I spent this rainy afternoon at Princeton’s Mudd archives, where the senior thesis are kept, reading Sonia Sotomayor’s 1976 senior thesis, La Historia Cíclica de Puerto Rico: The Impact of the Life of Luis Muñoz Marín on the Political and Economic History of Puerto Rico, 1930-1975.
Since I was born and raised in Puerto Rico and I am very familiar with the island’s politics in the 1970s, I thought it would be interesting to read what she had to say.
First for a little background:
Back in the 1970s, the independence movement was relatively popular among a minority of Puerto Ricans. In the referendum prior to Sotomayor’s thesis, the independence movement received 6% of the vote. Young people who studied abroad, particularly those in Ivy League schools (many studying law), were fond of talking about independence and referred to the island as a “colony”. I have never considered myself a “colonial”, and for the most part ignored that rhetoric. That modicum of popularity for independence has declined: In the 2008 election, the Puerto Rican Independence party had so few votes they will need to register the party again if they want to run a candidate for governor.
The thesis is exactly what it says in the title, a political and economic history of the island focused on former governor Luis Muñoz Marín. It has a four-page preface, 148 pages of text and footnotes, and an additional 21 pages of bibliography and reference material.
On page ii of the preface, she says, “I do not disclaim in this thesis that I do not reflect my own bias toward independence for Puerto Rico,” and on page 98, “Unlike the labeled “socialism” philosophy of the 1940s, Operation Bootstrap was based on a negation of self-sufficiency and an acceptance of utter dependency on the colonial master, the United States.”
I pay particular attention to these two statements since Stuart Taylor Jr pointed to them in his Tuesday post (h/t The Corner). Taylor quotes award-winning history professor K.C. Johnson of Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center, who said,
First, I’m curious as to when Sotomayor ceased being a Puerto Rican nationalist who favors independence — as she says she does in the preface. (The position, as she points out in the thesis, had received 0.6 percent in a 1967 referendum, the most recent such vote before she wrote the thesis.) I don’t know that I’ve seen it reported anywhere that she favored Puerto Rican independence, which has always been very much a fringe position….
There is nothing in the thesis that I could find to indicate that the young Sotomayor, while favoring independence back then, would have advocated anything other than legal and democratic means towards that goal.
My question is, how important is that now, 33 years after the fact? Since she was never a resident of Puerto Rico, one can safely assume that she never participated in Puerto Rican politics. Does she favor independence now? How important is that? Under what circumstances would a Justice have any power to decide on the status of Puerto Rico?
Professor Johnson correctly points out that
she asserted that Muñoz Marín’s economic program, called Operation Bootstrap, failed primarily because Puerto Ricans continued to think of themselves as colonials. This … was 1970s-trendy dependency theory rhetoric, but was wholly unsupported by the evidence that she presented in the thesis (and, indeed, by virtually any evidence that has appeared since that time).
However, I must respectfully disagree with Prof. Johnson in this,
her unwillingness to call the Congress the U.S. Congress is bizarre — in the thesis, it’s always referred to as either the ‘North American Congress’ or the ‘mainland Congress.’ I guess by the language of her thesis, it should be said that she’s seeking an appointment to the North American Supreme Court, subject to advice and consent of the North American Senate. This kind of rhetoric was very trendy, and not uncommon, among the Latin Americanist fringe of the academy.
While the Latin Americanists to this day are fond of referring to the USA as the North Americans, Sotomayor, on chapter 2, page 7, is discussing the US Congress and the Puerto Rican Congress in the same paragraph. She differentiates between the two on footnote 1:
North American “mainland” and “federal” throughout this paper will refer to the United States and its fifty states excluding Puerto Rico. This [
entomology CORRECTION] etymology is accepted as appropriate labels throughout Latin American and Puerto Rican literature. Puerto Rico will be referred to as “island” or “insular.”
She did need to clarify between the two congresses, as she discussed in her thesis a 1909 confrontation between the Puerto Rican congress and the mainland, which was resolved when the US legislature broke the impasse. However, she does refer to the United States by name throughout the thesis.
And that was thirty-three years ago.
Clearly not a “colonial”, Sandra Sotomayor is now nominated to the SCOTUS.
The issues that I consider most important what is her record on jurisprudence and upholding the Constitution, and let’s ask about what those “wise Latina” statements convey on how she decides on a legal issue.