Truly Raised by a Village
Mónica’s commitment to helping others reflects her experience growing up in her family and community. This strong support base allowed her to challenge the status quo and pursue her dreams. Mónica was born and raised in the proud working-class neighborhood of East Los Angeles with her four siblings. In 1955, her parents, Manuel and Guillermina, immigrants from Mexico, met at Stevenson Junior High School. Their families came to America looking for opportunity and a better life.
Guillermina was raised by her two tías (aunts), Dolores and Aniceta, after her own mother died before her second birthday. Dolores and Aniceta sacrificed their own dreams and education to raise Guillermina, even borrowing money and spending their life savings to settle in Boyle Heights. Once here, Dolores worked cleaning box cars on the Sante Fe Railroad and Aniceta worked as a salesperson at the May Company Department Store in Downtown L.A. They dedicated their lives to raise Guillermina.
Manuel was the oldest of 7 children. His parents and siblings settled in Boyle Heights. Manuel earned his G.E.D. after earning credits at Belmont, Roosevelt and Garfield night schools. At 17 years old, Manuel took a factory job in the City of Vernon, making furniture to help support the family. Manuel worked there for 38 years, supplementing his income with work as a mechanic and in construction while Guillermina raised their children and worked intermittently. Together, their focus was on raising children with love and expectations.
The Garcías lived near their grandparents, cousins, godparents, extended family and tons of other Latino immigrant families who formed a community that was rooted in relationship and service. It was a village that looked out for each other and taught Monica the values of hard work, family, community, tradition, and social responsibility.
The entire community felt more like a family. We all knew one another. We celebrated, struggled and learned together. To me, at that age, East L.A. was awesome, full of possibility. – Mónica García.
Finding her calling helping others.
From an early age, Mónica was curious about the world around her. She experienced adventures through school activities, volunteering and expanding her awareness of community. Mónica recalls begging her mother to take her to the 1981 Youth Day at the Los Angeles City Hall where she met Mayor Tom Bradley. With a smile on her face, Mónica remembers “I had this overwhelming feeling that it was meant for me to be there and join the voices of student leaders.”
But Mónica didn’t just participate, Mónica rolled up her sleeves and got to work to empower herself and others. At 13 she learned the saying “People tend to support what they, themselves create,” and that made sense to her. She served as school president for high school and grammar school, showing early on a penchant for service and leadership. Monica’s leadership was not limited to campus, on her 16th birthday she registered at East Los Angeles College to volunteer in the 1984 Olympics and was stationed at the Convention Center that served as the Press Center. That same year, during a random trip to the local store, 16-year-old Mónica met a volunteer from the Southwest Voter Registration Project who was registering people to vote. Typical Monica, she volunteered to help on the weekends for two years. She was inspired by community service and appreciated that it exposed her to skill-building, people and civic engagement that increased wellness in her community.
After High School, Mónica attended UC Berkeley, where her sense of public service grew even more. But it was also at Berkeley where she experienced a major challenge in her life. A mix of culture shock, the passing of her two grandmothers and doubt resulted in Mónica struggling in her first semester, earning a 0.045 GPA and considering dropping out of college. “I questioned if belonged there. I saw only a handful of people who looked like me. I wondered if I have overestimated what I could achieve. I knew Berkeley needed to learn about me and people like me. Mexican-American students at Berkeley were just 0.07% of the student body,” Mónica recalls.
But Mónica did not give up. She refused to allow her family’s hard work and sacrifice go to waste. She showed grit, ganas and forged ahead and emerged even stronger and more committed to making the world a better place. She began to really focus on the importance of access and opportunities for all, especially for first generation students like her. These experiences and obstacles made Mónica even stronger and more committed to create changes for the next generation.
The Relentless Warrior for Justice
After graduating from UC Berkeley, Mónica earned her master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Southern California. Before that, she worked for Volunteers of America’s Talent Search Program as an academic advisor at Foshay Learning Center and Edison Middle School in LA Unified. It was there that Mónica felt she could change lives and systems. She found her passion in connecting public service and education. She began to connect the struggles she saw among students in her Eastside communities to those of immigrants, Latino, Asian and African Americans students in South LA. At the core it was time to face the racial and economic privilege with the public school system and Mónica decided to help reform LAUSD.
Having grown up in the same Eastside communities that walked out of high schools in 1968 in protest of unequal conditions, Mónica realized that while some of the rhetoric from the school district towards students of color and low-income families had changed, the district was still failing many of our students. In 2006, Mónica ran for and won a seat on the L.A. School Board, becoming only the third Latina to serve on the board in its 155-year history. She was honored to represent families and communities who carried on the demand for quality education and 100% graduation.
Since her election to the board in June 2006, Mónica has successfully championed a change in attitude and behavior at the largest school district in the country with an elected board. Together with the community, she called for changes that would offer students smaller, more personalized settings and that give school sites the autonomy they need to prepare students for college and careers. She led the campaign to pass a $7 billion school bond, the largest in US history. Her efforts led to the construction of 131 new schools, adding more than 125,000 new seats for students and hundreds of thousands of jobs. In addition, these funds created opportunities to leverage much-needed health and human services through the successful $50 million Wellness Center Initiative.
Mónica’s role at LAUSD was historic. She stayed above the rhetoric and empty promises while demanding the district serve all students and raise standards everywhere. Mónica embraced the student, parent, and community call for a plan to overhaul failing schools and raise expectations of the entire system. Monica also built a network of grassroots parents, students, labor, business and community leaders who advised her and helped push to improve our local public schools.
Her work paid off. Since leading the charge of education reform at LAUSD graduation rates are up, college applications and acceptance are up, and overall expectations are up. The district also finally began to diversify as thousands of people of color became teachers, administrators and principals for the first time ever. In fact, as the graduates of 2019 crossed the stage, she thanked their parents for trusting and partnering with the LA Unified. “Many of these graduates today began kindergarten the year I joined the school board.” Overtime, we have changed ourselves and the LA Unified. There is still much to do, historically underserved communities and students are calling on the district to Close the Opportunity Gap, increase Equity and increase Restorative Justice programs.
LAUSD was like a gigantic ocean tanker ten times the size of the titanic moving fast and in the wrong direction. It took decades of demands, and we are by no means done, but we have turned around a system of success for some at the expense of success for all. -Mónica Garcia
Mónica, like most first generation children, was raised understanding that those before her had sacrificed and struggled for her benefit. She benefited from the fight for civil rights and gender equality every day of her life and has committed to pay it forward. She is a loving, caring leader who is relentless about interrupting poverty, increasing safety, and empowering people. She has integrity, courage, grit, and has demonstrated that she is willing to fight for those not included in opportunities and wellness. She is someone who listens and seeks advice of residents and community leaders. More importantly, she has demonstrated a willingness to serve the most vulnerable in our community, tackle the toughest issues and produce a track record of success. That is what we need on the City Council – a doer, a trailblazer and community builder.