Antonio Villaraigosa’s troubled early life

Early Challenges, Different Paths, Same Goal
Antonio Villaraigosa began his teen years on unsteady ground. In the heady world of politics, he found a salve for his childhood wounds.

May 08, 2005
Tina Daunt
Los Angeles Times

As a child, Antonio Villaraigosa watched helplessly as his father beat his mother and then walked out of their lives. He was in middle school when he learned that his father was remarried and had a new baby boy.

The baby’s name: Antonio.

The revelation was so painful that, for years, Villaraigosa didn’t tell anyone. “I just pretended like I didn’t hear it,” he said, his voice halting.

Privately, he agonized over the idea that he had a half-brother with the same name — confirmation, he believed, that his father had replaced him.

“I remember it feeling like an arrow stuck in my heart,” he said. “It felt like, you know, I never existed almost.”

With that knowledge, Villaraigosa began his teenage years on unsteady ground, embarking on a difficult search for his identity. The trajectory of his life at times became as treacherous as the curving streets in the City Terrace neighborhood where he grew up.

Villaraigosa got into fights. He dated around. He was kicked out of one high school and dropped out of another. He had his arms tattooed: “Tony {heart} Arlene” and “Born to Raise Hell.”

His mother pleaded with him to fix his life. She wrote him a letter: “You may have lost faith in yourself, but I will never lose faith in you.”

With her help he righted himself, though it was not easy. There would be trouble: an assault arrest, two out-of-wedlock daughters. But there would also be successes: staying away from gangs, graduating from UCLA, winning a seat in the state Assembly, and now running against James K. Hahn for mayor of Los Angeles.

He would gravitate toward a profession in which he could use the drive and street skills that propelled him out of the barrio, a profession in which he could feel not invisible but important.

Villaraigosa discovered there were few things he loved more than politics, where he could bask in the adulation of the crowd. It is, friends acknowledge, salve on his childhood wounds.