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

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    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.
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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."

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.

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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."

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.

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.

But she's also conscious that the projects have more than the average American's exposure to dangers in the form of drug addicts, dealers, and "people who hang out at night who don't care about your safety."

She makes it a point, particularly when she's working with the kids, to counter what she calls a "ghetto mentality."

"There's this one view ... it's like, ‘OK, I'm from the Bronx, the Bronx is supposed to be ghetto, and I'm supposed to be bad to fit in,' " she says. "Too many people think that way because there are not enough others that represent something different, that make something of themselves, that don't end up selling drugs and doing drugs or doing things that can get you in trouble. Sotomayor can break that."

Savannah couldn't reconcile her own experience with the textbook vision of the traditional role of Puerto Rican Latina staying home to cook, clean, and care for the family. Every woman in her family had worked. Her grandmother and grandfather had come to New York when they were teenagers. When they started a family, they both also worked, so the role of cooking and cleaning fell to Savannah's mother when she was young, and when she was old enough, she also went on to get educated as an accountant.

In part, Savannah says, that's why her mother never required her to learn to cook: She felt it should be a choice. And Savannah chose not to learn.

Instead, she says, "I'm the family taster. I like to eat, but I don't cook."

Food is a central part of Puerto Rican culture. Like the people of the island, who are a rich mix of Spanish, indigenous Taino, African, and Chinese heritages, Puerto Rican cuisine is flavored with the spicy amalgam called sofrito. It's a sauce made with a special Puerto Rican cilantro, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, and onions ground together. It's also a favorite of Savannah's.

For many older Latina women, that mix of ingredients is also an essential part of what makes them who they are as Puerto Ricans and also Americans. (Puerto Ricans both on the mainland and the island, which is a US territory, are very pointed about being American citizens, not immigrants. "[Sofrito] is exactly what we need more of in the United States right now. We need to take many, many disparate parts of our culture and bring them all together to create one thing that is wonderful and essential in our culture," says Esmeralda Santiago, the author of "When I Was Puerto Rican." "That's what Sotomayor will bring to the Supreme Court, some sofrito."

Other Latina scholars agree, but some worry that in integrating into American culture, young Latinas like Savannah may lose what's good about their ghetto-girl flavor.

"The problem with stereotypes is that they're very simplistic. It's not that they're untrue necessarily," says Professor Di Iorio. "I think we all have a little Rosie Pérez in us. I can snap gum. With Sotomayor there now, young working-class Latinas can say, ‘I don't have to give up on this background. I can like hip-hop and wear my big earrings, but I can also go to Harvard, or Princeton, and graduate summa and be a lawyer, a doctor, whatever I want to be.' One doesn't preclude the other and I think that's really important."

Savannah makes it clear, that as much as she'd like to do well in the world, she doesn't necessarily want to change.

"I can understand why it's important to speak well and clearly, but I don't understand why I should have to give up my swagger," she says.

And as for Sotomayor's nomination, Savannah says: "It is another big step up that creates bigger possibilities for every race. It's not just Hispanics, it's for every minority," she says. "It shows that people can do things they couldn't do before. Now that's hope."

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