Maria Cabildo has tended to East Los Angeles Community Corporation as a master gardener tends to her plot. Anyone who came through the affordable housing nonprofit organization, local residents or staff, learned how to cultivate their leadership skills. It was her way of helping people plan their own environment — and slow the gentrification creeping into Boyle Heights and East L.A.
The early experiences of the ELACC co-founder and now president emeritus equipped her with the savvy to know which seeds to sow. Raised where City Terrace meets Boyle Heights, she'd take weekend bus rides with her mom and older brother, Louis, to visit her dad, a tailor at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills. She saw how the city was segmented, as well as the disparities between neighborhoods.
When Louis looked into urban planning programs at colleges, then-teenage Cabildo realized that's what she wanted to study, too — his interests contextualized her observations from the bus. She decided to pursue a degree in urban studies at Columbia University, then studied at MIT and later enrolled in UCLA's urban planning graduate program.
In 1992, while at UCLA, Cabildo took a three-month trip across India. As she backpacked across the Rajasthan Desert and took in the Taj Mahal on $5 a day, she considered a career abroad. "I kept waiting for an epiphany," she recalls. But she realized her work was waiting at home. Even a call to action from Mother Teresa, whom she visited in Calcutta to obtain a souvenir medallion for her father, didn't convince her to stay.
Upon her return, she met Evangeline Ordaz, who'd held a spot for Cabildo in her poetry slam group Y Que Mas at a mutual friend's suggestion, and later became one of ELACC's four founders. They decided their organization would be equal parts real estate development and community outreach.
"Real estate is a tool in service of this vision of transforming the neighborhood into a community where low-income families can continue to thrive," says Cabildo, whose influence reverberated soundly on the Eastside. Celebrating its 20th year, ELACC has developed more than 530 affordable rental units.
Now 47 and the mother of two teenagers, Cabildo speaks softly, her voice raspy for the past five years from an undiagnosed issue with her vocal cords and larynx.
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In 2013, Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed Cabildo to the powerful L.A. City Planning Commission, where she saw the interconnectedness of the city's neighborhoods. And on May 4, she began a new post, chief of staff to former U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, who recently was elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
"I'm excited about this chapter, looking at how I can bring my expertise, while working on issues I've yet to dive into," Cabildo says.
As she moves to a different stage, Cabildo names the conversion into mixed-use complexes of Sol y Luna and the Boyle Hotel among her proudest accomplishments. Of the developers in the Arts District now eyeing Boyle Heights, Cabildo says, "Boyle Hotel is right at the entryway of Boyle Heights. Renovating the hotel was making that first domino so strong that it's not going to tip over."