María Fernández Miranda is the epitome of a matriarch. Seven of her 11 surviving children live on the same street as she does in Anaheim. Nearly all of her dozens of grandchildren are college-educated, and many are now beginning to buy their own homes. Her house is an eternal fiesta, with enough giant fruit trees and random visitors to populate a Gabriel García Márquez novel.
This extraordinary 87-year-old woman is my Tía María, the oldest sister of my late mother, María de la Luz Arellano Miranda. Tough but tender, with a wry sense of humor and some of the best cooking I’ve ever tasted, my aunt was a second mother to my mami. When my grandparents had to travel to Mexico City from their mountain hamlet in Zacatecas, she took care of her younger sister; when Mami was dying of ovarian cancer, my Tía María and her daughters tended to her. She has served as an exemplar of womanhood for my sisters and a beloved aunt for my brother and me.
Our family home is a street over, so the Fernández clan has been a part of our lives since we were kids. That’s why at least one of us always attends the Christmas Eve party at our Tía María’s. Who’d want to miss it? It starts with a rosary in front of a Nativity scene accompanied by Mexican Catholic hymns and ends with bolo (bags of peanuts and candies), tamales, hot cinnamon tea and tequila. These get-togethers are a chance for great food and company — yet I’m usually the one who makes an excuse not to go.
Not this year. I was there in my Tía María’s living room, mumbling through Hail Marys and the Litany of Loreto in Spanish, making sure to appreciate every minute.
My Tía María is still in good enough health that she waved off my offer of a ride back from her daughter’s house a couple days before Christmas Eve, even though the walk was easily over a mile.
But I’m going to spend the coming year caring more about the matriarchs in my life. 2023 reminded me that they don’t live forever, as much as we delude ourselves into thinking they will. In Southern California and beyond, we lost too many pioneering women who changed us for the better — and we didn’t always have the chance to say a proper goodbye.
The most prominent deaths were U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, both in their 90s. Because of the longevity of their careers, too many people will remember them mostly in their twilights, which is a shame. Younger women can’t even imagine the sexism that came with trying to be a professional in the 1960s and 1970s — and that’s a good thing. Women like Feinstein and O’Connor bore the bruises of boors on their way to the top so that future generations wouldn’t suffer as much.
I was just a toddler when O’Connor became the first woman on the Supreme Court and a teen when Feinstein became California’s first female U.S. senator. But I remember the reverence that my female teachers and professors had for the two, despite not agreeing politically with them all the time. Sadly, by the end of Feinstein’s life, a growing chorus of Democrats wished for her resignation as age caught up to her.
Yet longevity is why Feinstein and O’Connor became legends. In a society that tries to relegate older women to biddy status the moment they turn 50, they persisted. More importantly, they outlasted the men who long mocked their abilities and who will be remembered as fools while Feinstein and O’Connor rightfully go down as icons.
The same status awaits Gloria Molina, the Chicana lawmaker who blazed political paths in a career that took her from Sacramento to City Hall to the Board of Supervisors. After term limits forced her out of the latter position in 2014, she embarked on a public calendar that would exhaust a clubgoer. That’s why her passing this summer at age 71, just months after announcing she was dying from terminal cancer, shocked so many.
I interviewed Molina at her Mount Washington home a few months before her death. Even stricken with a terminal disease, her matriarch vibes radiated. She sat in a chair, dressed up in her finest while offering unfiltered opinions on friends and foes, especially the “boys” who ran the Eastside machine that she defied and beat again and again. For the rest of us, she had plainspoken advice. She wanted everyone to follow her example as a public official who was never corrupt and always helped the less fortunate — but she also offered special encouragement to Latinas, whom she felt had a heavier load to carry than men.
“They have to build their self-confidence — don’t let the guys control your self-confidence, number one,” Molina told me. “And second of all, do what you want to do. It’ll be challenging, and you’ll not always win. I’m an example of that. But at least challenge [the patriarchy], because that’s going to hopefully embolden other Chicanas along the line.
“Look at the errors,” she concluded. “Look at the mistakes that are being made and be better, more effective at it.”
A woman who followed the Molina way was San Fernando City Councilmember and former Assemblymember Cindy Montañez, who died in the fall of cancer. At 49, she might seem a bit young to be considered a matriarch, especially since she left no biological children. But she was the philosophical mother to dozens of do-gooders in L.A. politics and environmental justice circles. Hundreds of thousands of people across the Southland are beneficiaries of her tree-planting mission as CEO of the nonprofit TreePeople.
Her way-too-early death was particularly gut-wrenching. Unlike Molina, Feinstein and O’Connor, Montañez was barely hitting the height of her career. But knowing your death is imminent brings a certain wisdom, which Montañez displayed when we talked at her family home in August. She urged people to continue fighting climate change, environmental racism and other issues that defined her career. She also wanted folks to understand that things don’t always happen the way we hope — and that’s okay.
“I wish I did more,” she admitted at one point in our hour-long chat. “But God has a plan. And sometimes, we don’t understand it, but it happens. But in heaven, we’ll understand what the plan is.”
If I’m talking about incredible women who left us in 2023, I have to mention my paternal grandmother, Angelita Arellano Perez. She died at age 100 from complications from a stroke, on the very day that LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes held a public celebration of Molina’s life. Grandma might not have made headlines like those other women, outside of my columns about her, but that made her no less of a chingona to the people who loved her. We Arellanos were lucky to have Grandma impart life lessons right up to the very end, and my cousins were smart enough to videotape and record her so that Grandma’s counsel will comfort us for years to come.
2024 will bring more untimely deaths, more matriarchs taken away from us. Thankfully, I still have a few in my life. I still have my Tía María. This December, she didn’t help to make tamales or lead the rosary as in years past, but that was OK. Her voice was loud and clear during prayers, and she roamed from table to table afterward to make sure we were all properly fed.
When I tried to sneak away, like I always do, without saying proper goodbyes, my Tía María caught me and smiled.
“Ven más en seguida,” she said. Come by more often.
We all owe that to our matriarchs.