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Cindy Montañez, pioneering political and environmental leader, dies at 49

For Cindy Montañez, the seeds of her drive to fight for her community were planted before she was even born.

Her grandfather, a miner in the Mexican state of Zacatecas, died before she could meet him — an early death caused by his line of work. Her immigrant parents settled in the northeastern San Fernando Valley, where factories spewed chemicals and companies dumped waste with little care for the Latinos who lived nearby.

“My dad told us, ‘Whatever you do, you’ve gotta fight against the people who oppress our people and the exploitation of the land, because the two go together,’” Montañez said in an interview earlier this year.

She took that advice to heart by blazing trails in both politics and environmental activism. After serving in the California Assembly, Montañez used her connections and iron will to bring hundreds of millions of dollars to the San Fernando Valley and other underserved communities to clean up polluted areas and beautify neighborhoods.

The San Fernando City Council member died Saturday morning after a long battle with cancer, according to a family spokesperson. She was 49.

At UCLA in 1993, Montañez and a teenage sister were among those who went on a 14-day hunger strike that helped to establish a Chicano Studies department. She became the youngest San Fernando council member at 25, then the youngest woman elected to the California State Assembly at 28.

After leaving Sacramento, Montañez became an assistant general manager at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, playing a crucial role in pushing the agency to use cleaner energy and create better water-capture methods. Shy by nature but at ease in any crowd, she became CEO of TreePeople in 2016, making her one of the few Latinas in charge of a large, U.S.-based environmental nonprofit.

Mark Gold, director of water scarcity solutions for the Natural Resources Defense Council, first met Montañez while she was in the Assembly. He credits her for “marrying environmental justice with conservation” by getting politicians and wealthy funders to care about environmental justice in inner cities and getting working-class people into the open spaces that Montañez so loved to explore.

“The work she did was nothing short of extraordinary,” said Gold, who helped Montañez get appointed to the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability’s board of advisors.

“Cindy had a lot of courage, and she demonstrated that courage again and again,” said United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, who first met Montañez at the UCLA hunger strike, which sparked a personal and professional friendship that lasted decades. “People followed her. She was never about promoting herself. She was about doing the work.”

Richard Alarcon, a former L.A. councilmember and San Fernando Valley-area state Assembly member and senator, first met Montañez after he read about how she and a sister chained themselves to a tree in an attempt to save it from being cut down. Soon after, he hired her as an intern.

“She contributed to women’s empowerment, she contributed to the environmental movement, and she never wavered to her commitment to grassroots mobilization,” Alarcon said. “She and I had many discussions about trying to create a bridge between the greater environmental movement to recognize the challenges that poor and minority communities had in taking on environmental issues. And she built it.”

Cindy Montañez

Cindy Montañez in 2014 in Panorama City

(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

In a written statement, L.A. Mayor Karen Bass called Montañez “a relentless trailblazer who led with conviction and a vision of a better Los Angeles for all.”

“I saw her tenacity up close many times,” Bass wrote. “She was by my side when we fought together in Sacramento, making difficult decisions to help our state, and she advised me when I served in Congress on a range of issues impacting our city. Throughout it all, one thing was always clear — Assemblywoman Montañez’s heart and soul were always dedicated to the people of Los Angeles.”

The fourth of six children, Montañez grew up in a household where healthy living was emphasized as way to survive the tough, toxic environment they lived in. For years, the family would get up every morning at 5 a.m. to run together. They also would drive to the Central Valley on weekends to pick crops, then sell them back home. At 12, Montañez began to spend her summers volunteering anywhere and everywhere: street and park cleanups, Special Olympics, in juvenile hall, at hospitals, even to help with Pope John Paul II’s 1987 visit to Los Angeles.

She entered UCLA as a mathematics major and quickly joined the school’s vibrant Chicano activist scene.

“Education is important to me,” she told the Associated Press nine days into the hunger strike. “That’s why I’m starving myself for it.”

