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Remembering Gloria Molina As A Champion For Others, Great Friend And Master Quilter

Illustration of a woman sitting in front of a sewing machine working a quilt that flows down from table to the ground and takes over the lower part of the rectangular frame. The illustration has red, blue, green, and yellow patches with the Virgen de Guadalupe, a woman at podium, a Dia de Muertos calavera, two women embracing in front of a hospital, a woman holding a little boy in her lap, and a woman laying on a grassy patch reading. The background behind the woman sewing the quilt is a light blue.
(Jesse Jaramillo
for LAist)
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Gloria Flores, a retired daycare center operator, has been making quilts for decades. Nearly every room of her home in Alhambra has a quilt, made by diligently sewing together different pieces of cloth.

In the ‘90s, Flores went to a neighborhood craft store in search of purple fabric. She needed it for a wall quilt, but she wasn’t having much luck.

At the store, Flores wandered over to one of the rooms where sewing groups usually meet. There, she came across a stack of material. As she flipped through it, she saw a fabric that was just the right shade and pulled it out from the stack to admire it.

“That’s mine,” a woman said, startling Flores. “But you can have it.”

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“OK, thanks,” Flores muttered, slightly annoyed. Then she paid for the fabric and left the store.

Once outside, a friend drew her close: “Don't you know who she is?” she asked. Flores said no.

“It’s Gloria Molina!”

To that, Flores responded: “Who in the heck is Gloria Molina?”

A woman wearing reading glasses stands behind a large sewing machine. Behind her, a shelf holds dozens of spools of thread.
Gloria Flores, a retired daycare center operator, met Gloria Molina at a fabric store. Their decades-long friendship centered around quilting.
(Samanta Helou Hernandez

Flores learned that Molina — who died Sunday at 74 after being diagnosed with terminal cancer — was a political powerhouse who broke several glass ceilings: She was the first Latina in the state Legislature, the first Latina on the L.A. City Council and the first Latina on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

How a quilters' club was born

But Flores is not big on politics. For her, Molina was simply the woman who’d been kind enough to relinquish the fabric she wanted — and a fellow quilter. At a subsequent craft store visit, Molina — who quilted every day to relieve stress — invited Flores to a quilters’ guild in Glendale. And with that, a decades-long friendship bloomed.

The two Glorias went on to co-found a quilter’s group named “Las Pulgas” (The Fleas), which later became “The East Los Angeles Stitchers,” known as TELAS (the acronym means “fabrics” in Spanish). Their goal was to provide a space where Latinas interested in the art form could connect and learn from each other.

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When TELAS began in 2011, the group was small enough to meet at Flores’ home. Today, its 67 members gather twice a month: once in person at the American Legion building in Montebello, and once on Zoom.

A woman with reading glasses works on a quilt using a longarm quilting machine.
Flores works on a quilt for Gloria Molina using her longarm quilting machine. Members of the East Los Angeles Stitchers helped Molina finish quilts for her friends and family.
(Samanta Helou Hernandez

The quilters take their work seriously, using rulers to cut hundreds of pieces of cloth with precision. They pour themselves into everything they make, whether it’s a bedspread for a loved one or a gift for someone in the community.

Philanthropy is at the heart of TELAS, said member Yolanda Barrozo. The group has made and given away hundreds of quilts, including tiny blankets for babies in intensive care during the pandemic.

Barrozo, an L.A. County Probation Department secretary who joined TELAS in its early days, said Molina and the others helped her become a proficient quilter. “I was truly a beginner,” she recalled. “I couldn’t even sew straight.”

A woman with brown skin tone stands in daylight, carrying a colorful quilt hanging over her arms.
Yolanda Barrozo, a member of the East Los Angeles Stitchers, credits Gloria Molina with showing her to speak up and be confident in herself.
(Samanta Helou Hernandez

How Molina empowered Latinas

TELAS puts a premium on work that celebrates its members’ heritage. At her home in Alhambra, Flores keeps Latino-inspired prints — including textiles with “calaveras y cempasúchil”(skulls and marigolds) for Day of the Dead — in a special cupboard. Likewise, one of Barrozo’s favorite quilts features an intricate piñata pattern designed by Molina.

The quilters credit Molina with giving them the direction to elevate their work and empower fellow Latinas. Flores said when the group worked on a classic quilting pattern called “Sunbonnet Sue,” Molina instructed them to give each faceless girl a professional title, like “la profesora,” “la pintora” or “la abogada” (the professor, the painter, or the attorney).

Molina liked to see “women fulfilled, accomplished,” she added.

TELAS members say Molina routinely pushed them out of their comfort zone, encouraging them to try tricky patterns, design their own, and lead workshops.

She pushed them in other ways as well. When TELAS organized a trip to Mexico, Molina went up to Barrozo and asked: “‘Are you going with us?’”

Barrozo said she wasn’t sure. “‘You should sign up,’” she remembered Molina telling her. “‘You should come.’”

That night, Barrozo went home and told her husband: “Gloria invited me personally, so I’m going.”

Under Molina’s wing, Barrozo’s first trip to Mexico included a tour of the country’s bustling capital: She marveled at the lush outdoor courtyard at Frida Kahlo’s house in Coyoacán; snapped photos amid Teotihuacán’s ruins; and had a mariachi serenade her in the ancient canals of Xochimilco.

