Early Challenges, Different Paths, Same Goal

Times Staff Writer

As a child, Antonio Villaraigosa watched helplessly as his father beat his mother and then walked out of their lives. He was in middle school when he learned that his father was remarried and had a new baby boy.

The baby’s name: Antonio.

The revelation was so painful that, for years, Villaraigosa didn’t tell anyone. “I just pretended like I didn’t hear it,” he said, his voice halting.

Privately, he agonized over the idea that he had a half-brother with the same name -- confirmation, he believed, that his father had replaced him.

“I remember it feeling like an arrow stuck in my heart,” he said. “It felt like, you know, I never existed almost.”

With that knowledge, Villaraigosa began his teenage years on unsteady ground, embarking on a difficult search for his identity. The trajectory of his life at times became as treacherous as the curving streets in the City Terrace neighborhood where he grew up.


Villaraigosa got into fights. He dated around. He was kicked out of one high school and dropped out of another. He had his arms tattooed: “Tony {heart} Arlene” and “Born to Raise Hell.”

His mother pleaded with him to fix his life. She wrote him a letter: “You may have lost faith in yourself, but I will never lose faith in you.”

With her help he righted himself, though it was not easy. There would be trouble: an assault arrest, two out-of-wedlock daughters. But there would also be successes: staying away from gangs, graduating from UCLA, winning a seat in the state Assembly, and now running against James K. Hahn for mayor of Los Angeles.

He would gravitate toward a profession in which he could use the drive and street skills that propelled him out of the barrio, a profession in which he could feel not invisible but important.

Villaraigosa discovered there were few things he loved more than politics, where he could bask in the adulation of the crowd. It is, friends acknowledge, salve on his childhood wounds.

Drawing From His Life

Villaraigosa’s life is fodder for his campaign: He talks about his experiences with domestic violence, poverty and the danger of gangs. He extols the importance of education and touts the community where he was raised, still an entry point for immigrants in Southern California.

During Villaraigosa’s youth, City Terrace and adjacent Boyle Heights was a harmonious mix of Latinos, Jews, blacks and Japanese Americans.

The first wave of newcomers -- arriving in the 1920s and ‘30s -- were mostly Eastern European Jews, who composed the largest Jewish settlement west of Chicago. After World War II, Mexicans made up the majority of the population.

“We lived side by side,” Villaraigosa told a group of Asian American leaders at a recent gathering in Little Tokyo. “It was a harbinger of the future.”

Villaraigosa’s grandfather moved to the area from Mexico in 1903. He built a successful produce business, which allowed him to put his two daughters in private school and buy a large house on St. Louis Street, overlooking Hollenbeck Park. Then the Depression hit, and he lost everything. His wife left him; his daughters ended up in foster care.

Villaraigosa’s mother, Natalia Delgado, was separated from her sister and shuttled from one foster home to the next. She married Antonio Villar, a man who her children say abused her.

Villaraigosa -- who changed his name as an adult -- vividly recalls his father, usually drunk, beating his mother. “I’m 52 years old, and I will never ever forget the wailing screams of my mother as a young boy,” he told one audience recently. “Make no mistake: It’s an image that you never forget.”

His father -- an immigrant from Mexico City, where he worked as a butcher and taxi driver -- walked out on the family when Villaraigosa was in kindergarten. Occasionally he would return for visits, but eventually that stopped.

Villaraigosa’s sister, Mary Lou, remembers a time when she, Antonio and their little sister, Deborah, dressed in their best clothes, sat on the curb for hours waiting for their father, who never showed up.

Struggling to support her family on her own, Delgado sought to brighten the bleakness by focusing her children on their studies. “She was always reading to us,” Villaraigosa said. “She was one of those people who could quote Shakespeare and Keats. Her idea of a cool night might be to read ‘The Raven’ out loud.”

The family’s small white duplex on Bonnie Beach Place was filled with novels. Villaraigosa said he loved reading his mother’s collection of classics. His favorite was Herman Melville’s book about the young sailor Billy Budd, a fierce fighter and loyal friend but also the target of jealousy. (Budd is eventually wrongly accused of treason and hanged.) Villaraigosa said that as a youth he related to the fictional character, who faced his own share of adversity.

On the days that his mother worked -- as a secretary at the California Department of Transportation downtown -- she urged her children to spend their afternoons in the neighborhood library. They were prohibited from going to City Terrace Park, where the Geraghty Loma gang -- armed with knives -- would gather.

Although not nearly as lethal as they are today, the gangs picked on anyone who wasn’t a member of their group.

“They harassed a lot of the boys,” said Villaraigosa. “We had to learn to fend for ourselves.”

Mary Lou recalls her brother coming home as a teenager, bloodied from fights. “It was scary,” she said. “Everywhere you walked, there were gangs. It was dangerous. That’s all there was to it.”

Delgado -- who died of liver cancer in 1991 -- was picky about her children’s friends. Villaraigosa said it frustrates him that some of Hahn’s backers have suggested that he hung out with the barrio thugs.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “My mother would have killed me. I mean, I was a tough kid. You had to fight your way out of this place. But I was never a gang member.”

Villaraigosa said he was constantly looking for ways to stay busy. He sought work at age 7, delivering newspapers, mowing lawns, shining shoes. He used some of his money to buy new clothes for himself and his mother.

Delgado was determined to send her children to Catholic school, where they could receive a strict religious education. At his mother’s urging, Villaraigosa began high school at Cathedral, a small Catholic boys’ academy on the edge of Chinatown near Dodger Stadium. (As he did almost everywhere he went, he took the bus.)

Villaraigosa’s freshman year at Cathedral marked the start of the most tumultuous time in his life.

