Sotomayor's Mother: I Overcame Odds to Raise U.S. Supreme Court Pick

Celina Sotomayor singlehandedly raised her two housing project kids to become a doctor and a judge.

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BY Lisa Lucas In Margate, Fla. and David Saltonstall In New York

DAILY NEWS WRITERS Sonia Sotomayor's mother - who singlehandedly raised her two housing project kids to become a doctor and a judge - basked in an afterglow of pride a day after her daughter's historic nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I am so proud of her," Celina Sotomayor, 82, told the Daily News on Wednesday outside her Margate, Fla., home, a simple duplex apartment as modest as the woman who raised Sonia to become a success story against all odds.

"I am feeling great, but very tired," added the former nurse, standing in a driving rain a day after she had stood in the White House, watching her daughter become the first Hispanic nominee to the high court.

"I guess the best word is overwhelmed."

Yes, overwhelmed, and proud. But pride and a belief the strength of family has long been a two-way street in this mother-daughter relationship.

Proof of that can be found in a commencement speech Sonia Sotomayor gave at Lehman College in the Bronx in 1999, long before her name was attached to the highest court in the land.

It speaks volumes about how - and from whom - Sotomayor learned to look beyond the walls of the Bronxdale Houses, from which she rose to the towering citadels of the Ivy League and, finally, to a nomination to the Supreme Court of the United States.

"I decided to tell you a story - the story of my mother's life," the younger Sotomayor began that day. "It is ... a story of what hope, hard work, education and dedication to make a better life can achieve."

It also made her own up-from-her-bootstraps story seem almost unremarkable by comparison - how her mom was orphaned in rural Puerto Rico at age 9, after her mother died and her father abandoned the family.

She told how her mom reveled in what few studies were available to girls back then, when most on the island were illiterate, and how she would memorize each lesson by pretending to teach the trees in her backyard with a stick as a pointer.

And how, at 17, her mom escaped the crushing poverty of Lajas, Puerto Rico, by joining the U.S. Army to become a member of the Women's Army Corps, which trained her in Georgia to become a telephone operator.

"I can only imagine the culture shock my mom must have felt as a youth, somewhere between childhood and womanhood, trying to work in the South with a Spanish-only grammar school education," the younger Sotomayor, who knows a thing or two about culture shocks, told graduates that day.

Celina Sotomayor persevered, and soon she found a husband and a new life in the Bronx, where she began working at Prospect Hospital as a telephone operator and later a registered nurse.

Tragedy struck when little Sonia Sotomayor was only 9. Her factory worker father, whose heart ailment kept him out of the Army, died at age 42, leaving her mother alone with two kids and only a single paycheck.

Rather than despair, Celina Sotomayor just worked harder - six days a week, scraping for every bit.

"She struggled to put my brother and me through school," Sotomayor recalled. "For my mother, education has always been the top priority in all our lives. It was because of her that we were the only kids I knew in the housing projects to have an Encyclopedia Britannica."

It wasn't just her children's education that she cared about.

Sotomayor recounted how one day her mother sat her kids down and asked for their help in sending her back to school to become not just a licensed practical nurse, but a registered nurse who could make more money.

At the time, Sotomayor and her younger brother, Juan, were in high school, and the Social Security benefits they received because of their late father would dry up when they reached adulthood.

"She knew that as a registered nurse she could survive without depending on us, and she wanted to give us the freedom to pursue our own lives," Sotomayor recalled. "It was no sacrifice at all for my brother and me to help my mom go to school."

Soon, they'd all be going to new schools - Sonia to Princeton University and later Yale Law School, and brother Juan to City University's six-year medical program and later NYU Medical School. Celina, as an R.N., became the emergency room supervisor at Prospect Hospital.