GLORIA MOLINA: A CHICANA PIONEER.
Like many, many others, I was saddened to learn of the passing of Gloria Molina. She had battled cancer for three years. Accolades poured in from public officials, civic leaders and just plain folks who admired her and her accomplishments. She was, unmistakably, a pioneer in the civic sphere. She was the first Latina elected to the California Assembly. She was the first Latina to be elected to the Los Angeles City Council. And she was the first Latina to serve on the powerful Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Quite a set of achievements. But beyond that, it’s what she did while in office that mattered. And she did a lot.
As it happens, I’ve been researching a book on the life and times of Gloria Molina. Over the last couple of years Molina and I talked extensively about her life, her upbringing, her familia, her early activism in the Chicano movimiento on L.A.’s eastside and her battles in seeking elected office. I took notes and kept a digital recorder going.
At one point I asked her what she was proud of in her long life. She answered: “Making my parents proud of my service, my daughter, and leaving her a career legacy that she can be proud of.” Molina continued: “Of course, many of my ‘firsts’ on behalf of Chicanas.” She adds: “I’m also very proud and fulfilled by my staff throughout the years. We learned from each other and provided integrity and trusted service to the people of my district. I honored my commitment as an elected official.”
Our interviews and the impact of her words and actions over a forty-year public life reveal who she was, at the core. Molina’s world view was formed by her Mexican cultural heritage, her family experiences and her awakening consciousness about the social injustice she saw around her as a young woman—a young Chicana. And her essence was tempered by the ubiquitous manifestations of racism and sexism she unmistakably encountered. Those were among the forces that helped shape who Molina became.
She was always the collective total of those experiences and realizations throughout her career: first as an activist carrying picket signs in street demonstrations, then as an elected official and powerful voice for those who were nominally voiceless—the people of the neighborhoods she represented proudly.
“Always, I reminded myself that I had asked people to vote for me; they trusted me with their vote,” she recalled a year ago. “I had to deliver for them without trading my soul for political purposes.”
She told me more than once over two years worth of conversations: “I like policy, I don’t like politics.” She was known as someone who sticks to her guns, without respect to pressure from lobbyists, special interests or adversarial colleagues. Some considered her unnecessarily obstinate. She was not inclined to compromise in political battles. Sitting ramrod straight, she looked determinedly, unblinkingly, at me and said, “I am satisfied that I did the right thing.”
Molina explains: “My goal was to empower my community, to empower them to take action and not just expect that nothing will change.” She said engagement by the people of the community was essential to combat police abuse, improve public education and enhance economic opportunity.
Her longtime friend Antonia Hernández, an influential attorney and civic leader, understands Molina’s motivation. “Gloria’s commitment to the community is very deep,” she says. “She’s devoted to the community and devoted to doing what’s possible to improve things. I have seen her in lots of different situations, and once she makes up her mind, she is fearless.”
Hernández adds: “You know, most people see her as a person with a hard exterior, almost intimidating, but I know her well and she has a soft, compassionate side as well. That doesn’t take away the fact that she sticks to her guns–fearless.”
Hernández has fought many legal and political battles shoulder-to-shoulder with Molina. But they have also partied together. They are comadres, in all senses of the word. “I think she is a role model for young people, especially Chicanas,” says Hernández.
Throughout her years, Molina took advantage of opportunities to speak directly to students, especially young Latinas. She doesn’t shy away from offering advice and guidance. But in talking about those experiences, she suggests that her advice to young people can be seen in the model she sets by her own actions and history.
“I tell them to believe in themselves, first and foremost,” says Molina. “I think girls, young women, should challenge themselves—think hard about who you are and what makes you happy and productive, then pursue goals that work with that.” She says she hopes young Latinas quickly develop a respect for themselves and that, along with personal achievement, they strive to improve their communities. “Draw strength from your language and culture,” she advises young Latinas.
Gloria Molina left us at the age of 74. Her life is, in some respects, embodies the scope of the history of the Chicano movimiento. From awakening, to activism to genuine participation in the institutions of society without forgetting nor forgoing the original aspirations of the movement. And making a genuine positive difference. Que descanse in paz.
Copyright 2023 by Luis R. Torres. Luis Torres is a veteran journalist who is completing a biography of Gloria Molina. To contact Torres write: Luis.email@example.com Photo of Gloria Molina in the public domain.