As the first Latina elected to the California state Assembly, Los Angeles City Council and L.A. County Board of Supervisors, needless to say Gloria Molina inspired legions of women, particularly Latinas, to demand a seat at the table and to hold leadership roles.
And with a political career that spanned more than three decades, Molina’s influence was felt at all levels of government – local, state and national. Despite reaching such heights, those who knew her said Molina never forgot her roots and devoted her life to being a fierce advocate for the underserved.
Molina, 74, died at her home in Mt. Washington, surrounded by loved ones.
A public Celebration of Life will take place July 15 at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a Mexican-American museum and cultural center in downtown L.A. that Molina had a hand in creating.
“We are so proud that Gloria will be remembered in history for the impact she made on Los Angeles, the state, and country as a Chicana activist, State Assemblymember, Los Angeles City Councilmember, and Los Angeles County Supervisor,” daughter Valentina Martinez, speaking on behalf of the family, said in a statement.
Gov. Gavin Newsom called Molina a “change maker” who opened the doors for “generations of women in politics and public service.”
“Never losing sight of her roots in community organizing and advocacy, Molina was not afraid to clash with prominent politicos in her fight for working-class neighborhoods,” Newsom said. “Her leadership delivered lasting results advancing social justice for Eastside communities, creating parks and community centers and expanding public transit, among other accomplishments.”
Named for her paternal grandmother, the civic and political leader was born Jesús Gloria Molina on May 31, 1948, in Montebello. Her parents, Leonard and Concepción Molina, immigrated to the L.A. area from Mexico.
Molina was one of 10 children and grew up mainly in Pico Rivera in southeastern L.A. County. She graduated from El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera and attended Rio Hondo College, East L.A. College and Cal State L.A.
Molina was active in Southern California’s Chicano movement, serving as a member of the Comisión Femenil Mexicana Nacional de Los Angeles, and helping to establish the Chicana Action Service Center, which advocated for the rights of Chicanas.
In 1976, Molina began working as an administrative assistant for state Assemblymember Art Torres. Over the next several years, she would go on to work in President Jimmy Carter’s administration as a deputy for presidential personnel and for state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown Jr. as a chief deputy.
Then, in 1982, Molina shattered the glass ceiling by becoming the first Latina to be elected to the California state Legislature. She served one term, working on committees that focused on revenue and taxation, labor and employment, utilities and commerce. During that time, she chaired the Subcommittee on Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities and served as vice chair of the Committee on Public Employment and Retirement.
In 1986, Molina left Sacramento to take a seat on the L.A. City Council as its first elected Latina councilmember.
L.A. Mayor Karen Bass called Molina “a force for unapologetic good and transformational change in Los Angeles,” who advocated for environmental justice and public health. “She shaped Los Angeles in a lasting way while paving the way for future generations of leaders,” Bass said.
Four years after being elected to the City Council, Molina again made history by becoming the first Latina elected to the powerful L.A. County Board of Supervisors. Among those she beat out for the job was her former boss, Art Torres.
“Words can’t express the loss of Gloria Molina,” L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis posted on Twitter. “She was a beacon of hope to many — including myself. Seeing her break several glass ceilings throughout her public service career inspired me to follow in her footsteps and be of service to our community.”
Molina retired from the Board of Supervisors in 2014 due to term limits, ending a 32-year career in public service for the City of Angels.
As a county supervisor she served the First District, representing Pico-Union, East L.A. and the San Gabriel Valley.
She was a county supervisor for 23 years, from 1991 to 2014, and is known for working to improve the county’s foster care system, foster youth graduation rates, and the county’s Department of Family and Children Services.
Molina fought the city of Whittier’s plan to drill for oil in part of Whittier Hills that was purchased with taxpayer monies from state Measure Proposition A, and fought to keep the land preserved as open space and for wildlife. As a member of the LA Metro board, Molina successfully pushed for the extension of the Gold Line (now L Line) light rail into East Los Angeles.
Her record included support for public health, jobs, education, parks and recreation, and the arts.
