Gloria Molina: A Latina Political Powerhouse Who Was Often the “First” | KCET
Gloria Molina: A Latina Political Powerhouse Who Was Often the “First”
Gloria Molina: I'm Gloria Molina. I'm a retired Los Angeles County Supervisor. Well, in the early '90s, of course, in '91, I was elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. I was the first Latina on the board and arrived and now was involved in overseeing a lot of social services, and a whole array of county services from health care to our jails and so on.
One of the biggest responsibilities was the entire health care system for 10 million people, as well as mental health services. We had all of the county jails, and we had responsibility for a whole array of services that we provided. Everything from sewers and in infrastructure, to many of the 88 cities that we represented in Los Angeles County.
The first district was created after a major lawsuit, all the way to the US Supreme Court. It was basically as Latino a district as it could become in Los Angeles County. Almost about 40% of the entire district was Latino. It was, again, mostly Democratic, but it was a very, very large area from downtown Los Angeles to the East Side, all the way out to Pomona. A very large, diverse constituency of people that we had responsibility, each of us represented about two million people.
The first district was a very unique challenge because it really was a district that for the most part had not had the representation that was hands on. We were going into particularly the unincorporated areas and many of the cities and working with them on issues that they had not been addressed by the county, like gang issues, issues of affordable housing, things that had not been dealt with in any major way. We had a lot of focus in providing constituent services and things of that sort.
As the county as a whole, we were dealing with a very limited budget. A budget that didn't have enough money to provide all of the services that LA County needed, from its beaches, and it's parks, and it's hospitals, and all of the other services. We were constantly trying to rearrange all of the financial boxes to make sure that we were maintaining an emergency system, that we had our shares available, we had our parks open.
It was always a balance of dollars that were going on and, of course, the priorities when you have five members deciding this as to what was more important, are parks more important than maintaining our Sheriff's Department, and those kinds of debates going on, how do you balance those kinds of issues?
My time on the board was addressing these larger issues talking about the 10 million people that we represented and trying to make sure we're providing services equitably and across the board, but also focusing on special needs, like homelessness, like gang activity, and things of that sort that were important to maybe a smaller group of people, not the entire 10 million.
Initially, the whole issue of 187 started with a whole small group of people in Orange County, away from us, in a sense. They were the bus stop people as they were called. They were very anti-Latino, they were very concerned about the number of Latinos that were receiving a public education. They thought many of them were undocumented and shouldn't be entitled to a public education.
That battle was raging in Orange County, but all of a sudden there was an initiative that they created, in which they were going to go to the state and now save for the state to stop providing that form of public education to many of the undocumented. We started hearing little rumblings about it. When they collected all the signatures we were, of course, very concerned. Of course, at that time it expanded to much more than schools, it was now all public services.
It was a concern because I represented the most Latino district in LA County, which I know these services were essential, but they were essential to every County resident. The reality is now, "What were we going to do and how are we going to campaign against it?"
I started hearing about it. My staff and many other Latino leaders got together and started discussing about how real this was and what we were going to do. We did not think it was going to be as aggressive a campaign as it became. The reason was, it was a small group of people that really had not a very good message, they basically had a message that was very anti Latino. We didn't think that the rest of California would embrace such an issue.
It wasn't until the Governor, Pete Wilson decided to embrace Proposition 187, that it became a higher political dynamic, and when instead, he started talking about this invasion of Latinos coming in and getting a free public education, and things of that sort. That's all of a sudden when the alarm bells were ringing all over and said, "We're going to have to have a major campaign and try and organize ourselves to make sure that this doesn't pass." As a county supervisor, I was very concerned of how we were going to implement such a law should it pass, again, not thinking that it would pass. Those were my initial thoughts, at the very beginning of, of 187.
187 was basically an initiative that was going to force all of us, as elected officials, as policymakers in the state, from the state legislature all the way down to mayors of small cities, to deny public services to people who were undocumented. That was basically the initiative, but very frankly, it meant that all of us were going to have to be watchdogs getting documented basically acting like the INS at the time, ICE now, and start asking people for documents.
Again, we weren't sure the extent of it. Were we talking about, could people borrow books from the Public Library, is that social services? The emergency room, are we going to deny people? There was a lot of unknown as to how it was going to be implemented, but we did know that it was going to deny those services, and we had to figure out, people like myself who are now responsible for these services, we're going to have to figure out how were we going to deny them? How are we going to investigate who was documented and who was not?
