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In Puerto Rico, Sotomayor’s rise sends signal of hope

Citizens long for expanded voice in US

By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / August 9, 2009

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SANTURCE, Puerto Rico - “At Last, Sonia!’’ cried the cover of Primera Hora, a leading tabloid, capturing the sentiment of many of the 4 million living on this American territory as Sonia Sotomayor, a fellow Puerto Rican, was sworn in yesterday as a US Supreme Court justice.

For Puerto Ricans of all political stripes and economic conditions - who enjoy US citizenship but are denied representation in Congress and cannot vote for president - Sotomayor’s elevation to the high court offers hope that their longing for a greater voice in the US political system isn’t a pipe dream.

At his newsstand a few blocks from the governor’s mansion in Old San Juan, Rafael de la Torre, 63, said having a Puerto Rican on the Supreme Court - even if her parents moved to the mainland many years ago - “is a powerful thing.’’

“She feels like she’s from here,’’ said de la Torre, whose newspaper sales have been brisk. “She feels like she is one of us.’’

Sotomayor’s rise from a Bronx housing project to the Supreme Court is a special source of ethnic pride for Puerto Ricans, who proudly displayed “Confirm Sotomayor’’ buttons during her nomination hearings, celebrated her confirmation with parties, and gathered in homes and sports bars to watch her swearing in.

But some also believe that having a Puerto Rican at such a high level could one day have practical implications in the debate over whether Puerto Rico should become a state or whether its citizens should be given the right to vote in presidential elections.

“There is a feeling that at some point in the not-too-distant future the Supreme Court may weigh in on the status question,’’ said Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, a political analyst in Mayaguez on the western side of the island, where Sotomayor’s family comes from and where nearly 100 of her relatives gathered for a celebration Thursday night. “That would be a positive development to have someone who knows the island and has special insight. She could play an important role.’’

Puerto Rico became a commonwealth of the United States after it was captured at the end of the Spanish American War in 1898. At times it has had a tortured relationship with the United States, an issue that remains the primary driver of its politics.

The island remains fiercely patriotic, sending a disproportionately high number of men and women to serve in the US armed forces, including thousands who have died in wars stretching from World War I to Iraq and Afghanistan. But those soldiers cannot vote for their commander-in-chief, unlike the 4 million Puerto Ricans who live on the mainland. Those living on the island and on the mainland are US citizens.

If the island were a state it would be the poorest in the nation. The availability and quality of medical care and education lags behind the mainland. And its infrastructure needs are often an afterthought because its nonvoting delegate to Congress wields little political clout.

Polls show that a slim majority of Puerto Ricans favor statehood, followed by those who support the status quo. A small portion wants Puerto Rico to be an independent nation.

Sotomayor has been silent in recent years on the issue of Puerto Rico’s status. When she was a student at Princeton University, she supported outright independence - still considered a fringe position. Later, she argued at Yale Law School that statehood was “inevitable’’ and that Puerto Rico should be granted exclusive rights to offshore oil and minerals, something no state has.

One thing is for certain: Her nomination has been a source of rare agreement across the political divide.

“People from all political factions supported her nomination,’’ said Alvarez-Rivera, a former elections commission official who now runs www.electionspuertorico.org. In a place where politics is a blood sport, he said, “that kind of unanimity is rare.’’

But while bursting with pride at her achievements, some Puerto Ricans express doubt that things will change as a result.

Mildred Hernandez, 53, was shopping at the central market in this working-class enclave outside of San Juan yesterday. “We are very proud of her,’’ she said of Sotomayor. “She has had to deal with a lot of discrimination.’’

But Hernandez, a self-described supporter of Puerto Rican independence, shrugged when asked if Sotomayor’s position could help resolve the island’s status.

Pending legislation, the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2009, would establish a process to allow Puerto Rico to decide its status, ultimately resulting in a referendum sanctioned by Congress.

Some legal experts, however, believe that only the Supreme Court could resolve Puerto Rico’s status. Juan Torruela, a federal appeals court judge, has argued that Supreme Court decisions in the early 20th century first helped define the territorial status of Puerto Rico.

And three years ago a lawsuit filed in federal court over a law barring Puerto Ricans from voting for president was referred to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.

At a minimum, Sotomayor’s presence at the top of one of the nation’s three branches of government is a needed reminder that Puerto Rico’s unresolved political status remains a stain on American democracy, according to Charles R. Venator Santiago, a professor at the Institute of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at the University of Connecticut.

“I find it ironic that the Obama administration nominated a Puerto Rican judge who identifies with Puerto Rico, a place that is legally subject to discriminatory law,’’ he said. “Judge Sotomayor represents a citizenry that is partially excluded from the political process.’’

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.