The connections she made during that time propelled her toward politics. She began working for Alarcon, the first Latino to represent the San Fernando Valley in Sacramento. His mentorship helped Montañez win a seat on the San Fernando city council in 1999, then achieve her Assembly milestone three years later.

“This victory is a victory for our community, not for me,” Montañez told a jubilant crowd at a primary night election party in 2002, on her way to winning the Assembly seat. “The northeast Valley is going to continue to be a beautiful place to live and work because we’re going to continue to work together. Se los digo de todo corazon (I tell you this from the heart).”

In the Assembly, Montañez made national headlines for authoring the so-called Car Buyers Bill of Rights, a consumer protection bill that was among the first of its kind in the nation. But in the environmental movement she had long embraced, there were few people who looked like her or cared for places like her hometown.

“The L.A. River was getting all the attention,” Montañez told The Times earlier this year. “So I [said], ‘Hey, here I am in Sacramento, voting [to protect] preserves in Santa Monica. We gotta do something for our [San Fernando Valley] communities.”

“She developed the concept that the beach starts in Pacoima,” said Steve Veres, a former UCLA classmate who worked for her as an Assembly staffer and is now a trustee on the Los Angeles Community College District board. “She used all the relationships that she had made in her life to make things happen for not just her community, but others.”

Cindy Montañez

Then-San Fernando mayor Cindy Montañez, in a 2002 photo

(Myung Chun/Los Angeles Times)

Montañez made sure that state funds were allocated to build parks in working class neighborhoods. And she planned to accomplish more — she told the media that she wanted to run for the L.A. City Council and eventually Congress. But two other rising San Fernando Valley politicians truncated her political career.

In 2006, Montañez lost to Alex Padilla in the Democratic primary for the state senate seat once held by her mentor, Alarcon. Seven years later, Montañez won the primary race for an L.A. City Council seat representing the San Fernando Valley before losing in the general election to Nury Martinez, then losing again to her in 2015.

Padilla would go on to become California’s first Latino secretary of state and U.S. senator. Martinez became the first Latina to serve as council president before resigning in disgrace last fall after uttering racist remarks in a secretly recorded conversation.

In an interview a few months before her death, Montañez said she had no regrets about the abrupt end to her political rise.

“Oh my gosh, I can’t tell you how happy I am,” she said. “How proud I am of the team we put together to truly move people and educate folks and have fun. In politics, it’s all fighting.”

She used her Rolodex as TreePeople CEO to convince the Assembly last year to pass a $150-million bill to help schools combat climate change with more trees, shade structures and gardens. Her cheerful presence at community tree-planting events became a regular part of Valley life.

“Every tree that we plant,” she told The Times, “I think about the tree that may help somebody.”

In the weeks leading up to her death, former colleagues and political heirs publicly honored her. The California Legislature declared her birthday, Jan. 19, to be Cindy Montañez Day. The San Fernando and L.A. city councils renamed as Cindy Montañez Natural Park the area around the Pacoima Wash, which Montañez had long advocated remaking as a green space. Last week, the Los Angeles Unified School District voted to rename Gridley Street Elementary in San Fernando in honor of Montañez.

Assemblymember Luz Rivas didn’t meet Montañez until after getting elected to Montañez’s former seat, but was already familiar with her legacy.

“She inspired people to run or serve in their community, because she was like a lot of us are,” Rivas said. “She was standing up as an environmentalist and owning that identity at times when young Latinos didn’t see themselves as environmentalists. She pushed what that definition is.”

The two began to speak more regularly when Montañez rejoined the San Fernando City Council in 2020. Rivas said she would continue to look to her as an inspiration.

“[She] and I are the exact same age,” Rivas said. “So it hits me: Am I doing what I want to do? Am I doing enough?”

Montañez is survived by her parents, Margarita and Manuel Montañez, along with siblings Ezequiel, Maribel, Miguel, Robert and Norma.

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