They always say never meet your heroes, but I was there in a downtown Los Angeles office building in 2019, about to interview Gloria Molina.
When I was a kid, she was one of the few politicians I knew by name, and the only one who wasn’t a white Republican. My relatives in East Los Angeles spoke reverently of his efforts as a state assemblyman in the 1980s to stop prison construction there.
When Molina became the first Latina on the LA County Board of Supervisors in 1991, my mom proudly told me she was a story maker we should root for, even if we lived in Anaheim.
In college, I found more reasons to respect Molina. Her days as a student activist in college, which turned into advocacy on behalf of Mexican women sterilized without their consent at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center in the 1960s and 1970s. Her wars against male politicians who despised a woman who wasn’t going to stand in line or keep quiet. As a journalist, I discovered his influential list of followers, who proudly called themselves Molinistas and who helped shape modern LA, including nonprofit leaders, community activists and former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Molina was someone who used his power to fight for those who had none. Whose career has never smoldered in a trash fire of corruption or ego like that of too many of his Eastside colleagues. She was what a Latin American politician should aspire to – and what too few ever become.
We met at the California Community Foundation, the influential nonprofit that provides grants to community groups. I was interviewing him for a podcast about Proposition 187, the 1994 California ballot initiative that sought to make life miserable for illegal immigrants, but instead inspired a generation of Latinos across the state to enter politics and to transform Los Angeles and California into super blue entities. they are today.
Our conversation took place in a nondescript room – a purple streak in the side of Molina’s hair was by far the most colorful thing. Before I started, I admitted my family’s admiration for her, but tried to temper my enthusiasm – I was on a mission, after all. She was really touched, then went into business.
For the next hour, I witnessed the same suffering crusader who inspired and irked the Los Angeles political scene for decades.
Molina spoke about the racist backlash she received for speaking out against Proposition 187. She hasn’t regretted criticizing young Latino activists for waving the Mexican flag at anti-187 rallies, saying it alienates moderates on the fence. She lambasted U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s weak-mouthed opposition to the proposal with such vigor that after the podcast aired, Feinstein’s office complained to me that Molina was being unfair.
Although I have seen and heard Molina on TV and radio many times, it was great to see her holding court. She was funny. She was shameless. She was majestic, but not proud. She was everything I had made her, and more.
I’ve met her several times in the years since, most recently when I hosted a LA Times 2021 panel discussion celebrating the 40th anniversary of Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela’s historic rookie year. We promised to get together and talk shop, but our schedules never aligned.
Unfortunately, I don’t think I will have the opportunity to chat with her again. A few hours ago, Molina posted on Facebook that she had been battling terminal cancer for three years and was now preparing for a “transition in life”.
“You should know I’m not sad,” the 74-year-old grandmother wrote. “I am truly grateful for everyone in my life and proud of my family, my career, so niceand the work we have done on behalf of our community.
The news hit me like a fist. Of all our former politicians, I didn’t expect her to leave us too soon. I expected her to live out the rest of her years as the lioness of Los Angeles politics, enjoying a world where the Eastside can boast of having a Latina Assemblywoman (Wendy Carrillo), a Latina state senator (Maria Elena Durazo), and a Latina (Hilda Solis) on the all-female Board of Overseers.
The bad news immediately made me think of my mother, another force of nature beaten down prematurely by cancer. Mami was never particularly interested in politics, but Molina always resonated with her. At first I thought it was only because they were Mexican women. Later, I realized that Mami had seen someone who, like her, was used to being underestimated and blithely defying macho expectations. Although Mami never swore, once I made her laugh and nod in agreement when I asked her if she thought Molina was a chingona – a badass woman.
That said, I never had any illusions about Molina’s perfection. Some of my friends in Los Angeles felt she could have been more radical and didn’t line up to support her when she tried to oust then-Council member Jose Huizar in 2015. I was particularly unhappy of her in 2008, when supervisors passed regulations prohibiting taco trucks from parking in one spot for more than an hour, or face fines and possible jail time. Molina voted for it, arguing that she was responding to complaints from East LA residents and business owners. (An LA County Superior Court judge ultimately overturned the order.)
It was one of the few times she had misinterpreted Latino LA. But when the downtown Grand Park — a project Molina championed for years — opened in 2012, food trucks were there. If the worst thing I can say about a politician is that she should have liked taco trucks more, then that’s one hell of a career.
Villaraigosa, who witnessed Molina’s wedding, called her a “great woman, pioneer and warrior” who “always fought for her community”.
The two spoke earlier on Tuesday.
“It was so hard for me to be on the phone, because she’s like my big sister,” Villaraigosa said. “She was so strong. She told me she was living a good life. Then she said how proud she was of me, and I couldn’t take it anymore. She comforted me then.
He plans to visit her this week, waiting for her turn in the parade of people who want to say goodbye before it’s too late.
As Molina prepares to face the fate that awaits us all, I still have so much I want to ask her about her life, her legacy, and the current state of LA politics. At least I hope that column reaches him, then I can tell him this:
Gloria, you have always been a chingona. You will miss LA.