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.
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The South Bronx has a stereotype of its own as a poverty-ridden symbol of urban decay that sits beside Yankee Stadium. During a 1977 World Series game, Howard Cosell famously uttered "the Bronx is burning," referring to the epidemic of arson in the many abandoned buildings that lined drug-ridden streets. But Savannah's South Bronx of today is a very different place. During the 1980s, the city decided to rehab some of the abandoned buildings and burned out, empty lots and sell others for as little as a dollar each to nonprofit and church groups. Those groups then built affordable housing or rehabbed existing buildings. People began moving back, building businesses and having families.Skip to next paragraph
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The South Bronx is now a community on the upswing that - despite still having high concentrations of poverty and crime - has growing working and middle-class neighborhoods characterized more by shopping centers, chain stores, and single-family homes than the old abandoned crack houses.
"Everybody here is welcome regardless of skin color or race. I was always around friendly people," Savannah says, over a BLT on white toast at Jimmy's, a busy restaurant on White Plains Road, a hopping center for shopping and dining a few blocks from her public housing complex. "Nobody's ever said to me, ‘You're Puerto Rican so you're a "ho" ' or ‘you're this or that.' Nobody's ever put a name on me, so I guess I'm lucky."
But Savannah's well aware of the stereotype of the ghetto girl as an unwed welfare mother with more kids than she can handle. And she hopes Sotomayor's nomination will help change that image.
"Maybe she can show that all Puerto Ricans are not loose and promiscuous," says Savannah. "She can show we're not all about that. We can be professional, too."
Savannah's mother is a Puerto Rican accountant who was born and raised on the Upper West Side and is a fan of the musical "West Side Story." Savannah's stepfather, who was born in Puerto Rico, drives trucks for a film company. She considers her parents financially comfortable because they made it possible for her and her younger brother and sister to dress the way they wanted and have other things they wanted in a community where not every kid does.
But they are strict, says Savannah, and ensured that she came home instead of hanging out after school. They also instilled in her the importance of education as a key to creating a better life. She went to a specialized public high school, the Bronx Theatre High School, and is a psychology major at Lehman College in the Bronx. But it hasn't always been easy to focus on school.
"There's more peer pressure to drop out of school than to go to school. It's like, ‘What are you doing?' I tell them I'm going to college, and they say, ‘Oh, you suck,'" she says with a dismissive flick of her hand. "But I don't care. My parents would prefer me to stay home until I graduate and then get my PhD before I start working."
The Bronxdale Houses are a series of 28 seven-story brick buildings surrounded by tree-shaded lawns next to the Bruckner Expressway. Built in the 1950s, the project was still fairly new and a haven for working-class families striving for the middle class when Sotomayor's family moved there in the early '60s. By the time Savannah moved there in the 1990s, the Bronxdale Houses were slowly recovering from the crack epidemic. But like the neighborhood around it, this public housing project was regaining its striving working-class character.
Housing experts now consider it one of the "above average" housing projects in New York. Just two years ago, the city opened a new, $10 million community center. It's there that Savannah works in the summer as a counselor for 6- and 7-year-olds. And she was hanging out there, too, the week in late May that Sotomayor's high court nomination hit the headlines. Savannah explained in interviews there that she considers it a fun place to be, not a place to escape.