It was a really complicated issue, but more importantly, it was very significant from the standpoint that we had a major initiative going on in this state in which people were embracing it because they felt it truly was unfair for people to come across the border get health services or educational services, and they weren't looking at the totality of the issue and the impact it would have.
Well, for the most part when you looked at this initiative and the commercials that they were showing at that time, again, we were going through a major recession. Services and public dollars were very, very difficult. Federal government was having issues as well. The state of California was suffering tremendously, particularly in the whole area of funding health care for the state. Very frankly it was a tough financial situation. It was a recession. There was a mindset going on that we can't afford all that we have to do in this state.
That was sort of the environment at the time, but again, when many of these commercials were put together, they presented a very common sense explanation of 187. Showing people running across the border coming into the state, almost looking like an invasion of brown people coming in, and all of a sudden, taking advantage of going into the health care or going into emergency room or getting food stamps.
Again, those kinds of visuals created a situation that said, "Well, this doesn't make sense. We shouldn't let that happen." They were creating an environment that this was so wrong we have to stop it. Even your Democrats across the board, were worried about taking a position, and in many instances when I know I would talk to them they would say, "Well, Gloria it is against the law. They are not here legally. We should really look at a way, maybe not 187, but we should look at way."
They were trying to find a creative pathway of trying to figure out how to appease many of these constituents within their own districts that sort of looked at this and said, "That's why our schools are not well funded that's why we don't have enough emergency room doctors or nurses." They were looking for a scapegoat for the most part to blame for all of the other ills that were going on in California that was dealing with a major recession and having tremendous problems and trying to fund all the public services in this state.
It was an environment in which the Republicans took advantage of it, utilized it, pounded on it every single day. Democrats were reticent to defend it because they saw some issue and blame there, and particularly amongst their constituents, as these visuals were depicting at the time.
187 for republicans was easy, particularly once the governor was there. Most of the Republicans had had many of these kinds of sentiments kinds of sentiments said within their own communities. For them, it was an easy thing to support 187 and deny services to many of the undocumented. It wasn't easy. For Democrats, it was a mixed bag. For the most part, Democrats opposed 187. Now, again, they didn't go out there and when I would hold a press conference or ask them to endorse it, they were kind of reticent, they always had reasons as to why they couldn't do it, and so on. It was even harder to raise money amongst most of them.
I think the most difficult once that Dianne Feinstein, our State US Senator, took a position basically in favor of 187. It gave license to many a Democrat throughout the state to sit back and not take any action whatsoever against 187 or actually silently support it, even though the Democratic Party itself had opposed 187. They were conducting polls, and the polls were clearly saying in every one of these districts, that proposition 187 was going to win.
They saw the handwriting on the wall, as they say, and so they were very reticent to take a position. That was the sentiment, the visuals of what the Republican Party and the proponents of 187 had really taken hold in the California mindset. There was a feeling overall, even by Latinos, and particularly a lot of minorities, that there was an invasion of these people coming in, that this is why our services were not available to them or costing us so much money.
There was a sentiment that was gripping a hole, but the polls clearly showed. It was tough for us to accept that prop 187 was probably going to pass. I know when I saw polls in my own LA County, I found it hard to believe that it would pass in Los Angeles County, but the polls were telling us that that was the situation at the time. Very frankly, we had to brace ourselves because the reality was, we were going to be in for very, very tough sledding in California.
As a county supervisor, I was going to have to start figuring out how we were going to implement a law of this type. Certainly, we would try and sue if we could, but at that time, we didn't know what the courts would do. All I could think of is now my responsibility was going 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 that they needed.
Emergency room doctors were going to have to do this as well. It was a real problem. The polls were intimidating us. The polls were telling us very frankly, that what the voters were feeling, the campaign for 187 had been very, very effective. There was many of us who were working very, very hard, and trying to get more and more Democrats to join and be vocal and be supportive.
A lot of us were trying to get President Clinton at that time to join with us and taking a position against 187. He finally got on board, it was a little late toward the end of the campaign. There already many commercials and a lot of politics communication of being pro-187 by many people who thought it was a common-sense kind of thing. The Democratic Party was on, but Bill Clinton came in late and then more and more Democrats joined us. Very frankly, they were intimidated by it.
I think everybody read the tea leaves, as they say, and realize that this was going to pass. It was going to pass in their districts and they were concerned about the fact that it was hard to defend. When you think about it, it was a very common-sense kind of thing. Yes, if you're not here legally, are you entitled to these services or not? I think it was an issue that could be debated all day long.
