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By Jesse Washington

Over the past 20 years, Jorge Ayala has seen the transformation here in “El Barrio”: abandoned storefronts turned into chain stores, public schools became bilingual, Mexicans moved in next to Puerto Ricans, and Spanish Harlem changed from ghetto into destination.

The change in Ayala’s neighborhood reflects the growth of Latinos in America, who celebrated a huge milestone Tuesday when Sonia Sotomayor, the New York City-born daughter of Puerto Rican parents, was nominated to be the first Hispanic justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

In their centuries-long history in America, many Latinos have transcended the barrio, in places from politics to pop culture. Still, for many Hispanics _ especially Puerto Ricans _ the chance to see themselves represented where our freedoms are forged feels special and new.

“Because she’s the first one,” said Ayala, co-owner of the iconic La Fonda Boricua restaurant in the heart of Spanish Harlem, on East 106th Street in northern Manhattan.

“She’s making the law. It does feel different,” Ayala said. “She’s the first one, a woman, born in New York, and Puerto Rican. It’s definitely an honor.”

Ayala embodies the complex identities of both Latinos and Puerto Ricans, who are the second-largest U.S. Hispanic group, with about 4 million residents.

The name of Ayala’s restaurant comes from “Borinquen,” which is what native Taino Indians called the island taken by the Spanish. He has fair skin and long, straight hair. He speaks with a heavy Spanish accent, yet like all people born in the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico, is an American citizen.

Ayala is quick to point out that he is not a “Nuyorican” born in New York City, like Sotomayor. He moved to Boston in the 1980s to get his masters degree in education at Harvard, then came to Spanish Harlem to study for his Ph.D.

After years working in education, he bought a neighborhood eatery “not just to sell food _ to create a cultural project.”

His two restaurants _ a sister lounge across the street features music and art _ cater to locals with “working-class food” like stews, oxtails, and four kinds of beans. Now they draw people of all backgrounds _ like Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who stopped by last week with two famous Puerto Ricans, retired baseball player Bernie Williams and salsa legend Willie Colon.

“More people are taking the risk of coming to the neighborhood,” Ayala said with a sardonic smile. “Things have changed over the years. We’re not all criminals, we’re educated, we’re family members, we’re parents, workers, owners.”

And now, if Sotomayor is confirmed by the Senate, Supreme Court judges.

“It’s such a watershed moment,” said Mimi Valdes-Ryan, editorial director of Latina magazine, whose parents are Puerto Rican and Cuban.

“Someone like her, who grew up in housing projects, went to Princeton and Yale, it’s just amazing. Any time a Latino hears a story like this, it’s just a validation that if you work really hard, it doesn’t matter the color of your skin, it doesn’t matter your social background, where you grew up, if you work really hard you can succeed.”

“For me personally, I grew up with just my mom and my grandmother, her father died like mine did … it’s just overwhelming to even describe it,” Valdes-Ryan said. “It just feels very gratifying.”

Sotomayor’s hardscrabble history is cited by many who applaud her nomination.

“The Constitution states that all men and women are created equal. The fact remains that some are created more equal than others,” said Phil Colon, founder and CEO of the marketing company Project 2050, named after the date when minorities were first projected to be more than half of the U.S. population.

“If we can have someone on the Supreme Court who understands that and recognizes that, and helps to make the court a bit more balanced, I think that’s beneficial for everyone,” Colon said.

There was not universal elation, of course. Angelette Cintron-Aviles, a Tampa businesswoman who has worked on the Republican Party’s Hispanic outreach efforts in Florida, was concerned Sotomayor might be too liberal.

Still, she said, “she’s someone whom a lot of people _ especially Hispanic young women _ are going to look up to for inspiration, not necessarily to be a lawyer or a judge, but to overcome so many challenges.”

Hiram Rivera, a youth organizer and vice president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, which seeks independence for the island seized from Spain in 1898 in the Spanish-American War, had mixed feelings about Sotomayor because “she’s still part of the government.”

He notes that Puerto Ricans were given no choice but to become citizens after the island became a U.S. colony, then a commonwealth. Migration to places like New York and Hawaii were encouraged through the 1950s, largely to provide cheap labor, Rivera said. But citizenship and proximity have always encouraged much travel back and forth.

“We end up with this kind of identity crisis,” Rivera said. “We’re never American enough for the United States, but not Latino enough for immigrants who think our citizenship makes us different. You’re alone, in the middle ground.”

That has historically exacerbated tensions between groups that share language but not nationality. Ayala remembers fights when Mexicans started moving to Spanish Harlem in the 1990s. In politics, gains for one Latino group have not always been embraced by another, and there were some muted comments in that vein Tuesday.

But in recent years, galvanized by the immigration debate and a major role in the election of President Barack Obama, the Latino community has moved closer to becoming just that _ a community.

“With younger people, even older people as time goes on, we’re more united and conversating on our similarities instead of our subtle cultural differences. We’ll get a lot more done that way,” said Valdes-Ryan, the magazine editor.

“This moment is very much like, it really doesn’t matter that Sotomayor is Boricua,” she said. “She’s Latina, and it’s a great moment in our history.”