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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Gloria Molina, pioneering Latina politician, dies at 74

Gloria Molina in 1996. She was the first Latina elected to the California Legislature, the Los Angeles City Council and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

By Neil Genzlinger

Gloria Molina, a groundbreaking Chicana politician at the city, county and state levels in California who was a fierce advocate for the communities she represented, even though that often meant defying entrenched political structures, died on May 14 at her home in the Mount Washington neighborhood of Los Angeles. She was 74.

Her family announced her death, from cancer, on her Facebook page.

Since she announced she had terminal cancer in March, colleagues, constituents and the California news media had been praising her achievements in articles and on social media. The Los Angeles Metro’s board of directors voted to name a train station in East Los Angeles after her. Casa 0101, a performing arts organization in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles, designated its main stage theater as the Gloria Molina Auditorium. Grand Park, in downtown Los Angeles, which she helped bring into being in 2012, is now Gloria Molina Grand Park.

“She championed for years to increase access to parks and green spaces,” the park’s overseeing body said in announcing the renaming, “as well as recreational opportunities that engage culture, support well-being and improve the quality of life for everyone in Los Angeles.”

The accolades reflected her legacy as one of the leading Latina politicians in the country, with much of her more than three-decade career encompassing a time when few Latinas were in important positions.

In 1982, after working on other politicians’ campaigns, including that of Assemblywoman Maxine Waters, who would later be elected to Congress, Molina became the first Latina elected to the California Assembly. She ran for that seat even though the political leadership of the Eastside area of Los Angeles County had already selected another candidate, Richard Polanco. She beat him in the Democratic primary and easily defeated a Republican opponent in the general election.

A similar thing happened in 1987 when she ran for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council that had been created by redistricting. The political leadership had chosen Larry Gonzalez for the post, but she beat him and a third candidate to become the first Latina council member.

In 1991, she scored a political hat trick of sorts, becoming the first woman to be elected to the powerful Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. (In 1979, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke became the first woman on the board when she was appointed to fill out the term of a retiring member.) Some 1,000 supporters attended her swearing in.

“We must look forward to a time when a person’s ethnic background or gender is no longer a historical footnote,” Molina said at the time. “And this election is another step in that positive path to the American promise.”

Gloria Molina was born on May 31, 1948, in Montebello, a Los Angeles suburb. Her father, Leonardo, was a construction worker who was born in Los Angeles but raised in Casas Grandes, Mexico, and her mother, Concepción, was a homemaker from Mexico. The couple immigrated in the 1940s, and Gloria was the oldest of 10 children.

“She was almost like a second mom in the family,” Molina’s daughter, Valentina Martinez, said in a video about her mother made in 2020 for the Mexican-American Cultural Education Foundation. “She did everything. She would tell me that she would come home from school every day and make tortillas for her brothers and sisters. She didn’t get to have fun or go to after-school programs. She was always kind of doing the hard work, making sure everyone was taken care of, changing diapers, cooking, doing all of that. So she was a tough lady from the very beginning.”

She was, Molina said, “brought up in a very traditionally Chicano family.”

She studied fashion design at Rio Hondo College, in Whittier, California, and took courses at East Los Angeles College and California State University, Los Angeles, though she did not get a degree because for most of that period she was also working full time to support herself, including as a legal secretary for five years. She joined in the student activism of the 1960s and early ’70s, demonstrating against the Vietnam War and for Chicano rights.

One thing she realized, she said in the Cultural Education Foundation video, was that those activism movements were generally led by men and “really didn’t allow the women to have any role whatsoever.” She banded with other Chicana women try to change that culture.

“We were Chicana feminists when there weren’t any around,” she said.

In her career in the state Assembly, she told The Los Angeles Times in 1987, she prided herself on “being a fighter, one who doesn’t just go along with the program because that’s how the pressure is being applied.” That was certainly true for her signature issue during her assembly years — her opposition to a proposal to build a prison in her Eastside district, a plan whose proponents included Gov. George Deukmejian.

She won that battle, a significant one.

“She stopped the 100-year pattern of dumping negative land-use developments on the Eastside,” Fernando Guerra, the director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, said in a phone interview.

After leaving the Board of Supervisors, Molina made one more bid for political office, challenging José Huizar, an incumbent, for his Los Angeles City Council seat in 2015. She lost. Huizar later pleaded guilty to corruption charges.

Though no longer in office, Molina remained active in various causes. In 2018, she was among a group protesting outside an Academy Awards luncheon in Beverly Hills, denouncing the scarcity of Hispanic characters in films.

“The movie industry should be ashamed of itself,” she said then.

In addition to her daughter, Molina is survived by her husband, Ron Martinez; her siblings, Gracie Molina, Irma Molina, Domingo Molina, Bertha Molina Mejia, Mario Molina, Sergio Molina, Danny Molina, Olga Molina Palacios and Lisa Molina Banuelos; and a grandson.

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