NEW YORK — U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor returned Friday to the Bronx housing project where she spent part of her childhood, recalling how an unlikely encounter there with Robert F. Kennedy ignited her passion for public service.
The Bronx native fought back tears at the ceremony renaming the Bronxdale Houses after Sotomayor.
In an emotional speech, Sotomayor said she lived in the project during the most formative years of her life. On a spring afternoon in 1958, she looked out of her second-story window and saw a famous face.
"Robert Kennedy was coming to visit our projects. I had never before looked down on red hair that bright," she said, adding that she went to the library to look him up. "I was captivated by his career. Through this chance encounter above the old community center, my interest in public service was awakened."
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With many residents of the complex in the audience, and her mother wiping away tears in the front row, Sotomayor reflected on a childhood that was spent surrounded by family. Her cousins, also from the projects, would join her at the local fast-food joint for hamburger-eating competitions, she said.
"I do remember each time I drive by that White Castle, the hours and hours of laughter that my cousins and I had as we roamed the grounds of this housing project, and played in the playgrounds, and screamed and fought and laughed and lived," she said.
The scene at the ceremony Friday was a far cry from the anonymous existence Sotomayor had once known there. Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced her, and Sen. Charles Schumer stopped by to pay his respects.
After speaking, she danced on stage with the choir from her alma mater, Cardinal Spellman High School.
Sotomayor also visited her nearby elementary school, Blessed Sacrament, where children cheered excitedly as the justice entered an assembly to present an award to student David Abreu.
"I think I have a lot more responsibility now," said the beaming and genuinely surprised seventh-grader.