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Early Challenges, Different Paths, Same Goal

Antonio Villaraigosa began his teen years on unsteady ground. In the heady world of politics, he found a salve for his childhood wounds.

May 08, 2005|Tina Daunt | 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.

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