April 21, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Dora Padilla, school trustee who crusaded for children and inspired Latinos, dies

It was a tense moment, and the fate of the Alhambra Unified School District’s art and music programs rested in the hands of five elected board members.

The state had taken an axe to the district’s budget, and Steve Perry recalled fearing that there was no way that he and his fellow school board members could avoid putting an end to the programs. He worried that Dora Padilla, a colleague and staunch defender of the arts, would end up being the lone dissenting voice.

But Padilla had a plan. In a shrewd political move, she voted to cut the arts program, knowing it would give her the ability to resurrect the motion. At the very next meeting, Padilla came armed with fiscal ideas on how to trim the district budget while sparing the arts.

The vote to preserve the art programs was unanimous and spoke to not only Padilla’s tenacity but her unshakable dedication to providing a full and rich education for students in the district she helped oversee.

Forever dedicated to schools, students and equal opportunity, Padilla died Jan. 8 while battling COVID-19. She was 86.

“She was one of the kindest women that I’d ever know but she was a fighter for kids,” Perry said. “Kids were always first on her mind.”

Before the longtime trustee made her mark, Padilla, a daughter of Mexican immigrants, worked as a secretary for the architectural firm Barker & Ott and then became a homemaker after marrying Al Padilla — who went on to become a legendary East Los Angeles football coach — and had three children.

Her dedication to her own children’s education foreshadowed her eventual legacy on the school board. The PTA mom started as a volunteer, spending hours inside her children’s kindergarten classroom to help teachers with whatever was necessary. As her children grew, she started leading fundraisers and attending high school football games.

One of her favorite kindergarten stories was when she watched a new teacher cook a pot of pinto beans for a Cinco de Mayo celebration, her daughter Lisa recalled. Padilla watched quietly as the teacher poured the speckled beans into a pot, without rinsing them or picking out the tiny rocks. The class ended up with gritty beans.

Padilla’s experience inside the classroom and on campus helped her see what students needed. She eventually grew frustrated by what she viewed as a lethargic school board and believed she could do better — and so did thousands of community members who voted her into office in 1978. She went on to serve five terms.

Steve Padilla, her son and an editor at the Los Angeles Times, wrote in a 1999 Times story that voting for his mother was an electoral pleasure hard to describe.

Her campaign slogan continues to resonate with many in the community. It was an inspirational message she saw painted on a wall on a family vacation to Mexico City: “Querer al niño es educarlo.” To love a child is to educate a child.

Padilla aimed to help all children, but her campaign slogan turned into a call to fellow Latinos.

During the 1980s, an influx of Vietnamese refugees and Chinese migrants moved into the San Gabriel Valley. They quickly outnumbered Anglo and Latino students in the district. To help their community thrive, migrants created their own cultural resource centers.

Meanwhile, the district struggled to take a stand on bilingual education and was forced to rethink how to better equip teachers for this new student population. Padilla immediately recognized that Latino students were struggling and advocated for bilingual education and helped create the Alhambra Latino Assn. in 1995.

Lilia Sarmiento, a founding member of the group, described Padilla as a “revolutionary” who paved the path for students and Latino officials in Southern California.

“She was our cheerleader who was always rooting for us,” Sarmiento said.

Padilla is survived by her daughter and son. She was predeceased by her husband and her eldest son, Daniel.