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Gloria Molina: A Latina Political Powerhouse Who Was Often the “First”

- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Ricardo Palavecino

In her public career, Gloria Molina achieved a lot of “firsts.” In 1982, she was the first Chicana elected to the California State Assembly. She challenged an established network of eastside Latino male politicians, some of whom told her openly that she couldn't compete.

In 1987, she was the first Latina elected to the Los Angeles City Council.

And in 1991, after a landmark case that found Los Angeles County discriminated against Latinos in splitting up their voting strength to keep them from electing a county supervisor of their choice, she was elected L.A. County Supervisor for the first district of Los Angeles.

It was a historic moment that introduced a woman of color in a government body that was tremendously powerful, all-white and male.

The Board of Supervisors oversees the entire health care system for 10 million people, as well as mental health services, the county jails, the foster care system. It was a job of tremendous consequence.

And that's where Molina was when Proposition 187 was placed on the ballot by a group of citizens in Orange County in 1994.

She grew up in the Pico Rivera areas of L.A. County, the eldest of 10 children, the daughter of a Mexican mother and a Mexican American father. In time, her name became synonymous with Latina politics in California.

She was vital in promoting the election of Latinas to many positions in the State of California and in Congress. As a member of the Board of Supervisors, she faced the challenge of keeping life-sustaining services afloat in the middle of a deep recession in the early ‘90s.

But she speaks of facing Proposition 187 as one of the toughest, most complicated battles she confronted as a politician, and as a Chicana, daughter of an immigrant mother.

“I was the only Latina on the board of supervisors with four other white men who represented very different districts than I did. And so very frankly, I think it was going to be very, very tough to try and convince my colleagues to take a position against 187, which I thought they should do,” she recounts.

Her concern was both personal and professional. She thought that Proposition 187 represented an exceedingly difficult challenge for the county.

“My responsibility was to figure out how every nurse, every social worker was now going to have to ask everyone, hopefully everyone, not just people of color, for their documents, in order to get them the basic social services they needed,” she says. “Emergency room doctors were going to have to do this as well. It was a real problem.”

At the same time, Molina, the Chicana, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, had a problem with the initiative, on principle.

“I was as intimidated as my community was. Should this pass what this would mean to all of us, not just the undocumented, but every single one of us who would probably be pulled out of a line and asked for papers,” she continues.

She confesses getting “very hostile and angry” about the environment going on around that time and the pain of listening to Latinos “like myself,” buying into the anti-immigrant rhetoric.

It was a difficult diplomatic dance to get two of her four colleagues — the Democrats — to side with her in opposing the initiative. (They had constituencies that supported the proposition, which was tremendously popular.) But she did.

Molina represented the First District of L.A. county from 1991 until her retirement in 2014.

One of the lessons of that era in California politics, she says, is that “you have to be on top of these kinds of issues every day, that there is a validity to Latinos organizing and making sure we have registered voters coming out and being forceful and strong.”

Looking at the environment today, she sees similarities but also differences.

“We in California have transitioned from where we were in 187,” she says. “And there are also lessons for Republicans: scapegoating is not okay, and you will be held accountable and responsible for it.”

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187: The Rise of the Latino Vote

The fight against Prop 187 awakened Latino political power, dramatically changing California politics.
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