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Column: Gloria Molina, you were always cool. LA will miss you


They always say never meet your heroes, but here I was in a downtown Los Angeles office building in 2019, about to interview Gloria Molina.

When I was growing up, 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 her efforts as a member of the state Assembly in the 1980s to stop the construction of a prison there.

When Molina became the first Latina on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 1991, my mother proudly told me that she was a history maker that we should support, even though we lived in Anaheim.

At the university I found more reasons to respect Molina. Her days as a student activist in college, which turned into advocating for Mexican women sterilized without their consent at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center in the 1960s and ’70s. Her war against male politicians who despised women a lady who wasn’t going to wait in line or bite her tongue. As a reporter, I learned of the influential list of her disciples who proudly call themselves Molinistas and who have helped shape modern Los Angeles, including nonprofit leaders, community activists, and former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Molina was someone who used her power to fight for those who had none. Whose career of his never blew itself into a dump of corruption or ego like many of his Eastside colleagues. She was what a Latino politician should aspire to be, and what very few get to be.

We met at the California Community Foundation, the influential nonprofit organization that provides grants to community groups. I was interviewing her 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 convert Los Angeles and California in super blue entities. they are today

Our talk was in a nondescript room: a streak of purple on one side of Molina’s hair was by far the most colorful thing in there. Before beginning, I admitted my family’s admiration for her, but tried to temper my enthusiasm; after all, she was on a mission. She was really touched, then she got down to business.

For the next hour, I witnessed the same unfooled crusader who had inspired and antagonized the Los Angeles political scene for decades.

Molina spoke about the racist backlash he received for speaking out against Proposition 187. He did not apologize for criticizing younger Latino activists for waving the Mexican flag during protests against Proposition 187, maintaining that it alienated swing moderates. She criticized US Senator Dianne Feinstein’s weak salsa opposition to the proposal with such vigor that after the podcast aired, Feinstein’s office complained that Molina was unfair.

Although I had seen and heard Molina on television and radio many times, it was amazing to see her in court. She was funny. She didn’t apologize. She was majestic, but not arrogant. She was everything I had made her to be, and more.

I ran into her a couple more times in the years that followed, most recently when I moderated a 2021 LA Times panel discussion celebrating the 40th anniversary of Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela’s historic rookie year. We promised to meet and talk business, but our schedules never lined up.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll get a chance to chat with her again. Hours ago, Molina posted on Facebook that she has battled terminal cancer for the past three years and is now preparing for a “life transition.”

“You should know that I am not sad,” wrote the 74-year-old grandmother. “I am truly grateful for everyone in my life and proud of my family, career, my peopleand the work we did on behalf of our community.”

The news hit me like a punch in the stomach. Of all our greatest politicians, I didn’t expect him to leave us too soon. He expected her to live out the rest of her years as the lioness of Los Angeles politics, enjoying a world where the East can boast a Latina Assemblywoman (Wendy Carrillo), a Latina State Senator (Maria Elena Durazo) and a Latina (Hilda Solis) on the Women’s Board of Supervisors.

The bad news immediately made me think of my mother, another force of nature struck down early by cancer. Mami was never particularly concerned with politics, but Molina always resonated with her. At first I thought it was just because they were Mexican women. I later realized that Mami saw someone who, like her, was used to being underestimated and gleefully defied macho expectations. Although Mami never cursed, I once made her laugh and nod when I asked her if she thought Molina was a badass – a rude woman.

All of that said, I’ve never been under any illusions that Molina was perfect. Some of my L.A. friends felt she could have been more radical and didn’t line up to support her when she tried to oust then-councilman José Huizar in 2015. I was especially unhappy with her in 2008, when supervisors passed regulations banning taco trucks from park in one spot for more than an hour, under threat of fines and possible jail time. Molina voted for her, arguing that she was responding to complaints from East Los Angeles residents and business owners. (A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge eventually struck down the ordinance.)

That was one of the few times he got Latino LA wrong. But when downtown’s Grand Park, a project Molina championed for years, opened in 2012, there were food trucks there. If the worst thing I can say about a politician is that she should have liked taco trucks better, then that’s a great career.

Villaraigosa, who was the best man at Molina’s wedding, called her “a great woman, pioneer and warrior” who “always fought for her community.”

The two spoke early Tuesday.

“It was very difficult for me to be on the phone call, because she is like my older sister,” Villaraigosa said. “She was so strong. She told me that she lived a great life. She then said how proud she was of me, and I couldn’t help myself anymore. So she was consoling me.”

He plans to visit her this week, waiting his 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 many things I want to ask you about her life, her legacy, and the current state of Los Angeles politics. At least I hope this column comes to her, so I can tell her this:

Gloria, you were always one badass. Los Angeles will miss you.

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