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Housing Project Part Of 'Inspiring Life's Journey'

DAVID GREENE, host:

Sonia Sotomayor's journey to Supreme Court nominee began in the Bronx that's where NPR's Mike Pesca takes us.

(Soundbite of moving vehicles)

MIKE PESCA: The music spills out of a fifth storey window of Building 14 of the Bronxdale Houses. The elevator distress call is not part of the original mix. The visual landscape is of playgrounds and lawns, but also lots of garbage on the ground and graffiti on the signs that read New York City Housing Authority. Rosalind Hobbs(ph) has been a resident since 1971, when Sonia Sotomayor lived here.

How were things then?

Ms. ROSALIND HOBBS: Better than this. That's all I can tell you. Way better than this.

PESCA: The Bronxdale Houses were only a couple of years old with the Sotomayor family moved in in 1954. Not all of the 28 buildings were even totally constructed at the time. Lloyd Ultan is the Bronx's official historian.

Professor LLOYD ULTAN (Historian): These were housing projects for the deserving poor. People who had jobs, were working, intact families, people were actually screened. In a sense, these people were poor but upwardly mobile.

PESCA: That describes the Sotomayors. Sonia's father, a factory worker, died when she was 9. Her mother was a nurse. The family emphasis on education would logically steer a young Catholic girl to one place in the Bronx in 1968. Cardinal Spellman High School had a reputation as a rigorous Catholic high school. Rita Milo, then Rita Sicurella, says no one at Cardinal Spellman cared that Sotomayor came from the projects.

Ms. RITA SICURELLA: The school is very academically based, so we really cut - it wasn't where you came from, it was what you could do. She was always careful and precise, and she would always question. And she was always seeking that next answer.

PESCA: Sotomayor was active in forensics and student government and fit in well in the school, which actively sought out minority and disadvantaged students as part of its mission. Angela Longerew(ph), also a member of the class of '72, remembers the push towards affirmative action.

Ms. ANGELA LONGEREW: It wasn't something that I was really happy with. I felt like there was a double standard, you know, my level of achievement wasn't measured the same way because I was not a minority. But in all fairness to Sonia Sotomayor, she - to her credit, she made the most of the opportunities that were afforded to her by these programs.

PESCA: One manifestation that Longerew remembers is that the speaker slot at graduation went to someone other than the student with the highest grade point average.

Ms. LONGEREW: Well, they offered the opportunity to make the speech to people who were willing to try out. And in this way, even if you did not rank first you had an opportunity to make the valedictory address.

PESCA: And so who did wind up making the valedictory?

Ms. LONGEREW: Sonia Sotomayor.

PESCA: And who ranked first? Angela Longerew, who's put the graduation speech issue behind her. Though it is funny, she says, that yesterday all of her old friends got in touch to joke, if only they had let you speak, you'd be on the Supreme Court.

But the more serious point, Longerew says, is that Sotomayor embodies exactly the experiment an institution like Cardinal Spellman High School was engaged in. She took advantage of all her opportunities, and Longerew says she never doubted that her former classmate would get far in life.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.
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