As a girl, Sonia Sotomayor loved comic books: Archie
, Richie Rich
. The silly, colorful stories provided a distraction from the world outside her family's home in a South Bronx housing project, where junkies littered the playground, racial slurs against Latinos were common and her little brother Juan was mugged by bigger boys for his pocket change. "We learned never to let anyone walk behind you," Juan Sotomayor tells PEOPLE during a recent trip to their old neighborhood. And Sonia was quick to come to others' defense. "If I had a kid picking on me, she would try to negotiate. If she couldn't, she would move on to step two," says Juan, 51, an allergy and asthma doctor in Syracuse. "She could mix it up."
By all accounts, this blunt-spoken, once chain-smoking veteran of 17 years on the federal bench and five in the rough-and-tumble office of the New York City prosecutor still can. But now she relies more on book—rather than street—smarts. "She's tough on people and intellectually rigorous, and we want that in our judges," says her Yale Law classmate Rudolph Aragon. The Senate Judiciary Committee, which recommended her with a 13-6 vote on July 28, apparently agrees. This week after the full Senate votes, Sotomayor, 55, is expected to become the first Latina and only the third female justice in the Supreme Court's 220-year history. Even GOP Senator Lindsey Graham (who, after skeptical questioning, voted "Yea") called her barrier-breaking nomination "a big deal. America has changed for the better with her selection."
So far, much of the country has only seen Sotomayor sitting solo at a long table coolly offering the committee clear, if evasive, answers such as, "My judicial philosophy is fidelity to the law." It remains to be seen how her personal history will impact her decisions. Aragon insists she's left any racial wounds long behind: "By law school Sonia was immune to that—she had immunized herself." Pols will also want to learn where she stands on thorny issues like abortion. "I know where she stood 30 years ago, but we don't talk about our views," says Aragon, still a friend. "When I see her, the first thing she says is, 'Hey, sweetheart, how are you doing?' We talk about our love lives, our families."
What is clear is that, credentials aside, Sotomayor is no ivory-tower type. She is more likely to quote Perry Mason (see box) than Plato, more often to be found on the dance floor than on a soapbox. For her 50th birthday, she took salsa lessons and threw herself a bash, inviting not just family, but the dance instructor and trainer from her gym. Each December her Greenwich Village apartment gets an over-the-top bedecking. "She is known for her Christmas lights," says Michael Gutierrez, 41, her godson and decorating coconspirator. She's also a sucker for foreign vacations, spas and craft fairs. "She knows how to relax," says Juan.
She came by that ability the hard way. Money was tight for her father, Juan Sr., a factory worker, and mother, Celina, a nurse. They sent their kids to Catholic school, joined book-of-the-month clubs and skimped elsewhere: If breaded veal was on sale, they ate it for eight straight days. At age 8, Sonia was diagnosed with diabetes. (Today she's careful to watch her blood sugar and kept a flat soda handy during her hearing.) The next year her father clutched his chest in the kitchen doorway and was dead by morning; she hurled herself on her bed crying. Later she found solace in books. She studied her way to Princeton, a quick train ride—but worlds away—from home. There she became a champion of diversity, filing a 1974 federal complaint against the university because of the paucity of Latino faculty and students. "It got people's attention," says Jerry W. Cox, then a student journalist who covered the complaint, which forced Princeton to prioritize affirmative action. At the same time she babysat to pay for books and spoil her godchildren. "I'd spend weekends with her," says Gutierrez. "She'd get me GI Joes to play with in her dorm room."
Divorced (from attorney Kevin Noonan) with no kids, Sotomayor nurtures close ties with a huge extended family, who are sharing the joy of her success. Yet it is the judge herself who remains the most grounded. As they were leaving the White House, her brother says he had asked her, "'Hey, Sonia, you think we can get invited to Oprah
?' She said, 'Oprah
? You just met the President!'"