Proposition 187 was much more that. It was a totally very harmful initiative that was really creating a separatist separation in the state of California of people who had documents and people who did not, people of color, and people who were not. It was a very, very volatile, explosive issue that was very hard to get many an elected official to stand forward and be firm and strong on this issue.
We tried to put together a campaign. It was very hard to raise money at that time, enough for commercials or things of that sort. We did campaigns with the Democratic Party and making sure that the party was supporting us against 187. We went to elected officials, making sure that whatever cheat sheet they were on or that they were going to be carrying the know on 187 message, that their mailers would contain that. We did that kind of work.
With regard to the media, we had to take advantage of free media because the reality is we couldn't afford to put together the commercials that we needed, and how to get that message communicated to voters. We had press conferences pretty regularly. I would say for the Latino media, it was they understood the issue. They understood clearly the implication. They always talked about what will happen, if this passes, how will this be implemented? What will be done? How will you handle it?
It was more of, "This is going to be a chaos. This is going to be a crisis for the entire community." The English speaking media was treating it as-- Well, they knew it was going to pass as well. Very frankly, no matter what we presented, the fact that the undocumented were providing more money in taxes, not only to the state, but to the feds as well than they were taking in services. The fact that children were doing very, very well in our public schools, and that all the schools were underfunded.
We would present data and information to counter the communication that was going on by the pro 187 forces. Very frankly, the mainstream media really wasn't publishing those stories, wasn't telling that story at all. They liked the fact that you had another Democrat who was supporting this position, and what were you going to do, and that kind of thing, not about the implications of it, of what it meant.
Which was very troubling for me because I really thought that they were almost part of supporting it, because they really weren't telling. We would constantly try to provide information to them with regard as to what it would mean, the implications for it, whether in a public school or an emergency room. Those stories were not really being told by the mainstream media.
What was interesting about it, I was the only Latina on the board of supervisors with four other white men who represented very different districts than I did. 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. The lawyers felt that we could figure out how to implement and things of that sort.
On one hand, I was wearing a hat of a county supervisor, trying to work with my colleagues, trying to have a better understanding of this issue, and should it be implemented, what that would mean for Los Angeles County. They have some conservative members on the board of supervisors that felt very strongly that it should pass, and were blaming the undocumented Latinos for why our budget was not enough money for all of the county residents. There was a lot of blame going on.
As a Chicana, as a Latina, as an elected official, I was wearing a different hat because I was as intimidated as my community was, should this pass what this would mean to all of us, not just people who are undocumented, to every single one of us would now be pulled out of line and asked for papers as compared to anyone else in this state, whether you were born here, whether you were here legally or not.
It was an intimidating situation and it put me in a situation where I became very hostile and angry about what was going on and the environment around us. What was probably the most painful is from time to time, listening to Latinos who were like myself that were born here and all of a sudden saying, "Well, it's kind of unfair that these people come across the border and have their babies here."
They were buying into the same rhetoric. That was to me, something that it was hard for me to understand because I wanted them to understand, "It's not just about the undocumented, it's about all of us who are people of color and a large majority of people trying to deny us the services that we're entitled to." We all pay taxes, we're all part of it. There was different sentiment going on, but it was very frankly, hard for me to listen to people who were agreeing with 187 as an issue of fairness, not an issue of discrimination as I saw it.
At the end of the day, I was able to get the board of supervisors to be anti-187. We took a board motion, it was three to two. We were lucky and we were able to take a position. It was late in the game, but we were able to do that. I'm glad I was there and had I not been there, I don't think we would have had an interjection of all of these kinds of issues about, how do you deal with child abuse? How do you deal with an emergency room? How do you deal with a public health situation? I brought I think a different kind of dialogue into the discussion with the lawyers and the people who're looking at implementing it. It wasn't just, "Okay. How do we do the IDs? How do we train our social workers to make sure that they're presenting valid IDs before we even talk to them?" It wasn't as simple as that. It was raising all of these exceptions. I'm glad I was there. I was part of the discussion.
If it would have to be implemented, I was going to find a way that we were being fair and equitable to the people of LA County at every single level. I'm glad I was there, and I think that I enriched the conversation at the time. I'm glad we didn't have to implement it. It was very painful at that time because there was so much going on, and we had so much responsibility, very different than a mayor or even a state legislator.
