Looking back, Grace Montanez Davis admits that her initial months as the first Latina to serve as deputy mayor of Los Angeles were not easy:
--She used to receive phone calls and bills addressed to Gray Davis (a former mayoral aide and now an assemblyman).
--She remembers shaking nervously the first time she brought the 38 city department heads, all but two of them men, together.
--And she still shudders at the people who assumed she was the mayor’s social secretary.
But for more than a decade, Davis, 58, has survived in a job where survival is a rough approximation of success. And on Wednesday night, she was honored by the El Pueblo Park Assn. (a group interested in preserving the area surrounding Olvera Street) for her contributions to the city.
Davis “represents a unique blend of tradition and progress,” Mayor Tom Bradley said recently. “She is a symbol of the city’s continued commitment to incorporate all residents into its rich and diverse city life.”
Today, Davis has basically the same duties as when she was appointed to the deputy mayor’s post on Aug. 5, 1975. Her areas of emphasis are housing, community development and grants. Tom Houston, who replaced Ray Remy as the city’s other deputy mayor last year, is Bradley’s chief of staff. Said Houston of Davis, “She knows the job inside and out.”
According to those who have worked closely with her, Davis’ political style is slow and cautious. “She is a low-key consensus builder,” Houston said. “Before she moves, she knows the facts and figures. She takes her time. She is appropriately cautious. And she generally knows the outcome.”
Getting the Point Across
Remy, who was deputy mayor from 1975 until Houston’s appointment in 1984, agrees with that assessment. “She would develop what her concern was, talk to the mayor about it, get her point through, and get the concurrence of the mayor,” Remy said.
Davis said how she tackles an issue varies. “I usually like a consensus of people,” she said. “I like to avoid having to say, ‘This is something I think you should do.’ ”
When she shared the deputy mayor post with Remy, she referred to him as the “hardware” and herself as the “software.” Davis’ concept of software meant that she was more oriented toward people and groups than toward governmental bodies in putting her imprint upon city policy. According to Houston, one of Davis’ prime assets are her ties with the community at large, particularly the Latin community.
“I usually like to be in touch with the people who are going to be involved and then go to him (Bradley) and say, ‘I talked to this organization and this group of people and this is what they’re saying. They’re wondering if you would like to support this issue.’ ”
But according to Remy, her community links account for only part of Davis’ political power. Her invaluable association on the other end is to her longtime employer, the mayor. Said Houston: “She is very close to the mayor.”
“Even though she might have a fairly strong-held conviction, if the mayor didn’t agree, she’d go along with him,” Remy added. “She has been very loyal to the mayor.”
“One of the things I have always appreciated is that I don’t have to go in there and tell him, ‘This is my agenda for the week. Is it OK?’ ” Davis said. “And I think the fact that I am close to him, that we come out of the same political and moral background, helps. I know what he would want done. I can go days without going in to see him, mainly because I know that he is busy.”
Born in the Lincoln Heights area, Davis grew up in a predominantly Italian-American neighborhood. She remembers her father participating in wine making (and her mother worrying about him coming home drunk), observing traditional Italian holidays such as St. Joseph’s Feast Day and using her fluency in Spanish to communicate in Italian with neighborhood elders. “I actually grew up in an Italian culture” she said. “I kind of miss that.”
The Best Days Are Now
While she can be nostalgic about the Los Angeles she grew up in, Davis says the city’s best days are now. “I think the vitality of the city has come with age and time,” she said, “particularly with the influx of the many cultures and ethnic groups that have come here.
“Certainly, I liked my childhood, (but) it was a very parochial kind of thing,” she said. “It was all contained in Lincoln Heights. The only place we ever went was from Lincoln Heights to downtown and back.”
Rather than have her walk alone through the business section of Lincoln Heights, her parents sent her to a Catholic school beginning in the seventh grade. After graduating from high school, she received a bachelor’s degree from Immaculate Heart College and did graduate work in microbiology at UCLA.
“I always gave my parents credit for supporting the education I was pursuing. They had no way of knowing that studying chemistry or bacteriology was going to result in a job. And going on to graduate school was unheard of.”
Charting a Career Course
Davis became aware early that she was charting a career course that was all-but-unknown to Latin women up to that time.
“When I was at UCLA (in the early 1950s) I once went through all the students’ cards to see if there were other people with Spanish surnames. There were five in the graduate school--and four of them were from Mexico or Central or South America. I was the only one (Mexican-American) in graduate school at that time.”
After stints teaching citizenship classes (“My father was my best student”) and working on campaigns for Reps. Ed Roybal and George Brown, she went to work in 1964 in the Economic and Youth Opportunities Agency, a program implemented during the Lyndon Johnson Administration to spur employment among young people.
From there, she went to the U.S. Department of Labor, where she was a Manpower Development Specialist, reviewing funding requests for employment programs and coordinating those programs between various levels of government.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” she said. During the time that her political consciousness was growing, “the politics of the Hispanics started to evolve. We have always had politics, of course, but this was different.
“It was when the men went to World War II that they learned they were also Americans, not just Mexicans,” she said. “When the men came back they decided, ‘We don’t want to give up being Mexican, but at the same time we are Americans.’ ”
A Cultural Identity
Nevertheless, she says that, in her case, being Mexican is a cultural, but not a national identity.
“I don’t feel any allegiance toward Mexico,” she said. “I appreciate the history and culture that I inherited from my parents.
“For example, when we have the celebrations of Mexican Independence Day, I enjoy the whole thing, but I don’t feel that it’s mine. Yet, when they play the National Anthem I really do get chills.”
Davis lives in Highland Park, only three miles from where she grew up. She has been divorced from Raymond Davis since 1968. She has three children: Deirdra, 29, who repairs computers; Alison, 26, a graduate of USC in biology; and Alfred, 25, a student at Cal Poly Pomona, where he is studying architecture.