USC historian Natalia Molina is reframing how we think about race in America. A year after the death of her mother when she was 10 years old, she published her first book, “The Death of the American Dream” (Harper, 2010), a history of the civil rights movement in the South and in the United States. In the book, she uses a phrase that she says she first heard from her mom, “You’re not a woman until someone tells you you’re a woman,” to show how gender norms had changed in the decade between her birth in 1981 and her mother’s death on December 20, 1987.
Molina’s family was black, her family was middle class, and her family was a working class family in the country’s most famous melting pot. Her mother, María Elena Molina, was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, where her father, Carlos de Luca, grew up. Her mother moved with Carlos to California as he finished high school, to attend UCLA and later California State University at Long Beach. Carlos, who worked at the school, had been promised a scholarship to attend UCLA and was waiting for it to arrive. He graduated with an associate of arts degree in 1983.
Molina says that her mother was a wonderful woman, smart, and caring. She had a good job and was very close to her parents. But after a decade of marriage, she began having an affair with an older man named Alberto Ponce De Leon, the first black American to become a naturalized citizen. She met him when she went on a tour of Mexico City in 1976, during which time she became an American citizen. The couple had a son, Luis. After her affair with Alberto became public, María Elena was afraid her family would be ostracized, and she and Carlos moved to Oaxaca.
Molina says she doesn’t even know how she ended up going to Oaxaca. She says she doesn’t remember. She was adopted by a couple who were part of the Oaxacan elite. They adopted her, brought her to Mexico, and sent her to live with them in Mexico City. Then their family left for Seattle when she was 10 after being asked by the family to consider Oaxaca. So she had to go