We are now directly providing these services, and you have to be responsible. You have to have the dollars, you have to have the programs in place, you have to follow the law, and yet at the same time, you have to meet the needs of a community.
Well, again, I did talk to them and they felt, yes, it was wrong and so on, but they didn't think that the board should take a position necessarily because we were responsible for all of these social services. Of course, I wasn't able to convince my colleagues, my conservative colleagues, but I was able to convince my other colleagues, who were Democrats on the board of supervisors, letting them know the inequitability of this issue of how was going to be implemented. How are we going to implement it? What does this mean? I think they understood that.
Initially, they weren't that gung ho, as they say, about signing on to it because in their own districts, in their own community, these people were also feeling, whether Democrat or Republican, they were feeling the same way. We don't have enough money to deal with all of these people that are coming in and taking advantage of these health services or of any of our county services.
There were people talking to them, but at the end of the day, I think they understood clearly that as a county, we were going to be in a very, very tough situation, trying to figure out how to parcel out these services and how to determine who's documented and who's not. Is that our responsibility after all? Is that not a federal responsibility? We sent all of these messages to my colleagues and at the end of the day, we took a position against 187. They didn't want to be involved in implementing such a horrible law as well.
The situation at that time and dealing with my colleagues at that time was really a tough situation. Nobody really wanted to confront the reality of what was going on. They didn't want to necessarily get involved in a campaign against 187. They also saw the handwriting on the wall. They were reading the polls and very frankly, but at the same time, they understood how unfair, inequitable, and how difficult it would be to implement.
I think that when I would bring it up, they would step back and hoping that I wouldn't bring it up. "Why do we need to discuss it? We don't know what's going to happen. Let's discuss it later." They weren't saying that to me, but in their heads, they were saying that to me. They were reticent to really put it all on the table, and, "Let's figure out out how we're going to file a lawsuit."
See, if I would have had more colleagues supporting me, I would have said, "Okay, we're going to have to figure out how we're going to file a lawsuit. We're going to get our lawyers to look at the constitution and to figure out how we can go into court and fight this." Instead, it had to be very delicately brought up. It couldn't be confrontational. It had to be within a way of fairness and equity.
It was a very delicate balance that had to be brought, but most of the time, many times when people saw me coming, it was, "Oh, no, here she comes again. I know what's on her mind." It was sitting back, because I was very assertive. I was very aggressive about, hopefully, getting people to join with me and taking a position against 187. I had to be careful with my colleagues and with others, because I needed their support very frankly.
I wanted them to be as assertive as I was about it, but I knew the reality of their environment and their situation. They had constituents, they had people telling them, "It's going to pass. It's an uphill battle. You should stay out it." That's what was going on in their head. Like I said, I probably looked like the dragon lady to them when I came into the room and knew that this was going to be discussed.
The entire process of dialoguing and talking about it wasn't like, "Let's have a conference and sit down and discuss it." It didn't work that way. There were small discussions along the way from time to time about Proposition 187. I didn't go out directly and say, "I need your support to be against it." That's not the way I approached it. We talked about the issue on a regular basis on what's going on. What were the issues around it? What's going to happen if we have to implement it?
It was more about the dangers of this implementation, the issue about the injustice, and the inequity. It was more of a lobbying effort that I used with most people. I just didn't confront it and say, "I want your take, position on this, and so on." It was a dialogue that was constantly going on to eventually presenting them that, "I want to move forward with a motion to be opposed to 187 in LA County. Are you going to be willing to support this?"
It wasn't an easy thing. There was more dialogue going on. I wasn't going to present it until I had the assurance that I had the support and the votes. At the end of the day, even if I would not have had the votes, I was still going to present it. I would rather let everyone know where people stand on this issue, but very frankly, I really wanted it to pass. There was a board motion to take a position against 187, and it was voted to be against LA County, to take the position against 187, three to two. 322, so that was a position that LA County had.
Well, the day of the election, the reality is we already knew. It wasn't going to be a big surprise. It wasn't like I was counting votes, and even though we were all involved in campaigns of one type or another, I just knew. I did. For me, it was just a matter of hopefully having a small margin and figuring out what our next steps were. I had already been talking to the lawyers within LA County as to what it meant.
Was there a possibility of a lawsuit? I was talking to outside organizations like [unintelligible 00:26:48] that were looking at a lawsuit, what our chances were, what the opportunities would be there, what the challenges would be there. Very frankly, the day of the election was for me, already done. The biggest issue for me on that ballot was 187. I already knew the outcome that day.
