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Antonio Villaraigosa
Antonio Villaraigosa
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Antonio Villaraigosa Interview

Former Mayor of Los Angeles

October 26, 2012
Washington, D.C.

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  Antonio Villaraigosa

Antonio Villaraigosa: First of all, I want to thank you for having me here today and for having this interview.

When did you first know that you wanted to go into public service? What piqued your interest in that?

Antonio Villaraigosa: Let me distinguish public service from elected office. I was 15 years old and I was working at a Safeway and there was a boycott, a picket line in front of the Safeway, and it was a picket line and a boycott against the grapes. United Farmworkers were participating in that boycott. And almost from the very beginning -- I have never worked in the fields, I didn't speak any Spanish, I certainly didn't even totally understand the plight of these workers -- but I understood intuitively that I had to participate. And ever since then, as a high school student, and college, really throughout my life, I have been committed to standing up and speaking out for people who don't have a voice. So I would say I was 15 years old. I never was interested in actually running for office, but I did want to be a change agent. I did want to be part of something bigger than me that empowered people and that made a difference.

Why was that so important to you? What did you see that needed to be changed?

Antonio Villaraigosa: I grew up in a home with a mom who really inculcated in her kids the sense of justice, right and wrong, fairness. This sense of responsibility to family, community, country. And I think early on -- and as I said, even at 15 -- I felt like where there was an injustice, a wrong, it was incumbent on me to be part of righting it, righting the wrong and searching for justice. So I think it has a lot to do with the upbringing. I grew up in a Catholic home. We believed in social justice, and our mom was very spiritual and very much focused on this responsibility that we all have to our families, as I said, to our communities and to our nation.

What person inspired you most when you were young?

Antonio Villaraigosa: I grew up in a home of domestic violence and alcoholism, and with a mom of just unconditional love and this indomitable spirit to overcome. And she gave all of her kids -- all four of her kids, but the three that I grew up with -- she gave us this really sense of self, this strong character that we all have, this belief in the possible. She always emphasized education. She would say to us things like, "Maybe you're poor, but nobody can take away your education. Education is very, very important." So my mom was, without question, the most important influence in my life and the person who I owe the greatest debt of gratitude to. There are a lot of people who have come in my life that I have looked to and look up to, but nobody has had the influence on my life that my mom has.

You spoke of education and how important that was to your mother. Were there any teachers who inspired you, or played a big role in your life?

Antonio Villaraigosa: The other person, the stranger if you will, that I talk about all the time and particularly since I've first ran for office -- I was asked by someone, "Who was an inspiration in your life?" just as you are asking me now -- and of course I started with my mom, and they said, "Yeah, okay, but what about a stranger? Someone else?" And that someone else is Herman Katz. Herman Katz was my teacher at Roosevelt High School. Now let me backtrack for a moment. I went to Catholic school for most of my life. When my mom couldn't afford it, we went to public school. I tell people it was a Catholic school that gave me a foundation, but I was kicked out of high school. I led the walkouts at high school, and I got in a lot of fights and was kind of on a road, a bit lost. So I got kicked out of Catholic school and I went to public school. And even though I was getting college prep classes and scored fairly high on academic tests, back in the 1960s they put you in shop classes.

Going to public school, they put me in shop classes and basic reading classes and basic ed classes. And I dropped out. And then I decided to go back, and I met a teacher who I was taking a basic reading class with, and he realized that I had a little more on the ball than that. And he asked me to take a test, and he said, "You're probably not going to do real well on the test, but I want you to take it anyway." And I guess I aced it or something. And the rest was something I have chronicled over the years, and that was a guy who just pushed me to take the SAT, offered to drive me to take it because I registered late and I was going to have to take it at another school and my car was broken. Wanted to pay for it when I made excuses about I didn't have the money. When I got a fairly high verbal score, wanted me to go to college and just pushed me, pushed me, pushed me. And I have always told the story of Herman Katz, because this was a stranger who didn't know me, but saw something in me and really pushed me to excel. And when I met him, finally, when I was running for office some 23 years after graduating, he didn't remember me. And I always tell people he didn't remember me because he helped so many people. I was just one of many that he just set a high bar for and really pushed. So Herman Katz is someone who is still around, and I talk to him from time to time, and he is still an inspiration. Because -- a little different than my mom, we know your mom would be your inspiration -- this was a stranger, a teacher who dedicated his life to making other lives better. And Herman Katz is his name.

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