Meet the 2019 Loeb Fellows: Maria Cabildo

So, I’m an urban planner. And I remember when I
became an urban planner, I thought it was the perfect
career for an introvert. And it turns out, you have
to speak in public a lot. So, it’s been a challenge. So, I want to start– I was actually– it
never occurred to me that I could take time
to thank the people that are important in my life. But Michael kind
of showed the way. And so, I just want to
acknowledge my kids, Joaquin and Penelope,
because they have– we’re 3,000 miles
apart right now, and as a single mom,
that’s really difficult. But they’ve been incredibly
supportive of this time. So I’m Maria Cabildo,
and I’m the daughter of Mexican immigrants. My father was a master
tailor, and had a grade school education. And my mother sold prepared food
in the plaza of her small town. And today, you would
call her a street vendor. And she has no formal education,
and learned to read in her 50s. And never learned to write
anything except her name. And despite my mom’s
lack of formal education, she was an incredibly gifted
household administrator. And is the reason
that my parents purchased a modest single story
craftsman bungalow in East LA. Left on his own, my
father would have been happy to keep renting in
the crowded apartment buildings that he lived in since coming
to the US in the 1950s. Now, my father’s work
as a master tailor, required him to
kneel and measure the bodies of Los Angeles’
most affluent residents, to tailor their suits, and
the occasional topcoat. And he refused to
teach me to sew because he had this
vision for my future that involved me earning
my living with my brain and not my hands. So, sorry. So why share these
details of my life. Because they matter. Because my parents,
my neighborhood, and my educational experience at
low performing public schools, and later, as a first
generation college graduate, have everything to do with
why I became an urban planner. And why I committed the
majority of my career to the Eastside of Los Angeles. My personal story has fueled
my professional story. Boyle Heights and East LA, are
on the other side of the river from downtown Los Angeles. And our proximity
to downtown hasn’t meant that economic opportunity
is within our reach. It’s meant that we can
marvel at the growing skyline, and occasionally
venture through it. And as a child, I was constantly
reminded that opportunity was outside of my community. That to be successful,
I needed to leave. In 1980, when I
was 13 years old, my brother, Lewis, was
applying to college. And he applied to an
urban planning program. And I had never heard
of urban planning. And the only people I interacted
with that had college degrees were the teachers at school and
the doctors at the free clinic. And so, what was this thing
called urban planning? And so my brother explained to
me that cities were planned, and that communities
were planned. This is the East LA interchange. So in that moment, you
know how everyone talks about that sinking feeling? And it’s a terrible
cliche, but it’s actually a sinking feeling. And I still can remember that
moment when I was 13 years old, and I realized, that
whoever had planned East LA, didn’t care about the
people that lived there. Because there is no other way of
explaining the fact that there was no park, there
are no libraries, and that we had not one
freeway, not two freeways, not three freeways,
not four freeways, but we had five freeways going
through our neighborhood. And this was back
before they built some walls between
communities and freeways. So there were just
chain link fences separating our communities from
the traffic that was really– basically we paid
with our health and the quality of our life
for the growth of the region. So that was my sinking
feeling about planning, and feeling this tall. But I am the daughter
of immigrants. And immigrants are like the most
optimistic people in the world. And somehow, I still managed
to have some of that. And so, I retained hope for a
better day, a better future. And I simultaneously
thought, well, if people can plan cities
to make me feel like this, maybe we could plan cities
to make me feel the opposite. And make other people
like me feel the opposite. So I actually did end up
leaving the neighborhood to pursue opportunity. I went to boarding school. I went to Columbia. And at Columbia, I totally
geeked out on planning and developed this
interest in housing. But I had a really rough start
because I actually picked Colombia because it had
no math requirement. And I am really
terrible at math. And if you want to
develop real estate, there’s no way
getting around math. And so, finally at UCLA, I
overcame my fear of math. I took the two real estate that
all my classes, they offered. And I started my
career by building service enriched
housing for people experiencing homelessness that
had psychiatric disabilities. And during this time
in LA, I kept going out and I’d run into just
a couple of people that were interested in housing. And we were the only people
interested in housing. So we’d end up, like, having
these really deep conversation about housing. And we were kind of
complaining about the fact that nobody was building
affordable housing in East LA. And we were kind of waiting
for the adults in the room to do something about it. And suddenly, we realized that,
