Column: Making tamales with Gloria Molina and other stories
The eulogies are coming in for pioneering Chicana politician Gloria Molina, who died Sunday night — Mother’s Day — after a three-year battle with cancer. She was 74.
The longtime L.A. County supervisor is rightfully being remembered as a trailblazer many times over: for women, for Latinos, for the Eastside. There will be more tributes in the weeks and months to come, I’m sure.
As we place her in the pantheon of L.A. political legends, though, I think she would be the first person to quote Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement:
“Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”
Those who knew Molina best told me about her many political accomplishments. But they also shared anecdote after anecdote about the Gloria they loved: Someone who was as sharp-tongued as she was big-hearted. A selfless taskmaster. A mother hen who pecked when necessary but more often took everyone under her wing.
That flesh-and-blood Gloria, they insisted, should be remembered just as much as the political Gloria. That way, the public would forever know she was one of them.
Antonia Hernandez, an icon in her own right because of the 1989 voting rights lawsuit she filed while lead counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund that helped Molina become a councilmember and supervisor, told me about the vacations the two of them took with longtime friends. Their circle included lawyers, U.S. ambassadors, businesswomen and other fellow powerhouses.
“But one time, we all go down to Baja,” Hernandez said. “She got her quilting friends, they took their sewing machines, and quilted for three or four days. No pretension at all. You think of Gloria as this professional leader, but there’s a side of her that’s traditional and homey that totally informed her politics.”
Another time, the two were in a market in Oaxaca, Mexico, when Molina saw a woman sewing patterns on a dress. “She looked at me and said, ‘This is fascinating,’ ” Hernandez said. “Then she went to the mujer and said, ‘If I pay you, can I sit here and watch you so I can do it?’ We told her, ‘Gloria, we have to go.’ But she wouldn’t leave. She was determined, and she learned the pattern.”
Supervisor Kathryn Barger knew Molina for almost 30 years, going back to the days when she served as chief of staff for former supervisor and frequent Molina adversary Mike Antonovich. “We were always jealous of her team,” Barger said. “When we did Christmas lunches for our staff, we made reservations. When she did it, she opened up her home for days. Our team would tell me, ‘Why are we going to a Chinese restaurant when her staff is going to her house for amazing food?’”
The tamales stuck with her, because Barger mentioned it to Molina one year in passing while the latter was still supervisor. “She suddenly said, ‘Come to my office.’ She had made the filling from scratch, had the corn husks. And we start doing tamales right there and then.”
Former L.A. councilmember Joy Picus was a key early supporter of Molina’s first campaign back in 1982, for an Eastside Assembly seat. When Molina announced in 1987 she was going to run for City Council, Picus immediately endorsed her and volunteered to make phone calls and knock on doors in Boyle Heights.
“Well, when I did that, I realized that most of the people I had to talk to only spoke Spanish,” Picus said. “So I was no help at all.”
Until she was.
“One morning before a meeting, Gloria was speaking to a journalist and asked me, ‘Joy, what’s the Spanish word for ‘bridge’?” Picus said. “And I thought, ‘You’re asking me?’ I closed my eyes, and said ‘puente’? And we both laughed hard!”
Few took more of Molina’s barbs than former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was best man at her wedding and described himself as “Gloria’s little brother.”
“Once I became speaker and once I became mayor, I almost became the big brother,” Villaraigosa said. “But I still wasn’t the big brother. Instead of trying to talk to me about [things], she was raising her voice, talking down to me. After that, I’d call Alma [Martinez, Molina’s longtime chief of staff] and say, ‘Man, she’s a piece of work. I want to help her. I’m going to help her. But she won’t let me talk.’ ”
Six months before he left office, Molina told Villaraigosa she wanted to honor him at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes’ first gala. “It seemed so incongruous after the way she always treated me,” he said. But when he showed up, every table had a booklet about his life and a mini-shoebox to commemorate one of his first jobs.
“It was very emotional, it was a big surprise. It was typical Gloria.”
Martinez’s Molina memory dated to 1976, when she and some of her classmates at Sacred Heart of Mary High School in Montebello volunteered for Jimmy Carter’s presidential run, for which Molina headed Latino outreach. During an event in Hollywood, she tasked Henry Lozano, a legendary Eastside consigliere to politicians, to get dinner for Martinez and other volunteers.
“He was supposed to bring good food, but he brought something ridiculous,” Martinez said. “Gloria was like, ‘What, you didn’t bring anything warm and nice? Go get something better for these chickies.’ She would not accept the fact that there was not going to have properly fed volunteers.”
Molina wasn’t as persnickety in her own life. In 2009, Molina and about a dozen of her family members traveled to Washington, D.C., for Barack Obama’s inauguration. “We got one of those big passenger vans from Rent-a-Wreck, and the windows were held down with duct tape,” said Bertha Molina Mejia, Gloria’s sister. “She drove — if you’re in the car with her, she’s always the driver.”
They headed to one of the presidential balls, and Molina’s family begged her not to park their van with the valet. She ignored their pleas, and pulled up to the valet right in time for the window to fall out.
“We tell her, ‘Gloria, this is embarrassing,’” Bertha continued. “We all jump out of the van, right in front of all these people in line, beautifully decked out. Gloria walks out with her head up, and said, ‘Let’s get in line.’ I pretended that we fit in. She never acted.”
One of Molina’s biggest political allies and rivals was Zev Yaroslavsky, who was with her on the City Council and Board of Supervisors for 24 years. Although both Democrats, their clashes made for great political theater. “It was like a brother and sister relationship,” he said. “If she trusted your competence and your word was good, you had a good relationship with her. If you crossed her once, it was curtains.”
When the two were termed out in 2014, they exchanged gifts at their final supervisor meeting. He gave Molina a painting of her; she gifted him a quilt done in the form of a crossword puzzle complete with clues about his career. Yaroslavsky and his family use it to this day.
“When I saw her for the last time,” he joked, “I told Gloria, ‘Even if I try to get you out of my head, I sleep with you every day.’ There’s a reason we’re all talking about her. It’s not just because she was the first Latina. It’s because she was Gloria Molina.”
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