They always say to never meet your heroes, but there I was in a downtown Los Angeles office building in 2019, about to interview Gloria Molina.
When I was a kid, she was one of the few politicians I knew by name, and the only one who wasn’t a white Republican man. My relatives in East Los Angeles spoke reverentially about her efforts as a state Assembly member in the 1980s to stop the construction of a prison there.
When Molina became the first Latina on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors in 1991, my mom proudly told me that she was a history maker we should root for, even though we lived in Anaheim.
In college, I found more reasons to respect Molina. Her days as a student activist in college, which turned into advocacy on behalf of Mexican women sterilized without their consent at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center in the 1960s and ‘70s. Her wars against male politicians who despised a lady who wasn’t going to wait in line or hold her tongue. As a reporter, I learned about her influential roster of disciples, who proudly called themselves Molinistas and who have helped shape modern L.A., 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 never immolated in a dumpster fire of corruption or ego like that of too many of her Eastside colleagues. She was what a Latino politician should aspire to be — and what too few ever become.
We met at the California Community Foundation, the influential nonprofit that gives 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 turn Los Angeles and California into the super-blue entities they are today.
Our talk was in a nondescript room — a streak of purple on the side of Molina’s hair was by far the most colorful thing there. Before we began, I admitted my family’s admiration for her but tried to temper my enthusiasm — I was on assignment, after all. She was truly touched, then moved on to business.
For the next hour, I witnessed the same no-fools-suffered crusader that inspired and antagonized L.A.’s political scene for decades.
Molina spoke about the racist backlash she received for speaking out against Proposition 187. She was unapologetic about criticizing younger Latino activists for waving the Mexican flag during anti-187 rallies, maintaining that it alienated on-the-fence moderates. She lambasted U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s weak-salsa opposition to the proposition with such vigor that after the podcast aired, Feinstein’s office complained to me that Molina was unfair.
Though I had seen and heard Molina on television and the radio many times, it was awesome to see her hold court. She was funny. She was unapologetic. She was regal, yet not hubristic. She was everything I had made her out to be, and more.
I ran into her a couple of more times in the ensuing years, most recently when I moderated a 2021 L.A. Times panel discussion celebrating the 40th anniversary of Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela’s historic rookie year. We vowed to get together and talk shop, but our schedules never lined up.
Sadly, I don’t think I’ll have the chance to chat with her again. Hours ago, Molina posted on Facebook that she has battled terminal cancer for the last three years and is now preparing for a “transition in life.”
“You should know that I’m not sad,” the 74-year-old grandmother wrote. “I’m really grateful for everyone in my life and proud of my family, career, mi gente, and the work we did on behalf of our community.”
The news hit me like a gut punch. Of all our political elders, I didn’t expect her to leave us too soon. I fully expected her to live the rest of her years as the lioness of L.A. politics, enjoying a world where the Eastside can boast of a Latina Assembly member (Wendy Carrillo), a Latina state senator (Maria Elena Durazo) and a Latina (Hilda Solis) on the all-female Board of Supervisors.
The bad news immediately made me think of my mother, another force of nature brought down before her time by cancer. Mami never particularly cared for politics, but Molina always resonated with her. At first, I thought it was only because they were Mexican women. Later, I realized that Mami saw someone that, like her, was used to being underestimated and gleefully defied macho expectations. Though Mami never cussed, I once made her laugh and nod in agreement when I asked if she thought Molina was a chingona — a badass woman.
All this said, I’ve never harbored 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 attempted to oust then-Councilmember Jose Huizar in 2015. I was especially unhappy with her in 2008, when the supervisors passed regulations that banned taco trucks from parking in one place for more than an hour, under the threat of fines and possible jail time. Molina voted in favor, arguing that she was responding to complaints from East L.A. residents and business owners. (An L.A. County Superior Court judge eventually overturned the ordinance.)
That was one of the few times she misread Latino L.A. But when downtown’s Grand Park — a project Molina championed for years — opened in 2012, food trucks were there. If the worst thing I could say about a politician is that she should’ve liked taco trucks more, then that’s a hell of a career.
Villaraigosa, who was the best man at Molina’s wedding, called her “a great woman, a trailblazer and a warrior” who was “always fighting for her community.”
The two talked earlier Tuesday.
“It was so hard for me to be on the phone call, because she’s like my big sister,” Villaraigosa said. “She was so strong. She told me she lived a great life. Then she said how proud she was of me, and I couldn’t hold it anymore. She was then 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 meet the fate that awaits us all, I still have so many things I want to ask her about her life, legacy and the current state of L.A. politics. At the very least, I hope this columna reaches her, so I can tell her this:
Gloria, you were always a chingona. L.A. will miss you.