In March, after Molina announced that she was battling terminal cancer, the Board of Supervisors renamed Grand Park the Gloria Molina Grand Park. The idea of putting a park in the heart of downtown L.A. was Molina’s brainchild, and it became a joint venture between the city and county. It stretches from The Music Center to Los Angeles City Hall and is a highly popular gathering place.
“Without Gloria Molina, make no mistake, there would be no Grand Park,” said Supervisor Kathryn Barger.
The Metro Board of Directors also voted unanimously in March to dedicate the East Los Angeles Civic Center subway station in honor of Molina.
When Molina announced on March 14 that she was battling terminal cancer, she said in a Facebook post that she was “not sad” and was fortunate to have lived “a long, fulfilling and beautiful life.”
Valentina Martinez described her mother as “the strong and selfless matriarch” of the family. She created “beautiful quilts that tell the story of our Mexican roots” and was always the first to volunteer to organize a family celebration.
“Gloria will be remembered in our hearts as our loving mom and grandmother, protective oldest sister, wise tía, and loyal friend,” Martinez said. “We will miss celebrating with her on Christmas Eve, hosted at her home decked out in a new theme for the holidays and nourished with handmade tamales and a holiday feast with all the trimmings.”
Molina is survived by husband Ron Martinez, daughter Valentina, son-in-law Brendan Curran, grandson Santiago, and nine siblings: Gracie, Irma, Domingo, Bertha, Mario, Sergio, Danny, Olga and Lisa.
In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations in Molina’s memory be made to Casa 0101 Theater in the Boyle Heights Artist District, and LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, “to inspire and empower future generations through the arts.”
California leaders have reacted to the news of Molina’s passing, and among them was U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, who said Molina never shied away from a tough fight.
“The daughter of working-class parents, Gloria fought tooth and nail for working-class communities across Los Angeles,” Padilla said. “She was an unrelenting champion for disadvantaged communities in the halls of power at the local, state, and federal levels. From helping to build more affordable housing to fighting to expand public transportation, Gloria was a tireless advocate for Los Angeles’ Eastside. Each time we speak out today against the status quo and demand better from our government and our political leaders, we take a page from Gloria’s playbook—and California takes a step forward.”
L.A. City Councilmember Tim McOsker said, “Gloria Molina was not only a trailblazer, but she held the door open for other Latinas in government to walk through.”
“Supervisor Molina continuously shattered glass ceilings, demonstrating to all Latina/o’s and generations to come that they, too, can have a seat at the table,” said Los Angeles County Democratic Party Chair Mark Gonzalez in a statement.
Leaders at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, in a statement, described Molina as “a champion for social justice,” who “dedicated her life to public service, fighting tirelessly for those who were underrepresented.”
The Weingart Foundation, a private grant-making foundation that partners with communities across Southern California to advance racial justice, released a statement saying, “Today, we join all Angelenos in mourning the loss of a tremendous pioneering leader … she not only opened doors for others to follow, she transformed lives.”
The Committee for Greater L.A., a group of civic leaders working to advance system changes and dismantle institutional racism, released a statement from committee Chair Miguel A. Santana, who said Molina fought for marginalized communities so they could have their fair share of basic services.
“No matter how challenging the path, Supervisor Molina never backed down from doing what was right and most impactful for the community,” Santana said. “Time and again, she exemplified what it means to put community first.”
Cardinal Roger Mahony reflected on some of Molina’s accomplishments, saying, “She was fearless in confronting institutional injustice such as the infamous Exide battery complex in East Los Angeles. She continued to point out that companies would readily build dangerous plants and factories in the poorest neighborhoods because they thought those communities lacked the political influence to object. Gloria Molina proved them wrong over her long political career which always focused on the most underserved members of our society.”
Even the Los Angeles County Fair posted a tribute. “The (fair) team is saddened by tonight’s news of the passing of Gloria Molina. A true trailblazer for Latinas in government, Gloria will be remembered for her impactful career. At this year’s fair, one of Gloria’s personal quilts can be seen on display as well as the introduction of the Gloria Molina Quilting Award.”
Staff Writer Steve Scauzillo and City News Service contributed to this report.
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