Gloria Molina, a pioneering political leader who represented the people of Los Angeles, died from terminal cancer Sunday, her daughter said. She was 74.
“She passed away at her home in Mt. Washington, surrounded by our family,” Valentina Martinez said in a Mother’s Day statement. “We will miss Gloria the strong and selfless matriarch of our family.”
Molina had battled cancer for three years, Martinez said.
A product of the Pico Rivera community on Los Angeles County’s Eastside, Molina proudly identified as Chicana, a political term describing people of Mexican descent both empowered and oppressed by life between two nations, two cultures.
She was the first Chicana elected to the state Assembly (1982), the Los Angeles City Council (1987) and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors (1991).
She was also noted as a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee from the days of Bill Clinton’s presidency until 2004. It was a role that highlighted Molina as a featured speaker at multiple Democratic national conventions.
Molina was born May 31, 1948, to parents raised in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Her father, she said, was born in Los Angeles but raised in Mexico.
As she was growing up in the San Gabriel Valley east of downtown Los Angeles, she said, college was something for white people — until a high school bookkeeper named Charlene Levesque kept pestering her about attending a new community college.
“I used to hang around with all the Chicanos,” she said. “And none of them were talking of going to college at the time.”
She went. And she fought back her mother’s pressure to work.
At college, including classes at East Los Angeles College, Molina sought out Latinas, and she found them through the Chicana Service Action Center, a nonprofit community group, and local influencers like Francisca Flores.
After school she volunteered for Democratic politicians and was Hispanic deputy for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign in California in 1975. After Carter began his term as president, she worked in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel.
When she took a shot at the state Legislature, she credited support from women in general as much as from her Latino home base.
“One of our big goals was learning to become leaders,” she said. “Not to become followers to the white women’s movement, and not to become followers to the Chicano movement. But to become leaders for ourselves, for other women. That was very important to us.”
She volunteered for countless community and political groups, held a seat on the Los Angeles City Council and considered running for mayor before she decided instead to take one of five potent seats on the county Board of Supervisors, which each represent 2 million people.
In an oral history interview for the California State Archives State Government Oral History Program in 1990, Molina claimed victory.
“Every time I stepped up to one of these opportunities, the first thing that ran through me was fear, absolute fear,” she said of running for office. “And with that fear was the intimidation. ‘They’re smarter than I am. They know more.’”
“I think one of our biggest challenges is to convince a lot of Latinos out there who are citizens and noncitizens that it is definitely a place and game that we need to be a part of,” Molina said. “What I’ve also learned is that you can beat City Hall.”
Molina is survived by daughter, Martinez; her husband, Ron Martinez; grandson Santiago; and siblings Gracie, Irma, Domingo, Bertha, Mario, Sergio, Danny, Olga and Lisa.
The LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, which Molina created during her time on the Board of Supervisors, has scheduled a celebration of life for June 3.