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Sotomayor's life story, told in her own words

Speeches, writings offer window on "daughter of the Bronx."

WASHINGTON - She likes to eat pig intestines and watch

Law & Order.

She felt like an alien in the Ivy League. She reads fictional courtroom dramas and hands down imaginary rulings on the lawyers' objections therein.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor's self-portrait, revealed in scores of speeches and writings released Thursday, portrays a "daughter of the Bronx" who rose from a lower middle-class background to the academic and legal elite - but felt panicked on the cusp of each step up.

Even after six years as a federal district court judge, Sotomayor recalled feeling anxious when President Bill Clinton appointed her to the federal appeals court.

"I was devastated about leaving a court and friends I loved and felt secure with, panic-stricken about how hard my new work would be and whether I could do it," she told the Bronx Leadership Academy in 2000. "On the other hand, it is so exciting to be at the door of a major change in one's life."

She finds herself there again, and under renewed scrutiny, as President Obama's choice to replace retiring Justice David H. Souter on the Supreme Court. Sotomayor, 54, would be the first Hispanic and only the third woman on the high court.

Much has been made of Sotomayor's view of how a judge's personal background informs the way he or she interprets the law.

Her most controversial statement, that as a "wise Latina" she hoped she would rule better than someone without her experiences, has played a big role in Sotomayor's conversations with senators who will decide her fate.

She has assured them that a judge must ultimately and completely follow the law. But in speeches, Sotomayor also maintains that a judge cannot stop life experiences from shaping rulings.

"The aspiration to impartiality is just that; it's an aspiration, because it denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than others," she said in the same speech in 2001.

Sotomayor describes her own in vivid detail, providing a glimpse of the American experience through the eyes of a child of Puerto Rican parents growing up in New York in the 1950s and '60s.

She spent grammar school in the Bronxdale projects with aunts, uncles, and cousins living all around and making up her social network.

Merengue and salsa music played at family parties; Saturday afternoon was spent watching movies with cousins, the evening with family and friends playing bingo with chick peas as markers.

Food has played a big part in her life. "Because of my very Puerto Rican taste buds," Sotomayor loves what might be exotic fare to some: pig intestines on warm bread; pig feet and beans; pig tongue and ears.

But her childhood wasn't all Christmas dinners and shaved ice in summertime.

There are sad memories, too. When her grandmother could not care for Sotomayor, she would be cared for by an aunt "in her seamstress sweatshop" with blackened windows.

"I struggled all day to get to the door to smell some fresh air and see light," Sotomayor recalled in a 2007 speech. "Titi would vigilantly chase me away from the door all day long. Little did I know then that the shop and its employees were hiding themselves from the police."

Princeton was a long way off, culturally more than geographically. It was the first time Sotomayor had ventured outside her "cocoon" of Puerto Rican family and culture.

She stayed in her room the first week, she recalled in a 1998 speech. Many of her classmates had gone to prep school and had tennis lessons and European vacations.

More troubling was the academic gulf between them. Sotomayor had to read classics new to her such as Pride and Prejudice and learn anew how to write.

"Princeton was an alien land for me," she recalled. A Puerto Rican group on campus and Puerto Rican alumni helped ground her, and in her senior year, she was honored for academic excellence.

She was on her way to the legal elite. President George H.W. Bush nominated her to the federal bench in 1992. Clinton elevated her to the appeals court in 1997.

"I have loved my work because I have always remembered to do fun things while I am working," she told Bronx Leadership Academy in 2000.

Those endeavors have included, she revealed in another speech, watching TV legal dramas such as Law & Order and The Practice.

The Best Defense, a legal thriller by Ellis Cose, was "an enjoyable and fun book" - notwithstanding flawed rulings by characters in it who are judges.

Sotomayor told the New York County Lawyers Association she identified with the book's prosecutor character, Mario Santiago, as he struggled with the Hispanic community's expectations of him.

As for her own expectations, a seat on the high court likely wasn't one of them.

She told graduating students in 2003: "When one of you gets to the Supreme Court or the Academy Awards, invite me so I can be in the audience."