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The Education of a Mayor

By Ajay Singh

Published Jan 1, 2006 12:00 AM

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What fuels the passionate, political, perpetual-motion machine that is Antonio Villaraigosa? One of the early sparks, say L.A.'s first Latino mayor in 133 years, was UCLA.

Barely a day after Los Angeles elected Antonio Villaraigosa as its first Latino mayor in 133 years, a San Fernando Valley public school was set to welcome the peripatetic 52-year-old son of the city. But fights erupted among students early that morning, and school authorities locked the campus as rumors spread that the flare-ups were racially motivated.

The mayor was advised to cancel his visit. He insisted on going – and told a crowd of irate parents and reporters gathered at the scene that he would have “zero tolerance” for racial violence.

"I'm not going to be a mayor who hides under a rock," says 52-year-old Antonio Villaraigosa. If there's an issue, he's on it. A forum, he'll use it. A microphone, he'll take it.

Villaraigosa rushed to Chatsworth during the El Nino-fed wildfires last fall. Made the covers of both Time and Newsweek. Got the nod as Grand Marshall of the Hollywood Christmas Parade. And when he read about downtown L.A.'s despair-filled Skid Row, the mayor wasted no time checking it out himself to see what he could do.

Certainly, Villaraigosa is a refreshing change for a city that's rarely been led by the kind of populist action heroes places like New York put in office. What transformed a cocky barrio kid into the standard bearer for 21st Century activist, progressive politics? "The answer, to a significant degree, is UCLA," says Villaraigosa, '77.

1970's Westwood shaped his civic consciousness.

"UCLA was my first introduction to the diversity that's Los Angeles and to the world of books," he says--adding that he grew up in an area of East L.A. populated almost exclusively by minority groups, mostly Latinos.

"I was a high school dropout," the mayor points out. His first memory of campus was taking his longtime friend, California Senator Gilbert Cedillo '79, (D-Los Angeles) to Upward Bound classes there (the federal program that provides instruction to high school students from low income or first-generation families. "I'd go to the library and wait for him, usually for three or four hours, and I would read," he recalls. "When I got back into school, UCLA always seemed like the place I wanted to go."

"Someone opened the door for me. And I felt the responsibility to keep that door open for others."

Villaraigosa in City Hall, shortly after his victory.
The mayoral election energized Los Angeles and
propelled the politician into the national spotlight.

It was a turbulent time for the country, city and campus. And Villaraigosa's UCLA years were marked by activist politics. The passionate young Bruin from East L.A. led demonstrations almost daily. From protests against the Vietnam War to marches in support of ethnic studies and the rights of farm workers, Villaraigosa had his hands in everything. Not infrequently he took on the University. "They had begun to cut back on admissions to minorities and women, and I was one of those led the fight to change that."

"Do something to make people's lives a little better."

UCLA also "solidified a trend that (started) when I was about 15-of being involved in the community," says Villaraigosa. That in turn prepared him for a life in public service. He believes "Going to school with so many bright people and great teachers gave me a thirst for inquiry and knowledge that I'll keep with me for the rest of my life."

Villaraigosa applauds the university's ongoing and expanding involvement with the city through community group partnerships. "All of us want UCLA to not only be a leading institution of higher learning that happens to be in Los Angeles, but also a leading institution that sees as its destiny the growth and the future of Los Angeles."

"From City Terrace to City Hall, a short way but a vast distance."

The eldest of four children, Villaraigosa was born Antionio Villar in 1953. He grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in City Terrance, a low-income neighborhood in East L.A., with his parents and three sisters.

Villaraigosa as a graduate
of Roosevelt High School in
Boyle Heights—one of
just 26% of the kids who
didn't drop out that year.

His father left home and remarried when his son was 5 years old. Years later, Viillaraigosa discovered that his father had had another son whom he named Antonio. Feeling rejected, he combined his surname with that of his wife after marrying schoolteacher Corina Raigosa in 1987. "Villar" became "Villariaigosa."

It was his mother, Natalia Delgado, who held the family together. Tough and enterprising, she gave her four children hope and a strong work ethic. But growing up without a father made Antonio rebellious. He got into fights, got a "Born to Raise Hell" tattoo, got kicked out of one school and dropped out of another. But thanks to his mother's support and some timely mentoring from an English teacher who recognized his intelligence and drive, he finished high school and attended East Los Angeles Community College before transferring to UCLA in 1972.

Politician, fundraiser, coalition builder, uniter.

But Villaraigosa struggled at UCLA, too. "He had to work hard to do well," recalls Raymond Paredes, a retired English professor at UCLA who taught the future mayor Chicano literature.

After graduating from UCLA with a history degree in 1977, Villaraigosa attended People's College of Law, a low-tuition L.A. night school where he assisted immigrants, workers and tenants who had legal difficulties. In 1994, a year after serving as president of the ACLU of Southern California, he was elected to the state assembly. Just four years later, he became speaker of assembly speaker, one of the three most powerful positions in state government.

Full speed ahead

Given California's budget woes, can the mayor realistically hope to place an extra 1,600 police officers on L.A.'s streets, as he has promised? Can he improve public schools when he cannot legally assert direct control over them?

"The risky but exciting thing about this mayor is that people will have a lot of expectations from him on everything from neighborhood issues to business," says Ralph Sonenshein, a political science professor at California State University, Fullerton, who has written extensively about L.A.'s mayors. "They're going to keep an energetic mayor on the run."

This story was edited for easier on-line reading. It is shorter than the print version and includes additional sub-heads.