Remembering LA County's Gloria Molina

The last time I saw Gloria Molina in person, I was interviewing her on the deepening scandal at Los Angeles City Hall, where secretly recorded racist audio recordings had resulted in the resignation of LA Council President Nury Martinez and cast a harsh light on then LA Councilman Gil Cedillo and Councilman Kevin de León.

Never one to pull punches, she lamented the incendiary language on the recordings, and specifically called out Councilman de León for failing to get out of the way so the Council could govern. 

That October 2022 interview fell on the same day as the East LA Fall Classic.

Ms. Molina, one of the heroes of LA’s Eastside, was throwing out the coin toss at the high school football game and had a busy evening planned. But even so, she took time to grant me an interview.

Showing no signs of illness, we sat down to talk about the scandal and de León’s decision to ride out the scandal and attend council meetings despite the pickets, noise and disruption. 

It had been nine years since Molina had been termed out as LA County supervisor, a powerful position she held for 23 years, but there was no hesitation in her voice. 

Council member de León had to go, or inertia would set in, according to the longtime county supervisor. Ms. Molina decried the lack of leadership. It’s that type of candor even about people she knew well and liked, that earned the trust of her constituents and colleagues. Her bright purple-streaked hair was a reminder of just how brash the eldest child of 10, born to working class parents could be. 

Gloria Molina didn’t just break the glass ceiling —she demolished it. First Latina elected to the state assembly, first Latina elected to LA City Council and first Latina elected to the all-male LA County Board of Supervisors. 

Molina made it look easy, but it wasn’t. She not only took on the Anglo establishment to fight for her working class minority constituents, she sometimes took on her male Latino counterparts, who wanted her to wait her turn to run for office. 

"She was the kind of woman who said — you’re not going to let me in? I’m going to kick the door in! I’m coming in and I’m coming with other women," said former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

"Sometimes I’d say Gloria, ‘I think we have to broaden the coalition here.’ She’d say, ‘I’m not going to wait for that.’ She’d just go at it. I respect that," Villaraigosa said.

In mid-March, Ms. Molina announced on Facebook she had an aggressive form of terminal cancer. Even many of her close friends were shocked by the announcement. 

Molina had chosen to keep her health battle a secret. At the Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a museum dedicated to the Mexican-American story, which Molina had spearheaded, people in the community were urged to write notes of support on colorful squares. 

Those squares will form a "quilt." Quilting was Molina’s favorite hobby. It’s expected to be presented to Molina’s Family this week.

At the Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights, her family priest, Father John Moretta, recalled meeting Gloria Molina decades ago. 

"She was very thin. Nothing like you’d like you’d expect— a bigger person, someone who could empower you. But she was outspoken from the very beginning," he said. 

Molina would join the Monsignor in his quest to keep a prison out of East LA. There were long days of brainstorming, picketing and impassioned speeches against numerous political heavyweights. But in the end, you could not wear out Gloria Molina, the prison was never built, and that story is part of Eastside lore, quintessential Gloria Molina legacy. 

"She took the cause up. She will always be identified with it. It put her in the limelight. She took on the most powerful politician Willie Brown. And two sitting governors Pete Wilson and Deukmejian," Father John said.

On a personal note, I will miss Gloria Molina’s incredible life force. She was an inspiration to me as a Latina and a journalist. We would often see each other at LA community events, 

Ms. Molina was quick with a kind, encouraging word. As a Latina just starting out, her words, her example spoke volumes of how to succeed in a world where you are the first. For years, in the halls of power, she was the only woman in the room, certainly the only Latina. 

Gloria Molina took us to a place where there were no roads— and led the way for a great many of us to follow.