Hundreds waited in rainy weather and braved long lines Saturday evening, Sept. 7, to hear U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor talk about her latest children's book, "Just Ask! Be different, Be brave, Be you." during a visit to Portland Community College's Sylvania Campus.
The children's book, released Wednesday, Sept. 4, in English and Spanish, highlights characters with disabilities and medical conditions, who talk about their conditions as a point of strength. "Just Ask!" seeks to examine and celebrate qualities that make people different.
Sotomayor, a diabetic, called the latest publication, "the one that I've wanted to write for years and decades." Recounting her life as a child dependent on insulin, she often kept her condition private, and others didn't dare ask.
"Children were taught, 'don't ask questions, don't stare, just ignore,'" Sotomayor said during an interview with Tra'Renee Chambers of KATU-TV and iHeartRadio's Jam'n 107.5. "I was embarrassed by my diabetes. I didn't want to show other people, especially kids, that I had to take an injection every day. Now I take six of them."
The book's title came from an incident more than 30 years ago, when Sotomayor used a bathroom at a restaurant to inject insulin and was confused for a drug user by another woman in the restroom.
"When you see people doing things you don't understand, don't assume the worst in them, just ask them what they're doing," she told the woman, who'd referred to her as an "addict" to others at her table when Sotomayor walked by.
"I want to be a voice for all the kids like me who are different, who have different physical and sometimes mental conditions and need a voice who says it's OK to ask, it's OK to be different, it's OK to be brave," Sotomayor said.
'Nobody to fix us now'
Sotomayor was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2009 by President Barack Obama, the first Latina on the high court. She joked that the book's illustrator, Raphael Lopez, made sure to include earrings on the young girl depicted in the book, so readers would know it was meant to resemble Sotomayor as a child.
"In the Latino culture, I think still, they put little studs in our ears the day we're born," she said. "They never come out, they just get bigger."
Following an on-stage interview, Sotomayor walked the room, answering a few pre-submitted questions chosen at random.
"How does it feel to be part of such big decisions on the Supreme Court?" middle schooler Perry Cunningham asked.
"It feels really, really good to be a voice in the room that makes some of the most important decisions in the country," Sotomayor told Perry, before giving her a hug.
"This is the hardest job I've ever done," she said, noting that her role comes with an element of pressure, knowing that there is no higher court to review or reverse decisions she and her colleagues make. "I always took a little security from the fact that I knew there were judges above me that would fix it if I got it really, really wrong. There's nobody to fix us now," she said, to soft laughter from the audience. "The job is really, really hard because of that because I know that there are going to be many people affected by our decisions, and there will be a winner, somebody's going to be happy, but there will also be somebody who loses, who thinks justice wasn't fair to them."
Saturday's event was sponsored by the Multnomah County Library and PCC. Attendance was free, but tickets went quickly after the announcement went out in late August. Attendees lined up at the Sylvania campus hours prior to the event, and many others waited over an hour after the main event for a book signing and photos with the Supreme Court justice, who announced she would pose for photos with every child who waited in line with a book.
For many parents, Sotomayor's stop in Portland was a historic moment, and a chance to inspire children.
"The fact that it's a judge that we identify with, for our Latino heritage, it's important to see her and hear her speak," Alejandrina Felipe of Demascus said. She attended alongside her 9-year-old nieces.
Other parents wanted their children to see living examples of women in powerful positions. "I definitely wanted my son, Charlie to see Judge Sotomayor," said Eryn Karpinski of Portland. "We admire her so much. I also heard that she's a fabulous speaker to children."
"Just Ask!" is Sotomayor's fourth book, and her second children's book.
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