A Place Called Hope

The name Sonia Sotomayor did not ring a bell for Demi Torres and Hillary Silva when they first heard it three years ago. They had been asked to help with a petition drive to change the name of the housing project where they live to honor its most famous former resident, the Supreme Court associate justice. But once the young women learned the story of the Puerto Rican girl who lived there five decades ago and is now one of the most powerful people in the country, they knocked on door after door.

Today, living in the Justice Sonia Sotomayor Houses, a sprawling low-income residential housing development in the Soundview section of the Bronx, is a source of pride for both of them. Sotomayor is a woman who is “one of our own” and who “has gone so far,” they say.

While symbolic, the renaming of the projects has had tangible effects. It has given these young women and other youth who live in this rough neighborhood a glimmer of hope that they too can achieve greatness. As Sotomayor was decades before them, Demi and Hillary are motivated to find their own version of success through hard work, and against many odds.

The buildings Demi and Hillary live in are 2 of 28 structures, each 7 stories high, on 30 acres of land, which were built during an urban-renewal boom in the 1950s. The development used to be known as the Bronxdale Houses. Today it is home to 3,500 residents, the majority Latino and African American, where the average family income is a little over $22,000 and 32 percent of households are headed by a senior. It is challenged by drug and gun violence - problems that were already becoming evident when 3-year-old Sonia moved in with her baby brother, Juan, now a doctor, and her parents, Juan and Celina, in 1957.

Sotomayor moved out as a 15-year-old to another part of the borough. Her father had passed away by then, and when her mother received a small inheritance from the family doctor, according to Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World, published last month, she used the $5,000 for a down payment on an apartment in a safer development called Co-op City.

In her memoir, the justice lovingly remembers the place for its community spirit and its sense of family and warmth. Demi says she knows that pockets of that warmth still exist. And she says she has a few other things in common with the Latina justice. They both studied at the same Catholic high school, Cardinal Spellman, both are of Puerto Rican heritage and both women adore their abuelitas.

But that is where the similarities end. Demi, 18, who has an easy smile and a bleached-blond halo of curls with aqua-blue accents, lives in a two-bedroom apartment with her grandmother Carmen. Demi’s mother had been living with them, but moved out to live with a new boyfriend when Demi was 10. During those difficult years, she also switched to a public school from a Catholic one and “almost lost hope that I would get to do the great things that I had planned with my life,” she says.

But the dream didn’t die completely, and today Demi has big plans for herself. Living in the projects is not one of them. Once she gets her degree, she plans to move to California, with her grandmother, of course, and open a shop that sells surf- and skateboards. “Since I was little, I’ve wanted to be a professional in-line skater. An ex-boss gave me the idea to open up my own business,” she says. But her first love is art the walls of her room are covered with her colorful drawings, and while she prefers abstract painting, she is also very taken by the Mona Lisa and would love to go to Paris one day to see the original. She laughs, as if the idea sounds preposterous, then turns serious. “I know that it’s up to me to make it out of the projects. And I will,” she says.

The Bruckner Expressway snakes alongside the burgundy brick buildings of the Sotomayor Houses, giving the residents a constant show of lights, sirens and horns. In the midst of all this commotion sits a community center also named after Sotomayor. This two-story building is a refuge for many of the residents, especially the teenagers.

According to Erica de Jesus, who heads the adolescent program at the community center sponsored by the New York City Housing Authority, on any given evening 60 to 80 young men and women use the gym or computer facilities, seek homework help or just come to hang out.

“This is like a safe haven for them,” says De Jesus, a 30-year-old married mother. “These kids need a place to feel protected, a person they can trust and come to when things are not going right at home or in their lives,” she says. “I’m just glad that this center is here and that I can be here for them.”

De Jesus, who also grew up in the Bronx, knows how hard the streets can be for these teenagers and the urgency to have role models to look up to and places they can go to feel safe. “There are too many distractions for the kids, and girls are particularly vulnerable,” she says.

Like Demi, 19-year-old Hillary is a regular visitor to the center. She agrees that it’s a particularly harsh world for young women. But unlike her friend, she is not ready to leave yet. A sophomore at Bronx Community College studying human services, who lives with her mother and older brother, she intends to stay in the Bronx when she graduates and to work with troubled teens. She wants to spread the message that “where you were born should be no limit to how far you can go.”

“No matter where you come from, if you put your heart into it, and work hard, you can succeed,” she declares in a Bronx accent much like Sotomayor’s. “People may not have the support they need, but that is why I want to stay - everybody is good at something. I want to help kids get their lives together.”

Hillary, who is Ecuadorean and Puerto Rican, says she has experienced stereotyping against low-income-housing residents. “When I tell people where I live, I see how their opinion of me changes,” she says. “It happens with teachers, doctors, most everybody.”

And yet Hillary understands that it’s best to ignore how others judge you. “It’s not just what other people say about project girls, it’s also what we think about ourselves,” she explains. “If you hear enough negativity, you start to believe it. And I was one of those teens who didn’t believe in myself.”

A tomboy who loves football and Sunday fellowship at the local Baptist church, Hillary is slowly repairing her relationship with her mother, which was challenged by her adolescent rebellion. She has never met her father.

“I had a major attitude problem and I was very angry. I was on my way to becoming a statistic,” she says matter-of-factly. “I got pregnant at 16 and miscarried.” But Hillary views that incident as her wake-up call. “I was able to see the bigger picture. It’s like I was given another chance to push myself to do what I was meant to do. People judge you because you come from the projects or you make mistakes. You’ve got to be tough to deal with that.”

The young women at the Justice Sonia Sotomayor Houses say they have been touched by the judge’s ability to push past the stereotypes and rough beginnings to make her dreams come true. They know that when Sotomayor talks about her humble start in the projects, of growing up with an alcoholic father who died when she was young, or of being raised by a young widow and yet not being deterred from striving for better, she is elevating not just the reputations of Latinas in general, but of young women like them in particular.

“I know project girls have a reputation and it’s not a good one,” says Demi. “People think we’re easy and wild, so when they changed the name to honor Justice Sotomayor, it gave me and the girls here a chance to dream bigger for ourselves.”

(This special story was written by Sandra Guzman for Latina Magazine's February 2013 issue)