that wasn’t going to happen. That if we were
going to do anything, if our neighborhood
was going to change, we were going to have
to do it ourselves. So I started, as I was working
for a committee of friends, I worked for them for
six years and developed all kinds of supportive
housing all over the region. I continued to work on
my passion project, which was founding East LA
Community Corporation. And so, we took two years,
going back and forth. And we finally started
working on developing what was going to become East
LA Community Corporation. And we started with this
critique of LA CDCs. Especially those that had done
some work in the Eastside. And we decided that the reason
that you couldn’t really feel like the neighborhood had
changed in any positive way, was because they had
done nothing to change people’s relationship to power. And that, what we needed
to transform our community, was to actually build power. And that’s why we ended up
marrying community organizing and real estate development. So our mission and vision always
fused community organizing and development. And really saw development as a
tool for community organizing, and community building power. And we later added financial
literacy and asset building, and formed a department
of committee wealth. Now, many people in
the CDC community discouraged us from
starting a new organization. They thought there were
enough non-profits. They thought that we were
just late to the show. But we ignored them and we went
ahead and corporated in 1995. And really, for me, it was
really rejecting this idea that you needed to leave the
Eastside for opportunity. That we could build
opportunity right there in the neighborhood where
we were born and raised. And even though we grew
up in the neighborhood, we spent our first year talking
and organizing residents. And what we did was,
the very first projects we took on really addressed the
properties of the community. And what we did, was
tackle the problem of abandoned properties, vacant
properties, in our community. And this was during
the aftermath of the savings and loan crisis. So there were vacant properties
almost on every block. And so we started by, little
by little, buying, fixing up. And then, if they were
for sale, selling them to first time home buyers. And then, holding what
was multi-family housing. And again, the priority, I’m
taking abandoned properties and bringing them back to
be assets in the community. This was my very
first project that was financed with the Low
Income Housing Tax Credit. You saw a picture of
the house I grew up in. It’s a single story bungalow. So for me, like, the ultimate
thing was to build townhouses. Right? So these apartments
were two stories. I grew up in a house where you
could never do any homework because it was so loud. So for me, this idea that
kids could do their homework upstairs where it was quiet. And the family like could
be active downstairs. It was just, for me,
like, so exciting. So you could see, I really took
these townhouse things to heart because I thought, to me,
it’s like, wow, so luxurious, doing this for the family. So, built a lot of stuff,
rehabilitated, bought, did single family homes as well. Built housing for veterans. This is for homeless veterans. Actually, one of
our residents had been in World War II veteran. So to think of like, a
homeless World War II veteran, someone that’s in
their 90s, finally having a permanent home. Housing for seniors. Housing for families with
commercial component. Working with young people
in the neighborhood so that YouthBuild came out. YouthBuild was a
government program. The kids would come out and do
some of the building on site. I’ve cut lots and
lots of ribbons along during the
course of my career. So over the years, affordable
housing development is very challenging. Any of you who are planning
to do that– oh my god, I’m almost out of time. I’m going to run very quickly. Lots of deaths. If you’re going
to do real estate, be prepared for
your project to die over and over and over again. And you just resuscitate it. You just keep bringing
it back to life. Equally challenging, was
community organizing. Because community residents
had been told so many times by government
officials that things were going to be different. And government never delivered. And so, when you go
in, even though you’re from the neighborhood, you’re
up against all of that. All of those assumptions. Community residents
coming together. Celebrating, planning
together, organizing. We started towards the
end of my time at ELACC, we were organizing to
legalize street vending in the city of Los Angeles. Having some
significant victories on getting towards
decriminalization. Working with residents. Planning language
is so difficult. Every time you take a deal to
City Hall to get it approved, you always have your
land use attorney, your land use consultant. It’s probably the most elitist
city planning department. So for us, it was really
important to basically free the residents from the burden
of that elite language. And just have them
create their own images for what they wanted
in their community. And you can see some
of the maps they created of the type
of land uses they want to see in their community. And the types of
land uses they wanted us to include in the development
