By: Al Ballesteros

It was 1993 and Gloria Molina had become a Los Angeles County Supervisor representing the Eastern Section of Los Angeles County just two years earlier. The AIDS epidemic was horribly advancing in full force, continuing its spread into Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles and the East County. The initial areas of the county hit hardest, such as West Hollywood, Hollywood and Long Beach continued to have growing case numbers but Latinos becoming HIV positive were on the rise and more likely to live in areas removed from these three initial epicenters.

In a county owned community center located on Sunol Drive across from Obregon Park in the heart of East Los Angeles was an AIDS Program struggling to care for increasing numbers of sick patients. It was the only medical program for AIDS patients in East Los Angeles. In fact, even as the east region of the county had several thousand persons living with AIDS, the AIDS Program had just seven employees and was taking care of roughly 220 AIDS patients. The staff included a physician, a couple of medical assistants and not much more.

The ELA AIDS Program didn’t have enough funding especially given the increasing numbers of Latinos getting infected with the disease, getting sick and seeking help. Local politicians and community leaders were openly hostile to the efforts to expand HIV services in the center. Even though Los Angeles County was receiving huge financial support via the federal government from the recently enacted Ryan White Care Act, those resources were not making their way to ELA. The only other options for sick AIDS patients on the Eastside were to travel into town to the overburdened LAC+USC 5p21 outpatient AIDS clinic which served the whole county or they had to go to Hollywood.

The East LA AIDS Program operated in “cramped” space in the center. AIDS patients had to share a small doctor’s office waiting room along with sick children and others even as their immune systems were compromised. If patients needed medications, case management, emotional support groups, food services and homecare they had to travel to Hollywood, Downtown or Pasadena to receive these other services.

Even as this need for space was so critical for the East LA AIDS Program, there were large conference rooms on the second floor of the center that were only used periodically by the various other tenants and community groups in the area. Unfortunately, the center managers and other community groups would not give up any of that space for use by the AIDS Program.

Providing basic HIV education was a challenge too. In the early 1990s East Los Angeles was not such an accepting place for people living with AIDS: The community was fearful of the spread of the disease, questioning whether it could be caught from touching common objects. There was homophobia and the influences of organized religion made it difficult to operate. Flyers that would be placed in the Center announcing classes to learn about HIV transmission were quickly taken down and discarded. Nothing printed suggesting anything related to sex or referencing gay and bisexual activity could be placed in the center. The program had to avoid “offending” the general community.

Enter Gloria Molina. Because of all these barriers, the East LA AIDS Program reached out to the new County Supervisor Gloria Molina for help. Perhaps it could have been easier to avoid the AIDS and Gay issue for a new Supervisor with lots of other pressing issues on the plate. There had to have been quite a lot of push back from the community when Gloria fully backed the AIDS program.

Gloria Molina recognized the need for a robust AIDS program in East Los Angeles and how its development was an issue of equity. She believed in equal access to county resources and felt that it was wrong for people living on the Eastside to be required to travel to Hollywood for services which should be available and received in their community.
Gloria Molina’s staff met with the center manager and ultimately freed up the second floor’s two large conference rooms that were converted to offices for use by the AIDS Program. These new offices were used to register patients for free AIDS medications, avoiding them having to travel to Hollywood or Pasadena. Mental health and support groups, food and nutrition programs were housed in these additional offices along with a lot of other services people needed.

Throughout the 1990s and as the epidemic continued to spread more medical capacity was needed. To respond, the AIDS Program applied for various grants to increase staff and to develop more community information and education programs. Gloria Molina would provide letters of support and most likely made phone calls to ensure increased funding for services in general. Gloria would always sign the support letters herself with her classic large signature so funders would know it was not just a stamp. Gloria Molina also made numerous visits to the center and the AIDS Program to show her support for the services and the clients.

Gloria Molina’s support caused the East LA AIDS Program to grow to a size where it made a significant impact then and still today. In 2003, just ten years after Gloria Molina’s support was requested, the East LA AIDS Program had grown to more than 100 employees, up from seven just ten years earlier. 1,200 patients with AIDS were being served, up from 220 ten years earlier. The program also was made more robust, offering mental health, homecare, a food back, an educational library, a women’s AIDS prevention program, a youth HIV prevention program, and access to medical clinical trials so people on the Eastside could have the cutting-edge medical care only available in university-based study sites or Westside high end medical practices.

Dedicated staff of the East LA AIDS program actually put the services together. This group hired the doctors, bought the food for the clients, provided the rides to and from medical visits and ensured other needs were met. But ensuring equitable public funding and dealing with the community politics could not be removed from what it took to make all this happen. Having a County Supervisor stand up for an AIDS program when it meant prioritizing it over other community services was huge.

The East LA AIDS Program in the Gloria Molina community center saved many lives. Today, many of those patients served in the early 1990s in her center are in the late 50s and early 60s thirty years later. They lived and are even thriving today. Gloria’s help also caused countless others to avoid getting the disease because she enabled resources to be placed in her district that helped educate the community and which paid for HIV testing and prevention services. Having a County Supervisor give the “thumbs up” to the distribution of important HIV information about high-risk groups and modes of transmission made information widely available in her community centers for pick up by residents.
Gloria made a difference and did these things without much recognition although the AIDS Program always expressed its appreciation. She saved lives and improved the lives of persons with AIDS. This is the Gloria Molina I will always remember and love.

Gloria Molina (May 31, 1948 – May 14, 2023) served as a member of the Los Angeles City Council, the California State Assembly, and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Molina passed away on May 14, 2023 after a three-year battle with cancer. She was 74 years of age just 17 days before her 75thbirthday.

Molina was considered a trailblazer and helped revitalize Los Angeles’s Grand Park and brought together the LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes project and has been said to have paved the way for future women and Latina politicians. Grand Park in Los Angeles was re-named Gloria Molina Grand Park after her passing by a motion introduced by Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis of the First District.