Women filed into a classroom at an East Los Angeles community center. Some came alone, some in groups of two and three. Most were Latina and edging past middle age. They hauled tote bags full of fabric and rolled suitcases holding sewing machines.
One of them was Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, toting her own bundles of material.
As one of the "five kings and queens" who run a sprawling county government, Molina is among the most powerful women in Los Angeles. She wrestles weekly with issues including abused children slipping through the cracks, overcrowded and aging jails, and how to spend a $26-billion annual budget.
In the board room, Molina is known for the candid, sometimes caustic commentary she levels at county employees and fellow officials. Former Sheriff Lee Baca was a frequent target of her ire: On various occasions, she accused him of "stealing" resources from communities in her district by cutting back sheriff's patrols, and she publicly urged voters to oust him over abuses in the county jails.
But on this Saturday morning, she was relaxed, even playful, and focused on a different kind of mission: showing 35 or so women how to piece together a new pattern for a quilt.
It was the monthly meeting of the East Los Angeles Stitchers, TELAS for short, a group that Molina and a few friends founded three years ago to share their love of quilting with a larger, particularly Latina audience.
"I have a bit of a cold, and I've been so busy I haven't gotten everything done," Molina told the assembly from the front of the room, "but we're going to get it done together." Then she began calling up members to show off their latest projects.
One proudly unfurled a quilt in red, white and blue with a snowflake-like carpenter's star pattern, to be donated to a veterans group. Another presented a purse with intricately embroidered flowers in orange and pink on a black background. Molina exclaimed, "You did not make this!" and then hugged her, proclaiming, "This is our master embroiderer!"
Patricia Lopez, a retired high school counselor who has known Molina since their childhood in Pico Rivera, apologized for being late as she stood up to present the sapphire-pattern block of the month to the group: "I slept through the alarm, and I don't have a husband to wake me up." Another woman shouted, "You're lucky!" and a third, "What about a lover?"
Molina launched into the day's project, a mystery block that the women would construct step by step without having seen the final design. The quilters set to work, cutting fabric and bending over their machines, trading gossip and jokes.
Molina made the rounds to check on their progress, occasionally calling out, "Ladies! Ladies!" At one point, she swatted an overly talkative friend with a strip of fabric so she could demonstrate the next step. "Why aren't you using your loud, outdoor voice?" her friend rejoined. "I know you have one."
As one of 10 children in a family with limited means, Molina grew up sewing her own clothes. So did her friends, some of whom later joined the quilting group.
"I made everything I wore — I think Gloria did too," Lopez said.
Molina, 66, recalled that as young women she and another quilting group member "would go shopping in the day for fabric, make a dress in the afternoon and wear it in the evening."
Some members of the quilting guild worked with Molina in her days as an activist with the Chicana political group Comisión Femenil Mexicana Nacional in the 1970s. Molina went on to become the first Latina elected to the state Assembly, then to the Los Angeles City Council and the county board.
During her 23-year tenure at the county, she turned to quilting.
Molina said the puzzle-like craft intrigued her. She wanted to introduce a more Chicano flair to the traditionally American art form and bring more Latinas into the sisterhood of a quilting guild.
The group has a core of about 30 members, but more than 100 have signed up online on its Yahoo group, including some as far away as Colorado and New Mexico. Members of the Los Angeles group have traveled to Mexico to exchange patterns with quilters in Puebla de los Angeles and Oaxaca and are planning to go on a quilting cruise together.
"Some people travel to golf courses," Molina said. "We travel to quilt shows."
Molina, who has carried her sewing machine to government conferences and to the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, said she tries to retreat to her sewing room each evening.
"If I have 10 minutes, there's something I can do with a quilt," she said. "If I have 20 minutes, there's something I can do."
When former Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke retired, she got a Molina quilt. So did former county chief administrative officer David Janssen — made out of old ties his wife had saved.
Now that Molina is preparing to retire from her county post at the end of the year, she said, "Obviously, they're all waiting in the wings to get a quilt."
Back at the meeting in East L.A., the mystery block finally emerged as an Irish chain pattern in vibrant colors on a black background — although in Molina's haste to prepare the project after a grueling week at the county, she had been off on her math and made the block larger than intended.
"This mystery quilt has been a mystery to all of us," she acknowledged ruefully, before sending the women on their way until next month.
People who know Molina only from her tough political persona are often startled to learn about her hobby. After all, this is a woman who recently blasted county attorneys for not allowing her to see internal sheriff's department reports about a man fatally shot by deputies, snapping, "It is unbelievable that I have a set of lawyers that will not advocate on my behalf."
But the supervisor is not the "hard-ass that sometimes comes across," said fellow quilter Evelyn Martinez, a longtime friend and former chief executive of First 5 LA. "There's a very soft side to Gloria, a very nurturing side."
Constituents have sometimes used the monthly gatherings to bring issues to Molina's attention — like the 20 women who showed up one week with flowers and a petition about neighborhood issues in City Terrace. But for the most part, the group is a respite from political concerns. And many of the members take little interest in Molina's public persona.
"To me, it's neither here nor there," said Lucinda Nuñez of San Fernando, who stumbled across the quilting group during an Internet search. She now brings along her 11-year-old granddaughter, Jadin. "It's just fun."
That suits the supervisor fine.
"Here, I'm just another quilter," she said. "I'm Gloria."
For more information on the group, visit www.facebook.com/TelasDeLaVidaTheElaStitchers.
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