that we were pursuing. My most beloved project– you saw the very
first project I built, which was a brick
building in Boyle Heights. And this is the
Boyle Hotel Cummings Block, which was built in 1889. The oldest commercial building
on the Eastside of Los Angeles. It was a true labor of love. It died so many times. We kept it alive during
the economic downturn, and it’s now on the National
Register of Historic Places. And you can’t see behind it,
but we added on new construction behind it. And it’s home to 49 families. And these are the ribbon
cuttings for the Boyle Hotel. One of the most significant
projects of my entire career. I’m an introvert. It’s a challenge to
have to go out there. But for my community, I had
to go out, and be visible, and be heard. And I guess I ended up being
so visible, and so loud, that I eventually got appointed
to the City Planning Commission for the entire city
of Los Angeles. And here I am with my crew,
the day that I signed. In LA, when you
become a commissioner, you sign this giant red book. And this is a day I signed the
giant red book with my crew. And at the city of LA, one
of my fellow commissioners said, hey, Maria, you
don’t want to be thought of as the one trick pony. Because I kept being the person
on the City Planning Commission that kept bringing up
affordable housing. And I was like, well, how do
I get around being a one trick pony that’s always talking
about affordable housing? And one was, I ended up working
with the president of the City Planning Commission,
Renee Dake Wilson, and we created a day
long symposium about how equity equals opportunity. And how do we bring equity
into the planning process? And after that
day, I didn’t ever have to bring up
affordable housing again because my fellow
commissioners did it without my having to prompt it. And it was the
first time, I think, that community
residents came out and they weren’t
protesting something. They were there to have a
conversation with the planning commission, to have a
conversation with each other about the future of
the city, and how we can make it a more
equitable city for everybody. So my life as a City
Planning Commissioner was kind of this fusing
of, I don’t know, this kind of uber
planning geekness, and my love of my community. This is the last
project I built, completed while at East
LA Community Corporation. And it was incredibly
special because of my work with committee residents,
where they actually chose the site for us, they
told us they wanted it gone. And here they are. And here, it’s completed. And obviously, we have a problem
with overhead electrical wires. I worked in local government. And then, I did this crazy
thing and I ran for Congress. This is my voice. I have a voice disability. But it’s never
stopped me from being a very strong advocate for the
committee that I represent. My very first purchase
after I decided to run, was a portable PA system. Testing, 1, 2, 3. Testing. Testing. Testing. All right. I named it, La Poderosa,
which means the powerful one. And it helps me get my
message to the people. Having this soft voice, I
think, has been, actually, a source of power for me. It has made me realize
how powerful a message can be when it’s delivered
very deliberately. I’ve been meeting with residents
of the 34th Congressional District. And when I meet with them,
I ask them to tell me, what they want me to build,
what they want me to fight for, and how they want me to lead. What I do, is I take this and
I put it up on my campaign wall to remind me what matters
to people in this district. So, I’d invite you
to please tell me, what you want me to build,
what you want me to fight for, what you want me
to lead on, so I can take this back
to my campaign office and be reminded of it every
day that I’m on this campaign trail. So I decided to launch this,
because I feel that there’s no more important fight
right now than to go to D.C. and represent this community. And really have a representative
who’s deeply connected to this community. And I thought about
my voice, honestly. I was like, are people going
to make an issue about the fact that I have this
voice disability? And honestly, at that point,
I was like, don’t tell me I can’t do something. Because that just makes me
want to do it all the more. I want to take this
fight all the way to D.C. And I’m going to bring this same
passion, commitment, tenacity, and relentlessness,
to Congress to fight for the 34th
Congressional District. I am Maria Cabildo, and
I approve this message. All right. So there you go. Vote for me. So, any minute, I’m
going to wrap up. So I ended up getting
the LA Times endorsement. I had previously been
called, The Patron Saint of Boyle Heights. Daily Weekly gave
me that moniker. And what I’m thinking about,
while I’m here, as a Loeb Fellow, is gentrification. Because we were very successful
in bringing investment to the Eastside. And now, that investment
is not for the people that have been long term residents. And I’m trying to
think of what I missed. And then, what I can
do, going forward, to make sure that it’s a
place where long term– where my story can be repeated
again, and again, and again. Is what I really want. And again, thank you so
much, to the Loeb Fellowship. And thanks to my parents, too. All right. Thank you.

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