“He was kind of a punk,” said Aurelio Rojas, who attended Cathedral with Villaraigosa and later became his friend. “We were all kids from the ‘hood. Everyone had this attitude. He was a troublemaker. We all were.”

As the civil rights protests of the 1960s swirled around the students at Cathedral, Villaraigosa became a rabble-rouser -- challenging a campus ban on T-shirts and demanding Mexican American studies.

“I think he got more of a thrill out of doing that than going to class,” Rojas said. “Too much testosterone.” (The school gave in to the students’ demands, small-scale though they were.)

Villaraigosa’s blossoming organizational skills, however, were soon put on hold.

One day, late in his sophomore year, Villaraigosa noticed that his legs were tingling. At first he figured he had strained a muscle in gym class. The next day, he couldn’t walk. He was paralyzed from the waist down.

His mother rushed him to Kaiser Permanente on Sunset Boulevard. The doctors had no idea what was wrong with him. “I was a pretty active kid, and realizing I might not be able to walk again was a pretty terrifying experience,” said Villaraigosa, who spent three weeks in the hospital.

Finally, doctors discovered a benign tumor inside his spinal column, requiring delicate surgery that restored movement to his legs. (The tumor later regrew, requiring Villaraigosa to have a second surgery after the 2001 mayoral election.)

The ordeal left Villaraigosa in continual pain, which persists to this day. After Villaraigosa returned to high school, the football coach, concerned that he couldn’t perform, kicked him off the team. He was also prohibited from running track.

Villaraigosa’s anger turned to fury. His grade-point average fell to 1.4. In his junior year, he was involved in a large brawl after a football game against St. Francis High School in La Canada Flintridge. The next week, he and some of his friends were summoned to the principal’s office at Cathedral. Because his grades were so low, Villaraigosa was expelled.

He enrolled at Wilson High, but he was there only a day before the gangs -- making fun of his preppy clothing -- chased him off campus.

Villaraigosa ended up at Roosevelt High. He attended classes for a while, then dropped out for six months --spending most of his time working.

One day, his mother handed him the letter, pleading with him to return to school and get his life back on track.

“I realized that kind of anger was only hurting me and that I should take responsibility for my own life,” Villaraigosa said.

He returned to school and was able to graduate on time by attending night classes with the help of teacher Herman Katz, who urged Villaraigosa to consider college.

“He was the kind of kid we were looking for,” said Katz, who paid for Villaraigosa to take the SAT. “He was bright, inquisitive. He just needed some direction.”

Villaraigosa spent a year at East Los Angeles College and then was accepted to UCLA.

But his struggles continued.

In his 20s, he had two daughters out of wedlock with different women. (He obtained shared custody.) And in 1977, Villaraigosa was charged with misdemeanor assault following a brawl with a man who yelled racial slurs and slugged Villaraigosa’s mother outside a restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard.

Villaraigosa’s trial ended with jurors deadlocked 11 to 1 for acquittal. (The charges were never refiled.)

When asked about the incident, which occurred shortly before his 24th birthday, he said that he was simply acting in defense of his mother. “I was just doing what any other American son would do,” he said.

That same year, he received a history degree from UCLA. As he had done in high school, he found plenty of causes that stirred his interest: the Vietnam war, boycotts on behalf of farmworkers, the fight for Chicano rights.

Rojas says he has been awed by his friend’s achievements, but wonders how many of his childhood wounds remain unhealed. “Maybe if he keeps looking back, he would not be looking forward,” Rojas said.

The candidate will discuss almost anything related to his youth. But he still struggles to describe his broken relationship with his father.

The estrangement was a factor in his decision to change his surname in 1988, after marrying Corina Raigosa. He suggested that he and his wife blend their last names to create one that was uniquely theirs. (He also had his tattoos removed.)

“If I had a father who had a life with me, who didn’t go off and name another kid Antonio, maybe it would have been different,” Villaraigosa said during a telephone interview after a day of campaigning.

He sounds sullen for a moment, then adds that he does not “hold any ill will” toward his father, whom he has seen maybe two dozen times since he was 5.

“I’ve grown up,” Villaraigosa said. “I still hold him accountable. But I’m not angry with him anymore.”

Villaraigosa has since met his half-brother, and said he sees no reason to dwell on the past.

“Maybe all that anger as a kid was therapeutic,” he said. “I don’t look back. I really don’t. I’m blessed with that.”

Villaraigosa’s father, Antonio Villar Sr., declined to discuss their family life or his relationship with his son, other than to say that he believes it is too late to fix it.

“I just wish him the best luck in the world,” said Villar, 79. “God bless him. I hope he wins.”

A Return to City Terrace

In the midst of his campaign for mayor, Villaraigosa -- who lives in Mount Washington now -- rarely makes it back to his old neighborhood. His staff has scheduled appearances for him mostly in the Valley and the Westside, areas where Villaraigosa needs to secure his base.

On a recent morning, however, he gave his driver instructions on navigating the winding, pockmarked streets of City Terrace.

The driver, a young worker in Villaraigosa’s campaign, grinds his boss’ Chrysler up a hillside, turns left at a fork in the road and then cruises -- a bit too fast -- downward.

The road rises, dips and then curves again, cutting unnervingly close to the precipice of a dangerous urban hillside. It’s an easy place to get lost, a place where the streets seem to circle to nowhere.

Villaraigosa knows exactly where he’s going. A few more turns and the top of the hill finally is in sight. The candidate tells his driver to stop for a minute. On a clear day, the power center of the country’s second-largest metropolis glimmers in the distance. As a boy, he would often ride his bicycle to this spot on the western slope of City Terrace. The view offered a measure of beauty -- and possibility -- from the vantage point of a tough neighborhood.

“I always remember noticing City Hall,” he said. “It dominated the skyline.”