It was a sad week before that election. I already knew what the outcome would be. I didn't think it would be in LA County and I did not think it would be as wide or as pronounced as it was at the end of the day. It wasn't just one day or the day after the election. The week, almost 10 days before, we already knew what was going to happen, and I was trying to figure out as a county supervisor, how we were going to handle this issue.
We would now be at the mercy of the governor and the legislature as they started implementing the rules about, "Can you deny emergency services to a patient that shows up in the emergency room?" There was a lot of detail that we were going to have to go through to sort out how it would be implemented.
Of course, I was going to be involved in that dialogue, and I was going to lobby the governor, and anybody I could to make sure that we weren't hurting people at the same time. That we were dealing with public health issues in a way that didn't hurt everyone else, as to how we were going to find and thread our way through if this was implemented.
Again, when we were looking at children's services, how were we going to deal with the issue if somebody called us and said, "There's a child that's being abused," and you see this family as undocumented? Can we send out somebody to deal with this or not? The same thing with the sheriff.
There were so many unknowns out there that we figured that the day that it passed and it had the courts not intervened, we were going to be in a situation probably for months and months and months dealing with regulations, dealing with "what if". Dealing with laws and trying to pass a way that we could do it, looking for those exceptions and those challenges that we were going to have.
We also had to brace ourselves that we were going to have to retrain all of our people to now be basically INS officers. How were we going to look at who was legal and who was not? Was it our responsibility? As you could tell, there were so many issues. It wasn't the simplicity of just denying services, it was how you were going to do it. Now you are responsible for emergency room, now you're responsible for calling the sheriff, now you're responsible for children who are abused. Do you make decisions that day?
It was very complicated, very complex, and we had to start that process of starting to look at how this would be implemented. It was a very trying time for many of us, who are now responsible for implementing this law that I was totally opposed to. Trying to figure out how we were going to sort through this, so that we were doing the best thing for all of the residents in LA County, not just the undocumented but all people. For example in public health and mental health and other areas where we needed to be very assertive and making sure we were protecting all 10 million people. Again, it was a tough time for us trying to sort it out, but we would have spent months and months, probably years, trying to figure out how to implement this law, dealing with lawsuits along the way, dealing with how we were going to carry out this work. It wasn't as simple as it had been presented. Very frankly, we had a very, very tough situation ahead of us.
Very frankly, the entire community didn't really know what it was in for. It had been weeks that we had been working against 187 trying to raise money, weeks and months beforehand once we knew the initiative qualified. We had been making phone calls, we were telling people about this and going-- A lot of people were not aware of 187 and what it meant.
The Labor community clearly understood particularly SEIU that were the social workers in our counties, there were the health care workers, the nurses in our county, understood clearly what was going on. Luckily Labor started organizing and many of the undocumented people who were advocates for the undocumented [unintelligible 00:31:24] and many of the other organizations started getting involved and said, "We'll have this large march," which we thought would be a good thing in a sense.
As I remember being in my office and looking at the march from far away. I wasn't a part of that march that day, it was more of a labor march and I was horrified. What had happened that day, while it was massive and huge and strong, it also was mostly Latinos. The majority of the people were Latinos, carrying Mexican flags, which really spoke to the images at that time that the pro-187 people were campaigning on, "See? It's them they're really Mexicans from Mexico that are coming here to take these services."
It was all the wrong images that we wanted. I was horrified, elated at the same time because so many people came out and now we're getting involved in this anti-187 campaign, but sending a message to the larger voting community that they were carrying these Mexican flags. They had allegiance to Mexico which was not the message we wanted to send at all.
Very frankly, it was a really mixed blessing at the end of the day.
I spoke to a lot of the labor leadership and I told them why I thought these images were wrong, and that's really not what the message we wanted to send. Of course, the marches after that did not-- They carried American flags, but it was really a situation which these people were very involved. Many of them were undocumented, they were going to be affected by it. Some of them had recently been in this country, some of them had been here for 30 and 40 years.
Their children here and so on had never had an opportunity to become documented. Very frankly there was a lot of passion. I understand that passion, but again at the end of the day while it was a huge march with so much passion, at the same time that was the image that later on would be used against us.
