Gloria Molina is a name that has become synonymous with Latina politics in California. She not only changed Latina politics, some say she invented it.
The 65-year-old veteran of the exclusive five-member Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which runs the sprawling metropolis, made history more than three decades ago when she became the first Latina elected to the State Legislature.
It is a triumph that is still a rallying point for Latinas in California, even as she prepares to finally retire after also being the first Hispanic woman elected to the Los Angeles City Council and Board of Supervisors.
What made Molina’s landmark achievement national news – Ms magazine put her on its cover and she became the political darling of the 1980s, much like Wendy Davis of Texas today — was that she took on not only discrimination from the white establishment but also the California Hispanic good ol’ boys political machine that had kept Latinas out of power.
As a political insider who had served on the staff of the then powerful Speaker of California Assembly, Molina still remembers when she decided to run for a legislative seat in 1982 and approached her longtime friend and mentor Lou Moret, then an aide to Assemblyman Richard Alatorre, known as the godfather of the state’s Latino political leadership.
“I had worked with him for years, so I trusted him,” Molina recalled in an interview. “I had an awful lot of confidence in him and felt that he was somebody I could talk to.
“It started out that, ‘I’m thinking of running for the seat. What do you think?’ And it was the way he responded that was the most disappointing, and I’ll never forget that. All that self-doubt? He threw it all back at me.
“’You can’t run. You can’t win. What are you talking about? You can’t raise money. You can’t get endorsements.’ I mean, all the ‘You can’ts’ that I said to myself, he just laid it all out there for me.
“And I said, ‘But, of course, I could try. I think I can raise… I think I can do it.’ All this doubt. It was a very, very hard meeting, but I had already settled these things for myself. And then he had turned around and just threw it all back at me and said, ‘You can’t.’”
It turned out that Moret, Alatorre and the Latino good ol’ boys group had their own candidate – another Hispanic man, of course – they had earmarked for an open Assembly seat.
When Molina learned of this, she and her own group of Latinas who had always been supportive of the Latino male political establishment – from hosting fund-raising tardeadas where they made the food to staffing phone banks and walking precincts – became furious and revolted.
Molina and the Latinas went on to score an unprecedented upset over the Hispanic men, defeating their candidate in the Democratic primary and making history by winning election that fall.
Latino politics in California was never the same. In the coming years, Latinas went on to elect several members of Congress, among them Lucille Roybal-Allard and Hilda Solis from Southern California and establishing their own political network with Molina as the Latina power broker.
Roybal-Allard credits Molina for getting her into politics, even though her father, the late Edward Roybal, was California first Latino congressman.
“I got a call from Gloria wanting to know if I would be interested in replacing her when she left the State Assembly,” recalled Roybal-Allard of how she entered political life. “I think it’s a wonderful example of a strong Latina reaching out to other Latinas to help them and to give them an opportunity.
“I talked to my family and decided that I would run for the State Assembly. I was in my forties the first time I ran for office.”
Solis, the former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is the heavy favorite to succeed Molina, who is retiring because of term limitations, in June’s elections.
In 1994, it was Molina and her group that helped launch the political career of a promising young labor activist who had initially been spurned – as Molina had been – by the Latino good ol’ boys establishment.
Much like Molina had done a dozen years earlier, the labor activist went on to score a surprising victory over the Hispanic men’s candidate in an open legislative seat campaign.
The labor activist: Antonio Villaraigosa, the future mayor of Los Angeles who had been friends with Molina’shusband, Ron Martinez, working together at the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Over the years Molina and Villaraigosa have continued being political allies, though their friendship ended over one of Villaraigosa’s affairs that eventually ruined his marriage.
Molina herself is the eldest daughter of two Mexican immigrants who had 10 children. She dropped out of college to work as a legal secretary to help support her parents and eventually became involved in politics and the women’s movement.
“Nobody ever handed Gloria anything – she’s gotten where she is on her own and through hard work,” says former Congressman Esteban Torres, who has known Molina since the 1960s.
Some, like Torres, thought Molina might go on to seek higher office.
“She could be the first Latina governor of California,” he once said.
But Molina chose to stay close to her family and on the Board of Superisors, though who can say she might not choose to return to elective politics.
“She really pulls no punches,” says Torres. “She’s a tough lady.”
Originally published on VOXXI as How Gloria Molina changed Latina politics and history