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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.

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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."

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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."