it emanates from our Constitution. Our school children pledge allegiance to it and our soldiers die for it, even when some people may corrupt it for their own hateful reasons. We call it liberty and feel patriotic feelings for it, even if it is just the guarantee of a social covenant.

It took a troubling incident with a Hispanic friend in a European country for me to realize that she and I were we were united by something so strong. I am embarrassed it took me so long to realize, but honestly, some people never figure this out. Even the Great judge Learned Hand was subject to instruction on this. When Hand told Judge Holmes to, “Do Justice!” Holmes responded, “That is not my job. My job is to play the game according to the rules.”

And that is what Senators Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor must do: determine if Sotomayor will play the game according to the rules. Nothing else matters.

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