Columnist Gustavo Arellano writes in the Los Angeles Times, “Gloria Molina, you were always a chingona. L.A. will miss you.” The former LA supervisor is an absolute badass, no question.
Molina’s recent announcement that she has terminal cancer sparked headlines and, then, personal reflections on what a juggernaut she has been in Los Angeles politics and beyond. Her Facebook page records scores of thanks from constituents and co-workers.
The Huntington is proud to hold Molina’s papers—a trove of 1,300 boxes—as they document an important swath of California history and the legacy of a woman who broke barrier after barrier in the political and social sphere. The collection comprises correspondence, photographs, news clips, briefing books, faxes and flyers, memoranda, meeting agendas, and handwritten notes, among other materials.
Molina served as LA County supervisor from 1991 to 2014, at which time she donated her papers to The Huntington. Before that, she served on the California State Assembly and LA City Council; she was the first Latina elected to both.
Among her more visible accomplishments: She fought against the construction of a prison in East Los Angeles, alongside the Mothers of East Los Angeles. She championed the creation of Grand Park (recently renamed Gloria Molina Grand Park), the Plaza de Cultura y Artes, as well as Metro’s Gold Line extension to East LA.
She fought vigorously against injustices in the form of bad policy, and Proposition 187 was perhaps the most public—and divisive—of them all. The 1994 initiative on California’s general election ballot sought to deny health care, education, and other public services to undocumented immigrants living in the state. A knee-jerk and extreme approach to immigration issues, it was never clear how such a law would be implemented in a manner that wouldn’t, as Molina put it, “turn teachers, doctors, and other service workers into INS informants.”
Her papers document her badassery—out in front, engaging in fundraisers, press interviews, and meetings with local and national organizations. Drafts of speeches, schedules, press briefing materials, and memos characterizing both opposition and support for the measure underscore the frenzy that played out among Molina, her staff, and activist organizations working feverishly to turn the tide of overwhelming support for 187.
“We couldn’t afford to put together the commercials that were being broadcast,” Molina said during a 2020 KQED program. “So we held news conferences and explained how it was going to be a crisis. But no matter what we presented in facts to counter the commercials, mainstream media wasn’t really telling those stories. They liked the conflict and not the implications of it.”
The measure passed by a wide margin—59% to 41%—but it was never implemented; a federal court ultimately ruled it unconstitutional.
What the Molina collection at The Huntington provides is an opportunity for time travel—back to that period; back to the tense run-up to the election day on Nov. 8, 1994; back to the confused aftermath as county officials tried to figure out what the proposition’s passage meant; and back to the lawsuits filed and the struggle to ultimately defeat it in court. The collection provides a front-row seat to the messy process that is American politics.
But apart from the policy-oriented documents, the flyers and the faxes, there’s also the personal: letter after letter written to Molina by everyday men, women, and even schoolchildren, consumed with worry about what would happen should the proposition pass. One young girl wrote, “Thank you for caring about the immigrants and about their families,” and went on to express concern that whole families would be torn apart. Said Molina: “It was a harmful initiative promoting a separatist California; people of color, people not. It was a volatile, explosive issue.”
In the end, she said, it was “not just about the undocumented; it was about all of us—people of color—and the majority at the time trying to deny us services to which we were entitled.”
Laura Dominguez is a Ph.D. candidate in history at USC who has been mining the Molina papers for her dissertation. “I was shocked by just how rich her collection is,” she said. She has been looking at materials having to do with a specific matter—the creation of La Plaza de Cultura y Artes. But she was floored by all the other possible research avenues. For instance, she said, “You could also see how she really mentored a generation of Latina and Latino policymakers and philanthropists. Her papers show that she was concerned about the next generation of leaders, and she worked to cultivate them.”
“It matters that her papers are at The Huntington,” Dominguez said. “She was paving the way; having her papers at The Huntington was part of that work.”
To have her papers here for researchers to explore well into the future means giving voice not just to the federal, state, and county officials in her orbit, but to local activists, her staff, and community leaders as well as regular workaday constituents writing in to share their concerns. For all that Molina’s papers say about her political career, there is an underlying chorus of voices, helping to round out the story of an extraordinary life of service.
Susan Turner-Lowe is the vice president for Communications and Marketing at The Huntington.