Celina Baez Sotomayor, the mother of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, died on Sunday at 94 of complications from cancer, according to a family friend.
“I have often said that I am all I am because of her, and I am only half the woman she is,” Sotomayor once said about her mother, who was orphaned at age 9 and raised by her older sister.
Celina and Juan Sotomayor moved from Puerto Rico during World War II and later brought up Sotomayor and her brother in a Bronx housing project. When Juan Sotomayor — a factory worker with a third-grade education — died, Sotomayor’s mother was left to raise her children alone.
She bought the only set of encyclopedias in the neighborhood and held down two jobs so that her daughter could ultimately become a lawyer, and her son, Juan, a doctor. Sonia Sotomayor would go on to earn scholarships at Princeton University and then Yale Law School before becoming President Barack Obama’s nominee to the highest court in the land.
“The progression of my life has been uniquely American,” Sotomayor told the Senate at her 2009 confirmation hearing. She said her mother taught her that the key to success in America is a good education and that her mother would sit with her children at the kitchen table studying to become a registered nurse while they did their own homework.
Celina Sotomayor worked for 35 years at Prospect Hospital in the South Bronx, first as a telephone operator, then as a practical nurse. Later she earned her nursing degree from Hostos Community College and became a registered nurse.
An obituary was published in the Sun-Sentinel.
In her memoir, “My Beloved World,” Justice Sotomayor said that while her mother was at times “tortured by lack of confidence in her own mental ability,” she would respond by studying until late in the night. She called her mother’s efforts an example that “a surplus of effort could overcome a deficit of confidence.”
“It was something I would remember often in the years ahead, whenever faced with fears that I wasn’t smart enough to succeed,” she wrote.
Sotomayor also described her mother’s terror when her daughter was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes and how her mother nursed her back to health when the long-term survival rate of the illness was less sure than it is today.
“Sometimes I would wake up miserable in the middle of the night with the pillow and sheets drenched in sweat, my hair dripping wet,” she wrote. “Mami would come change the bed, whispering to me quietly in the dark” so as not to wake her brother.
At the hearing, Sotomayor said that her mother “dressed with effortless style, which seemed almost magical given her modest means.”
“Even now, in her 80s, she still looks flawless, camera ready, perfectly pulled together at all times,” Sotomayor said.
Celina Sotomayor held the Bible when her daughter took the judicial oath, administered by Chief Justice John Roberts, to serve as the first Latina Supreme Court justice.
In 1992, after marrying Omar R. Lopez, Celina Sotomayor moved to Florida. She leaves behind her children and grandchildren, Kiley, Connor and Corey, according to a family friend. Lopez passed away in 2015.
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