My newest book launched yesterday, giving me a little flutter of excitement as I scrambled my egg for breakfast, pretended to work, but mainly checked twitter and Facebook. Even at the grocery, I levitated a bit pushing my cart through the produce section.
But at the end of the day, the thrill of pub date always falls short of the high I get when I discover a great story, dig for the details and choose the right structure and words to tell it. That's what I love.
Of course, I'm incredibly grateful and proud of the book on the shelf. And it's outright awesome to hear from readers. But a book launch doesn't happen every day. Me, sitting here writing, that's what happens everyday. And when I write a story like the following, my brain sparks, my blood rushes and I might as well be flying. It feels that thrilling.
So please, read on.
One little fact I discovered by accident started this story. I happened to read that
the mother of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor served in the Women's Army Corps (WAC) during World War II.
Of course, that caught my interest, due to my latest book about the origins of the WAC in the 1940s.
My search for more information on Celina Sotomayor's military service turned up other information that completely took over my focus. For I'd found the extraordinary story of heartbreak and resilience that helped shape the first Latinx on our country's highest court.
But let's begin with Celina Baez's enlistment in the WAC. in fled extreme poverty in Puerto Rico to join the WAC in 1944. Like many soldiers during WWII, she lied about her age to enlist at 17. She spoke little English and didn't know a soul in Georgia where she reported for basic training.
Celia brought with her a fervor for the value of education as a stepping-stone to improving one's circumstances. Possibly stemming from the way her parents protected the one pencil the family possessed, divvying its use between their five children.
Celina didn't let a lack of school supplies impede her academics. She studied by playing teacher to a number of trees behind her home, pointing at each with a stick and calling them by name to recite her lessons. This, in a country were the literacy rate stood at 39-percent and families earned an average of $200 per year, adjusted for inflation that's about $3590.
But Celina didn't earn her high school diploma after her mother died and her father abandoned the family. She was raised by an older sister until joining the WAC at a time when few women of color felt welcome in the U.S. Army. There she trained to become a telephone operator.
When the Senate confirmed Celina's daughter as a Supreme Court Justice in 2009, it surely proved the American dream had come true for Celina.
But every story has its conflicts and challenges, its dark night of the soul, and so does Celina's.
After the war, Celina fell in love with a young Puerto Rican immigrant employed as a welder, Juan Luis Sotomayor.
Juan came from a warm extended family that gathered for feasting, dominoes, singing and dancing. He wrote poetry, cooked fabulous food and knew how to make the ordinary fun.
After Celina and Juan married, she continued her education, earning a high school equivalency certificate. In 1954, she and Juan welcomed little Sonia and three years later a son, Juan, Jr.
In her early marriage, Celina worked at Prospect Hospital in the South Bronx as a telephone operator, then turned her studies to the medical field becoming a Licensed Practical Nurse.
The Sotomayor's happy life started to crumble when her husband began to drink heavily, and her young family fell victim to the disease of alcoholism. Celina and Juan started to fight, loudly and often. Tension filled their home. Work became a refuge for Celina as she signed up for night and weekend shifts at the hospital.
Young Sonia didn't understand how addiction was tearing apart her family, nor why her mother seemed cool and distant, while her father was fun to be around. She blamed her mother for her father's alcoholism.
When Sonia was 9 and Juan, Jr. 6, their father died of a heart attack, leaving Celina with no savings. She went to work six days a week, arriving home to make her children dinner, then retreating behind the closed doors of her bedroom to cry out her grief.
She mourned the death of her husband, her marriage and loss of financial stability.
And she was grief-stricken over all that she'd lost to alcoholism years before, the wonderful man she'd fallen in love with and the life they'd dreamed of together.
Celina fell into depression and months passed before she gathered herself together and rose from her grief to nurture her children and supervise their education, which now seemed more important than ever.
She sacrificed and saved to keep her children in private school and purchased the only set of Encyclopedia Britannica in their Bronx housing project. Her son Juan remembers studying for hours at the kitchen table. "We studied when we came home, it was natural and we enjoyed it. There was never any negative energy about it because Mom used to say, 'Just do the best you can'."
Celina went back to school herself, when Sonia was in high school. She studied with her teens at the kitchen table, pursuing a dream. At 46 she got her degree and became a registered nurse.
During all these years, her daughter Sonia had not come to terms with her feelings about her mother and the troubles the family went through in her early years. In the autobiography she published after joining the Supreme Court, Sonia wrote, "though my mother and I shared the same bed ... she might as well have been a log, lying there with her back to me."
"It wasn't until I began to write this book, nearly fifty years after the events of that sad year, that I came to a truer understanding of my mother's grief," she wrote.
"It was only when I had the strength and purpose to talk about the cold expanse between us that she confessed her emotional limitations in a way that called me to forgiveness."
Showing affection didn't come naturally to Celina who'd been an orphan from age 9 and lived through a contentious marriage. She told her daughter, "'How should I know these things, Sonia? Whoever showed me how to be warm when I was young?'"
Sonia had paid tribute to Celina the day President Barack Obama had chosen her as a nominee for the Supreme Court. “I have often said that I am all I am because of her, and I am only half the woman she is.” Sonia said before the president and a national television audience. “I thank you for all that you have given me and continue to give me.”
Understandably proud of both her children, Celina says she expected them to do well, "but I never envisioned them becoming what they are."
Her son earned his medical degree from New York University and owns a private practice specializing in allergy and asthma diagnostics.
Celina retired in the early 1990s, though she continued for many years using her nursing skills to aide neighbors in her apartment complex, on call for whoever was sick and rang the doorbell. One neighbor says Celina even “removed my cat’s stitches.”
Celina is now retired in South Florida with her second husband Omar Lopez.
I hope you enjoyed this story as much as I did. Let me know what you think in the comment section below. I've checked out the audio version of "My Beloved World," and from my local library and hope I can get to it before it's due.
I'm fascinated to discover little-known stories of history. Stories of people and events that provide a new perspective on why and how things happened, new voices that haven't been heard, insight into how the past brought us here today, and how it might guide us to a better future.
I also post here about my books and feature other authors and their books on compelling and important historical topics.
Occasionally, I share what makes me happy, pictures of my garden, recipes I've made, events I've attended, people I've met. I'm always happy to hear from readers, in the blog comments, by email or social media.