Home Opinion Maria Piedrabuena Soup and sandwich with a side of inspiration: my chance encounter with...
English | Español

Soup and sandwich with a side of inspiration: my chance encounter with history at the Riverhead Panera Bread

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and the author at the Riverhead Panera Bread in 2012.

This week was International Women’s Day — a day when we commemorated women and the fight for women’s rights. And although women’s day is every day, on March 8 we purposely stop to acknowledge the sisterhood, the struggle of the fight for equality, the richness of our gender in all of its complex diversity, the points of intersection in our different experiences throughout the world, and the contributions and sacrifices, big and small, of so many who have helped improve the lives of women everywhere.

Five years ago on a late-summer day, I was eight months pregnant with my daughter. I had the blues that day, probably due to the crazy pregnancy hormones, and had been wondering about my future and how my life was going to change, once again, with a newborn child in just a few more weeks.

It had been hard enough to become a mom the first time around with my son and, even though I was thrilled with the pregnancy and I couldn’t wait to meet my daughter, I was also very nervous.

When you are an immigrant and the much-needed parents and aunts and cousins are far away (hey, I’m Spanish, we have large families,) there is a special kind of sadness in not being able to share your newborn’s first smile, first steps, the sleepless nights, the joy, the confusion, with your immediate family. You’re in the figure-everything-out-own-your-own kind of boat…and it’s hard.

And on this particular summer day, I was feeling it bad. Wandering aimlessly through Riverhead I decided to stop by for a late lunch at an almost-empty Panera Bread on Route 58.

I was waiting for my order, when a woman suddenly appeared next to me at the same time I was reaching for my food. Conscious of my huge belly, I turned around and was about to apologize, when it hit me.

She was none other than U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

I was speechless, and for some crazy reason, I hugged her (again, hormones, I’m sure.)

Sotomayor hugged me back and asked me if everything was okay, and of course, I said yes and I apologized and told her it was amazing to have met her. I congratulated her on being the first Latina (and the third woman) to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

She asked about me and what I was doing and we chatted for a bit. She realized I was an immigrant, a Latina, from my accent and we started talking about our common experience.

Born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents who didn’t speak English according to CNN, Sotomayor is the embodiment of hard work and the American Dream and has become an inspiration to women everywhere.

As a child she had a difficult childhood. She was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and her father died when she was nine. Her mother raised Sotomayor and her brother on her own and taught her about hard work and the power of education.

Fully bilingual, Sotomayor went on to graduate summa cum laude from Princeton University and Yale Law School, where she was the editor of the prestigious Yale Law Journal.

She was nominated by President George H.W. Bush in 1992 to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the first Latina to be nominated to such a position. In 1997, President Bill Clinton nominated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and then in 2009, President Barack Obama made history when he nominated her to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Of course, all of her accomplishments weren’t in my head when I was talking to her, but somehow the importance of that particular moment was palpable and something electric: I unconsciously realized I was meeting somebody so consequential for so many, somebody who looked like me, somebody who represented my gender and my ethnicity so well, somebody I felt was so relatable, it might be why I impulsively hugged her like she was my beloved aunt.

I found Sotomayor to be incredibly approachable, unpretentious, open and kind. She spoke to me in both Spanish and English, listened to me and encouraged me to pursue my dreams. Though it may sound corny, meeting her refocused my lens and inspired me, wiping out the blues of that day and the uncertainty of the future.

And then, I thought of my yet-to-be-born daughter.

She needs to see more women like Sotomayor. Representation matters, it has consequences.

Although at her first glance Sotomayor’s story of success mirrors many others, it is easy to forget that she represents somebody who has been able to navigate effectively the difficult intersection of socio-economic, ethnic, gender, race and linguistic barriers, not to mention prejudices and societal mores.

And although Latinos represent almost 18 percent of the total population, according to the Pew Research Center,  and are the largest and fastest growing minority, representation has been remarkably problematic. And if we talk about Latina women, which is about 7 percent of the population, the problem is even more acute.

According to the American Bar Association, only 5 percent of all lawyers are Latino (compared to 85 percent white) and, according to the Hispanic National Bar Association, of that 5 percent, only 1.3 percent are Latina women, making Sotomayor’s story even more important.

After meeting Sotomayor that day I felt incredibly empowered. I rushed home and started reading everything I could on her and finally bought her memoir “My Beloved World.”

In it she speaks of her struggle, her and her family’s life, and what it means to be a Latina woman. There are many inspiring chapters, but this one paragraph touched me especially, thinking about the East End of Long Island, thinking about my children and their future, and thinking about my role as a Latina woman in this corner of the world:

“Looking out at that crowd, I imagined those who had not yet arrived, minority students who, in years to come, would make this multitude of faces, the view from where I now stood, a little more various. If they could have heard me, I would have confided in them: As you discover what strength you can draw from your community in this world from which it stands apart, look outward as well as inward. Build bridges instead of walls.”— Sonia Sotomayor, My Beloved World

SHARE
Maria Piedrabuena
María, a multimedia reporter, graduated from Stony Brook University with degrees in journalism and women and gender studies. She has worked for several news outlets including News12 and Fortune Magazine. A native of Spain, she loves to read, write and travel. She lives in Manorville. Email Maria