As a girl, Gloria Molina served as interpreter between her Spanish-speaking parents and the outside world.
On an apartment-hunting trip with them, the 9-year-old had doors slammed in her face by managers who refused to rent to the large Mexican family. And at school, Molina, the eldest of 10 children, was punished for speaking Spanish, even to the newly arrived students who spoke no other language.
It would not be the last time that Molina faced discrimination or had a door slammed in her face on her way to becoming Los Angeles' first Latina council member.
While attending East Los Angeles College during the 1960s Chicano student movement, Molina typed and mimeographed flyers, painted posters, cooked menudo for fund-raisers. But when she dared to ask why women were not allowed into the student group's executive meetings, the men told her to "take a walk," she recalled recently.
Molina's 1982 successful bid for the state Assembly proved the biggest battle of her political career. As a Latina, Molina challenged not only the Anglo status quo, but Los Angeles' Latino leadership who told her a woman could never win in a Latino district.
Discrimination--whether ethnic or sexual--is old hat to Molina. "I don't let that stand in my way anymore," she said. "I don't feel I have to take a back seat to anybody."
Supporters laud Molina's strong, independent style, while critics say her stubbornness is a handicap in the give-and-take of political compromise. But no one disputes that her elections have opened doors, particularly for Latinas.
As a councilwoman representing a predominantly Latino and largely poor constituency, Molina remains intent on speaking out for those who have no voice and on opening doors for them.
"Discrimination may not be as overt as it used to be. There are no longer certain buses we can't get on, bars we can't go in, housing we can't rent;" there are no longer signs that say "keep out"--but there might as well be, she said.
Latinos and blacks remain at the bottom of the economic ladder, unemployment is high, the high school drop-out rate even higher. Health care, child care and low-income housing are dismally inadequate. "If that's not discrimination," she said, "I don't know what is."
For the first time, there are two Latinos on the 15-member City Council. But it took a court order to accomplish this, Molina noted. A similar lawsuit charging that the county's supervisorial districts are gerrymandered to prevent the election of a Latino supervisor was filed in August. The Board of Supervisors--five Anglo men representing a constituency that is one-fourth Latino and growing--has vowed to fight the discrimination suit.
To Molina, discrimination is "most overt of all" in the political world.
Government has done little to encourage voting among Latinos, she said. In her own predominantly Latino district, as few as 28 voters per precinct have turned out for some elections.
"If it were any other situation where such a large block of eligible voters were not participating, I think (civic leaders) would make a stronger effort. . . . But this one's just treated as, 'Well, that's just the way they are. They're just not interested in voting.' "
"Consequently," Molina said, Latinos "have no voice in the political process."
Molina said she has worked to ensure that Latinos get their share of city contracts, that they are represented on executive search panels and are considered for top management jobs, and that her constituents receive their share of municipal services.
"Now there's someone here who's going to make sure they have an open door," she said.
The basis of discrimination is becoming primarily economic, even more so than ethnic or racial, Molina said. "Professional Latinos and blacks are going to do all right," but the poor are going to get poorer, she said.
There are local solutions to problems of discrimination, but they are not being created--not by the school board, not by the county or the city, she said.
Added to this is the city's changing demographics. In her own council district, Molina often finds herself mediating disputes between Latino residents and their newer Asian neighbors. Encounters between groups from different cultures who speak different languages can sometimes spark racial tensions, she said.
"I try to get them to work in some kind of harmony," she said, in some instances sending a staff translator to help smooth over misunderstandings. Others times, Molina admonishes Latinos who she feels are judging their neighbors harshly.
"At block meetings, it's almost like educating your own family about discrimination. I have to correct them and remind them of the discrimination we've faced," she said.
Molina said she is dealing with only the tip of "a real problem."
The term "a diverse Los Angeles" has become a popular catch-phrase for the city, she said. But "too many people use (it) without really honoring or respecting it.
"All the major corporations talk about it but don't make a real investment in (addressing) how this diverse population is going to function together.
"They really need to look at the future and at how discrimination is going to operate because, if they think it's going away, they're sadly mistaken."