And because Barrozo speaks Spanish, Molina signed her up to lead a quilting workshop in the state of Puebla.

“I used to be really shy and quiet,” said Barrozo. “[Molina] showed me to speak up, to be confident in myself ... Those are life skills that no one can take from me.”

A newspaper's front page, with a photo of women proudly holding up quilts. The headline reads: "Cinco de Mayo Quilters' Showcase Celebrates TELAS de la Vida."
An article about the East Los Angeles Stitchers, which Gloria Molina co-founded.
(Samanta Helou Hernandez

How to behave when your friend is famous

Being Gloria Molina’s friend came with perks. Once, after a TELAS meeting, the group decided to grab a bite at the San Antonio Winery. But when they got there, said Barrozo, the line to get in seemed endless. Glumly, the hungry quilters prepared to wait.

Then, one of the restaurant staff members noticed Molina. Suddenly, a special table opened up.

It was sort of like being friends with a celebrity, said Flores. When she and Molina went out to eat, the latter’s constituents often came up to their table, asking for a photo.

Molina always obliged, said Flores. “I would just get out of the way.”

She always gave the people time. She really cared about them.
— Yolanda Barrozo

Barrozo also remembered a time when TELAS would meet at the East L.A. public library.

“People in the community would pass by, and they would look inside and see that she was in there,” she said. “And they would just come in — we would be in there sewing, and they would just walk in: ‘Gloria, señora Gloria!’”

Barrozo watched Molina from a distance, curious to see how she would react.

“She never made a face like if the people bothered her or anything,” said Barrozo. Once Molina’s constituents left, she’d simply get back to work.

“She always gave the people time,” Barrozo added. “She really cared about them.”

Two colorfully framed photos of groups of women with brown skin tone.
Photos of the East Los Angeles Stitchers, previously known as "Las Pulgas," on display in Flores's home quilting studio.
(Samanta Helou Hernandez

Molina was known for her deep friendships

Molina also cared deeply about her friends, said Flores. Once, the lauded politician called her “out-of-the-blue,” inviting her to the Latin GRAMMYs. The legendary Mexican ranchera singer Vicente Fernández was set to get an award, and Molina knew Flores was a huge fan.

Flores still gets giddy describing that night. Her idol was seated very close to them at the event, “probably two tables down,” she said. Later, Molina made a quilt featuring the artist and gave it to Flores as a birthday present.

Over the years, the two Glorias went everywhere together. Molina would often call Flores at the last minute, asking if she was busy that night. The next thing Flores knew, they were at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, Plaza de la Raza, or some other venue.

Flores said she’ll miss those adventures.

But what Flores remembers most is that Molina stood by her side through life’s toughest moments. When she lost her husband to cancer, for instance, Molina helped her deal with her grief.

Molina also helped Flores update a quilt she’d made in honor of her late husband. “She helped me put at the bottom: ‘Mi amor, te voy a extrañar’ (I’ll miss you, my love).”

Per her husband’s request, Flores keeps his ashes in a blue and yellow Talavera urn that was made in Mexico. It was a gift from Molina.

Small quilts are on display, using cloth hangers. One of the designs reads: "Memories are stitched with love."
Nearly every room in Flores' home has a quilt, either for use or display.
(Samanta Helou Hernandez

A vow to keep TELAS alive

In a Facebook post on March 14, 2023, Molina announced that she’d been battling terminal cancer for years, and that it had become very aggressive.

In her post, Molina addressed her friends, family, and community: “You should know that I'm not sad,” she wrote. “I’ve lived a long, fulfilling and beautiful life.”

Molina also updated her profile photo that day. In it, she smiles widely, with a streak of white hair on the left side of her black bob. A multi-colored quilt hangs behind her: neon semi-circles set against a dark background.

Before Molina died, TELAS hosted a quilt show, where members proudly displayed intricate work that she’d designed. By then, her illness was very advanced, so she watched the live stream from home.

“This is one of Gloria’s ‘easy-peasy’ patterns,” said one member, laughing. “It took me four years.”

At the event, TELAS member Patricia Ann Lopez took to the podium and recalled that she and Molina had the same counselor at El Rancho High School. When Lopez told the counselor that she wanted to be a teacher, the counselor said: “Oh, no, honey, college is not for you.” Molina was also told she wasn’t college material.

“Those were the days of really institutionalized racism,” said Lopez.

She paused and added: “I became a teacher . . . and Gloria became a superstar, a nova.”

In the final months of Molina’s life, the TELAS members rushed to help Molina complete nearly 300 quilts she hadn’t finished. Her daughter, Valentina, distributed them to friends and family as parting gifts.

Flores helped Molina complete an “I SPY” quilt for her grandson, Santiago. The quilt, Flores explained, contains everyday items like “balls, crayons, airplanes,” things likely to pique a child’s interest. An adult is meant to curl up with the little one and say, “I spy a red ball,” then wait for the child to find it. Molina presented the quilt to Santiago before saying goodbye.

When Flores went to drop off the quilt at her friend’s home, Molina asked her to keep TELAS alive.

“I mean, we can continue,” said Flores, “that’s her wish. But it will never be the same.”

With a heavy heart, she gave Molina her word.

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