Nydia Velázquez is the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and has represented the 12th District of New York for nine terms. She's also a friend to Sonia Sotomayor, who is this week getting grilled before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and likely on her way to a seat on the Supreme Court, where she'll be the first Latina woman to sit. We called Velazquez — whose district stretches from Woodside, in Queens, to Williamsburg and Park Slope, in Brooklyn, to the Lower East Side — to ask her about her friend and the way in which she's inspired her constituents. Below, Velázquez opens up about that, what the judge likes to cook, and why some Hispanic leaders thought it might be a problem that she wasn't Mexican.
You were born less than a year before Sonia Sotomayor. You both come from Puerto Rico. You both spent many years in New York. You've both ascended to the highest levels of the Washington power structure. Would it be fair to say you have some insight into her experience and cultural significance?
Well, in the sense that I know her, in that her life experience and my life experience are quite similar. We come from very humble beginnings, so we are keen to facing challenges but not allowing those obstacles preventing us from pursuing our dreams.
Talk about the "wise Latina" comment.
It's really kind of amazing, and I'm quite perplexed that such a comment has brought so much attention, and she said it quite well during the proceedings. After all the thousands and thousands of cases where she has been involved, it is those words that became the focus that basically the critics from the Republican side used to question her respect to the law and the Constitution, and what she was trying was to make a point and inspire students and to say that legal actions have consequences in people's life. She's coming across as the person that is totally different from the person that the Republicans are trying to paint.
How important is Sonia Sotomayor to the Hispanic community?
Look, at the beginning, I remember when I went to speak with Chuck Schumer about Sonia Sotomayor back in January, and some were asking how would that resonate with other Latinos because she's Puerto Rican, and the largest Latino group is Mexicans. And it has been an incredible, incredibly moving experience, because every Latino in this country looks at her as one of their own. The sense of pride, the sense that finally we arrived to one of the most powerful, important institutions, the highest court in the land, it's unbelievable.
What about this concern about the Mexicans being the largest group of Latinos?
I heard this from other sources. A lot of rumors were spread around, but I know even among us, there was a discussion that took place among some of the Latino members of Congress. It was just a matter of how that other group was going to react since they have the largest numbers. The Hispanic Caucus was prepared to endorse her [before President Obama nominated Sotomayor]. The majority of the caucus wanted to come out in support of her in a unanimous vote. I said that would make her a target by coming out for her so early. It was a discussion that took place, and my argument was that by coming out so early and endorsing her, that would make her a target.
How well do you know Judge Sotomayor?
The first time I came to Congress, she was the one I picked to swear me in. She loves to cook. She is an incredible, incredible human being. Unexpectedly, you will get a call from her just because she was thinking of how you're doing.
What does she like to cook?
Well, she's a very health-conscious woman, and a lot of salad, veggies, grilled chicken, fish. We love to cook. Both of us. And we love to talk about food.