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Sotomayor's influence: Latinas in the South Bronx follow her lead

Many Latinas hope that the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to America's highest court will replace negative Latina stereotypes with the diversity and depth that is at the heart of Puerto Rican culture.

By Staff writer / June 17, 2009

In Sonia Sotomayor's old neighborhood, a South Bronx Puerto Rican named Savannah Irizarry wants to keep her iconic ghetto-girl swagger. But she hopes the Supreme Court nominee will show girls how to transcend the stereotype.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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Savannah Irizarry's pink baseball cap proudly proclaims: "Boricua," an indigenous island word for Puerto Rican. Gold rings many of her fingers and several gold necklaces are draped around her neck, one of which spells out her nickname: "Savvy.""I tell everybody to look it up in the dictionary," she says with a grin, "that's who I am."

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Just who Savvy is is as familiar as the iconic ghetto Latina with gum-snapping swagger and yet as uniquely exceptional as any young person driven by dreams.

It was the young Sonia Sotomayor, now President Obama's Supreme Court nominee, who launched her own exceptional dreams from the very same stomping grounds that Savannah comes from - the Bronxdale Houses, a sprawling housing project in the South Bronx.

Savanna wears her Puerto Rican and South Bronx heritage with pride. Yet she's never thought of herself as anything but an American kid.

And as for the stereotype? Savannah certainly recognizes it but she is sometimes refreshingly oblivious to it. She's never seen "West Side Story," nor heard of Hollywood's Rosie Pérez, the voluptuous Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican actress who's played many a ghetto girl in her career. And it was from a textbook that this 20-year-old college freshman first learned that the traditional Latina mostly "cooked, cleaned, and followed her man."

Indeed, Savannah and many other Latinas hope that the nomination of Judge Sotomayor to the nation's highest court will finally at least color in the Latina stereotype with the diversity and depth at the heart of Puerto Rican culture.

Savannah, who works consciously to minimize the importance of ethnic or racial identification even as she is proud to be a "Boricua," puts it this way: "When people get introduced they ask, ‘What are you?' And I know what they're asking, but I just try to be funny with it. I say, ‘I'm a girl, what are you?' ... I mean, it's cool a Hispanic was nominated, but why does it have to be such a big thing? Why does it have to be so special?"

"The stereotypes of Latinas as ghetto girls smacking gum, like all stereotypes, cannot possibly portray the richness of our identities and experiences," says Lyn Di Iorio, the author of "Killing Spanish: Literary Essays on Ambivalent US Latino/a Identity" who grew up poor in Puerto Rico and attended Harvard, Stanford, and University of California, Berkeley. "The judge's story is a great one for young Latinas to digest because it does start to spread the idea not just that she is uniquely accomplished ... but that there are others like her coming up."