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.”

With many res­i­dents of the com­plex lis­ten­ing 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.

Dar­ryl Moore, a 42-year-old res­i­dent walk­ing near­by with his 4-year-old daugh­ter, said he hoped the new name — the Jus­tice Sonia Sotomay­or Hous­es and Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter — would be a reminder to his chil­dren that they could go far in life no mat­ter where they grew up.

“It’s good to know some­body that came from hous­ing and went on to be suc­cess­ful. Hope­ful­ly with her name here some bet­ter things will hap­pen,” he said.

But oth­er com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers ques­tioned why the devel­op­ment was hon­or­ing some­one who they said seemed dis­con­nect­ed from the com­mu­ni­ty.

“They shouldn’t change the name,” said 21-year-old Mikay­la Work­man, a for­mer res­i­dent who was back vis­it­ing her boyfriend and grand­moth­er. “She hasn’t done noth­ing. There’s still rat holes. Peo­ple still com­plain about paint chip­ping.”

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.

Sotomay­or assured the chil­dren that she was once a kid just like them. In those days, she aspired to be a lawyer, but nev­er dreamed she’d get to the Supreme Court.

Sotomay­or was to speak lat­er Fri­day at Hos­tos Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege, where her moth­er, Celi­na Baez, grad­u­at­ed in 1973 with a nurs­ing degree. The school’s cur­rent pres­i­dent, Felix Matos Rodriguez, said Sotomayor’s suc­cess is an exam­ple of how com­mu­ni­ty col­leges can cre­ate social mobil­i­ty for stu­dents.

“They get their chance to real­ize their poten­tial and to trans­form their lives and the lives of their chil­dren,” Matos Rodriguez said.

Hos­tos was found­ed in 1968 as part of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York amid a clam­or for an edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tion to meet the needs of Span­ish-speak­ing res­i­dents.

A first class of 623 entered in the fall of 1970. This year, it had a spring enroll­ment of over 6,000 stu­dents, and the bilin­gual school con­tin­ues to embrace its role as a gate­way to high­er edu­ca­tion for Latin Amer­i­can immi­grants.

Sotomayor’s moth­er and younger broth­er, Juan Sotomay­or, a physi­cian who is also a CUNY grad­u­ate, planned to attend the justice’s com­mence­ment speech. “She’s real­ly doing this in a way as an homage to her moth­er,” said Matos Rodriguez.

Melis­sa Diaz, 26, the school’s vale­dic­to­ri­an, said her life was echoed in Sotomayor’s sto­ry. Her moth­er also attend­ed Hos­tos. Like Sotomay­or, who stud­ied at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty and is of Puer­to Rican back­ground, Diaz has been accept­ed to an Ivy League school.

“This col­lege is very strong and nur­tur­ing,” said Diaz, who is of Puer­to Rican and Domini­can descent.