Beyond her curriculum vitae, Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina’s role in the history of Latinos in Southern California came into sharper focus last week, when the 74-year-old politician announced she is battling terminal cancer.
“I enter this transition in life feeling so fortunate,” Molina wrote on Facebook. “Throughout my life I’ve had the support of many people.”
Angelenos lauded all of Molina’s firsts: the first Latina elected to the California state legislature, and in 1987, as LA City Councilmember. She is also the first Latina elected to the county Board of Supervisors in 1991.
For 23 years, she served the First District, which includes Pico-Union, East Los Angeles and much of the San Gabriel Valley.
In 2014, Molina retired from the Board of Supervisors due to term limits, ending a 32-year career in public service for the City of Angels.
Supervisor Hilda Solis, who succeeded Molina, called her a “role model.”
“Los Angeles is as great as it is because of her persistence and determination to fight for our most vulnerable communities,” Solis said.
Solis said she will propose to rename Grand Park in downtown L.A., which she helped to open as chair of the Grand Avenue Authority.
Clay Stalls is curator of California and Hispanic Collections for The Huntington in San Marino, where Molina donated more than 200 boxes worth of her papers in 2014.
“In general, Gloria Molina was a relentless advocate for public services for the underrepresented,” Stalls said. “When running for supervisor, she made it clear that she came from the district, and understood the problems and strengths of her largely Hispanic district.”
Molina’s parents, Leonardo and Concepcíon Molina, immigrated to the suburbs LA County suburbs from Mexico. Molina grew up in Pico Rivera and attended El Rancho High School, East Los Angeles College and Cal State L.A.
In an oral history interview from 1990, Molina opened up about her personal and political life, from growing up in Montebello and Pico Rivera, attending El Rancho High School, Rio Hondo College, and Cal State Los Angeles, and joining the Chicano movement in the 1970s.
Molina said she hoped the interview would help people understand what makes politicians tick, and how they make decisions.
As a county supervisor, she largely supported public health, jobs, education, parks and recreation, and the arts.
She supported organizations including the Central American Refugee Center, and was involved with the Mothers of East Los Angeles. In 1994, she fought against Proposition 187, which limited undocumented immigrants from health and public services.
Stalls said she funded arts programs in her district, supported economic revitalization groups and health clinics, and bolstered the building of bike trails in East Los Angeles.
“She especially took note of unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County that might receive short shrift regarding county services.”
Stalls said that Molina served on the Democratic National Party Committee as a vice-chair, on the board of the Mexican-American Legal and Educational Defense Fund (MALDEF), and also has her own youth education program.
Abelardo De la Peña, a spokesperson for LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes in Los Angeles, said a tribute to its ailing founder is in the works.
Molina helped start the community hub to celebrate Latinx culture through art. She was on hand to open its newest venture, the LA Plaza Cocina culinary museum in 2022.
“What impresses me most about her is her fortitude,” said De la Peña. “When she started her career as an activist and political leader, she fought for her community. She was able to rally people around whatever cause she’s fighting for. In the political arena, even when things were stacked against her, she didn’t back down.”
De la Peña worked with Molina on MALDEF, where he got to know the “straight-talking” politician who “could also be warm and friendly,” doling out hugs and talking Mexican food with joy, he said.
“(Younger) Latinas may not be aware of Molina’s legacy, but they’ve benefited from her being a pioneer. She paved the way.”
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Zev Yaroslavsky served with Molina on the Board of Supervisors from 1994 to 2014. On Facebook, Yaroslavsky lauded his colleague for facing cancer in the same way she confronted all the challenges in her life: unvowed and unintimated.
“As a colleague you were a loyal ally as well as a worthy adversary, (though) I liked it better when we were on the same side,” he wrote. “Long ago you earned my utmost respect as an honest and indefatigable public servant. You have left a monumental legacy.”
Staunch admirers who worked under Molina called themselves “Molinistas,” and flooded social media with tributes to the 74-year-old.
Guadalupe De La Torre, an analyst for LA County, said she counts being part of Molina’s team for 17 years as “one of her greatest accomplishments.”
“You are an inspiration that will live on forever,” she said.
De la Peña said confronting her terminal illness, with grace, is “classic Molina.”
“She gave us the news and you see it’s on her own terms,” he said. “That’s her trademark.”