We had an awful lot of support from various communities particularly the Asian community. They were very supportive, they understood this issue very easily. They had been involved in civil rights actions with us on many instances. From the standpoint of the African-American community, there was a little bit of distancing every so often, but for the most part they understood the discrimination, the racial issue here that was being involved and they were supportive as they could be.
Even the Jewish community understood very clearly. Many of the elected officials mentioned the Jewish community was very supportive of being anti-187. There was a good coalition in trying to put people together and understand the complexity, and why 187 should not be the law of the land. Very frankly, again there weren't as many people who are willing to step up to the camera and take that strong position or be part of a team to be very aggressive, to get others from their community to be anti-187.
There were slim pickings, but again there was a good relationship from the standpoint of the leadership of the Asian community, the leadership of the African-American community, and from the Jewish community as well. We had a lot of support. I think it was more of people who, again, had a very what they call a fair message to people, and at that time picked a scapegoating, we were the scapegoat.
Very frankly, even though this would have been implemented across the board to any foreign-born that were from Yugoslavia, from France, from Canada, it would affected every single person at the end of the day. We knew that very frankly it was the people of color that we're going to be asked for their documents and not others.
While we had a lot of support throughout the communities at the end of the day, they weren't as assertive or as aggressive in raising the dollars, putting together the campaign against 187 and stepping up to the cameras at that day, and taking a strong position. There were very, very few people we could get up to doing all of that, even though we had a lot of support. There wasn't a lot of campaigning in many of those communities against 187.
There are many lessons learned by 187 and, of course, one of the most important is to be vigilant when you have a situation like this that is brewing. Today's time are not much different than the times of 187, where people are creating a separatist movement, those that have and those that do not have, those that are legal, those that are not legal and creating an environment of hatred and separation instead of inclusion. These issues can come up and just filter up to the top.
I'm not as worried in California because the lesson learned by many a republican is that this state changed dramatically. I think at the end of the day, people realize the implications of how this law was going to be implemented. I think they're grateful as well that it didn't pass. Very frankly, the lesson learned is that we have to be on top of these issues every single day.
That there is validity to Latinos organizing and making sure we have registered voters, and coming out and being forceful and strong. Reminding ourselves that this could change at any moment at any time, and that we have to be watchful, that we have to understand that it isn't just about those that have papeles and those that do not. It is about who we are as Latinos in this country. Even though we're born here, we serve as elected official, at the end of the day, there can be an environment of discrimination that will create policies and laws that will hurt us in the long run. We have to be vigilant and prepared.
Again, I think my community from time to time they rise up, they're very active, they're voters but every, so often they sit back as well and have a distrust of government. We have to make sure that we protect our democracy, that we are part of our democracy. There's a lot of work that needs to be done.
The most important lesson that we have to impart is to our children. Even though we try and create an environment that they have no discrimination, that they have every opportunity available to them, I still think we have to teach them the lessons of 187, that this can evolve and it can happen and one day you may be denied, just by virtue of the color of your skin. Very frankly, those are important lessons that we have to teach our children.
The challenges today, of course, are how do we deal with all of these issues in a framework of understanding clearly? How we provide these services? Very frankly, I think to the environment today is a little different. We have unbelievable groups of people all over. I think that even within the media and the press, I think there are stories today that talk about the investment that Latinos are making across the board in the areas of education of technology of investment, the taxes that we're paying every single day.
The environment has been a little different. I am so impressed today with how the dreamers can stand firm and strong and live today in the environment that they have today. I think that speaks to how we have transitioned from where we were in 187. I think we have to remain vigilant every single day because it can happen again if we're not watchful, and we have to be cautious not to buy in that we are protected and safe.
We have to be vigilant all the time. We have to remind ourselves even though you're not an elected official, even though you hate politics at the end of the day, a duty and a responsibility to vote. I think these are also lessons for conservatives and republicans that it isn't just scapegoating anymore that you're going to be held accountable and responsible for it. When you look at a state like California that was a conservative state. I mean president Reagan was our governor.
The reality is that we have transitioned the state dramatically, it's now known as a more liberal state. I think that is happening across the country. You're looking at changes in Nevada changes in Arizona even changes in Texas. Again, I think we have to be balanced as to how we look at these issues, but we have to be fair and equitable to the people who live here, work here, and are part of this country, the social fabric. We are all immigrants at the end of the day.
- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Ricardo Palavecino
Find more firsthand accounts of the campaign against Prop 187 here.
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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On this episode: ballot processing, a homeless encampment ban and Halloween in 2020.KCET Original
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