The man who would become the 41st Mayor of Los Angeles was born Antonio Ramon Villar, Jr. A third-generation American on his mother’s side, his grandfather immigrated from Mexico early in the 20th century. Young Antonio Villar grew up in City Terrace, one of the neighborhoods making up the unincorporated area of East Los Angeles. His childhood was a difficult one. His father drank to excess and became violent when drunk. Villar, Sr. left the family when young Antonio was five years of age, leaving his mother to raise Antonio and his three siblings on her own. Although the family lacked many material comforts, Mrs. Villar instilled in all her children a respect for education and hard work, and a keen sense of justice and social responsibility. Young Antonio delivered newspapers and worked at other odd jobs to help support the family. At 15, he left his job at a Safeway grocery store to join a picket line supporting the United Farm Workers, who were leading a boycott against the growers of table grapes in California. Although he knew little of their cause at the time, he identified with the farm workers and their struggle. He later participated in the organized walkouts of Mexican-American high school students, protesting discrimination in the school system and the larger society.

At age 16, a benign tumor in his spinal column temporarily paralyzed him. When he recovered and returned to his Catholic high school, he was no longer able to participate in organized sports and became increasingly alienated from school, his peers and society in general. By his own account, suppressed anger from his father’s abusive behavior contributed to his violent temper, and the teenage Antonio increasingly responded to frustration and difficult situations by lashing out violently. Expelled from Cathedral High School, he transferred to a public high school but quickly dropped out again when he was assigned to vocational classes rather than the college preparatory courses he had taken at Cathedral. He continued getting into fights and appeared to be caught in a downward spiral. His mother eventually persuaded him to return to school, where he caught the attention of a sympathetic English teacher, Herman Katz. With Katz’s encouragement and support, he took extra classes in the evenings and graduated on schedule. He entered East Los Angeles College, where his grades improved and he was able to transfer to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

At UCLA, Tony Villar, as he was then known, was active in student politics and the movement opposing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. After graduating with a degree in history, he studied at the People’s College of Law, but failed to pass the California bar exam. With his ambitions for a legal career on hold, he became a field representative and organizer for the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA). Over the next few years he won a reputation in labor circles as a gifted advocate. He became President of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees, and of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1987, Antonio Villar married Corina Raigosa. The couple elected to merge their surnames, and would henceforth be known as Antonio and Corina Villaraigosa.

As a rising star in the labor movement, Antonio Villaraigosa became a familiar face to the city’s elected officials. Villaraigosa’s friends in labor and local government had long urged him to consider running for public office, and the introduction of term limits to the California state legislature in the 1990s created just such an opportunity. In 1994 he entered the race for an open Assembly seat representing much of Northeast Los Angeles. Although he was opposed by the outgoing Assembly member and his allies in Sacramento, Villaraigosa won an upset victory in the Democratic primary and was easily elected in the general election. Term limits forced him to leave the Assembly in 2000; the following year he made his first run for Mayor of Los Angeles. He came in first in the initial round of voting, but was defeated by fellow Democrat James Hahn in a run-off.

In 2005 Villaraigosa prepared for a rematch. This time, he finished first in both the primary and the run-off elections, and on July 1, 2005, he was sworn in as the 41st Mayor of Los Angeles. Although the city was founded under Spanish rule and, along with the rest of California, was part of Mexico until 1848, Villaraigosa was the first person of Latin American descent to serve as mayor since 1872. His election was widely seen as an affirmation of the growing political power of Latinos, not only in Los Angeles and California, but in the United States as a whole.

Learn more at Achievement – Antonio Villaraigosa

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