María Elena Durazo is a California State Senator who represents District 24, which includes Los Angeles neighborhoods from Boyle Heights and East L.A. to Koreatown. The child of migrant worker parents, she was a longtime union organizer, the first woman Secretary-Treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, and in 2008, vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and the Obama campaign’s national co-chair. Before “What Are Today’s L.A. Women Fighting For?,” the third event in the Zócalo/Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County series When Women Vote, Durazo called into the virtual green room to talk turkey—Thanksgiving turkey, that is—Led Zeppelin, and why she’d love to be a giraffe.
What’s the last song that got stuck in your head?
“Stairway to Heaven.” Somebody sent it to me as it was performed when [Led Zeppelin] were getting the Kennedy Center Honors. It’s not usually the song in my head, by the way.
What’s your favorite somewhat-secret spot in Los Angeles?
Debs Park. Up at the top is—I wouldn’t call it a lake, it’s more like a pond. It’s really beautiful up there.
What do you wish the American public understood better about organized labor?
That the working men and women that are directly represented by a union are your neighbors. They’re your parents. They’re your cousins, the people that you go to church with. And they have the same aspirations as anyone else. They’re not some private club.
What’s hanging on your living room walls?
There are a couple of prints up there. There’s a really nice picture of my late husband. Plus there’s a big TV that takes up one wall, and lots of windows. So it doesn’t give me that much space.
What do you think is going to be the biggest hurdle for L.A. over the next few months?
Evictions, and a greater housing crisis, especially in our immigrant communities who don’t have access to the safety net. We’ve already seen how homelessness has grown, and it’s really scary to think there’ll be another generation of more overcrowding than what we already have and that some portion of the population could become unhoused.
What do you think will be L.A.’s biggest strength as we emerge from the pandemic?
Our immigrant communities and the economic contributions that they continue to make and sustain. They’re just trying enormously, enormously hard against many odds to sustain themselves, support their kids. They don’t easily give up. And I think that is a huge part of L.A.’s strength to get through this. That doesn’t mean we should ignore them, or say, “OK, we don’t have to worry about them.” Because if they do go over the edge or end up homeless or end up worse off, then that’s not going to be good for L.A. in the mid- or long-term.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Mostly what I wanted to do was not work in the fields. That was my drive. It was so hard on us, and it was so hard to do, that I would just sing songs or whatever thinking, “The day I don’t have to continue to work in the fields is hallelujah!” Eventually I think as I got older something like being an attorney came into my mind. I just didn’t want to keep doing that really, really difficult work.
What’s been the silver lining of your quarantine life?
I’m cooking more, and I’m learning to not just follow the recipe; I’m daring myself and deviating. That’s a really big deal for me. I throw things together that I wouldn’t normally. Before, I was very, very rigid. Because I’ve been cooking so much—not fancy dishes—that I actually can have more fun than I used to. And I don’t mind washing dishes because now it’s good for me to have my hands in soap all the time.
What’s the best dish you’ve made in quarantine?
My [Thanksgiving] turkey! I very rarely cook turkeys, just a few times in my life, and it turned out so good. It was moist and nice and a little bit crispy on the outside. I was so proud of myself because I was so scared.
If you could be any animal, what would you be?
A giraffe. Being that tall—and looking at everything above everybody. And nobody could see what I could see. And they’re very kicked-back. It’s a few steps here and there, then eat good green food. They’re really cool animals.
What’s the battle you’re most proud of having fought on behalf of women in Los Angeles?
The battle I’m still fighting for the garment workers to stop wage theft. They’re very, very highly skilled women, and we’re going to keep at it until we get some greater protections for all that they do. I’m very proud to be side by side with them. We’re just going to keep on, keeping on.