At 6:25 a.m., during the March 17 earthquake in the Sepulveda Pass, Ana Guerrero was spinning at a low-key gym in Lincoln Heights. As chief of staff to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, she is the de facto No. 2 on Garcetti's team.
"I didn't really feel it all. I was on the bike," she says of the shaker that woke many Angelenos. It's St. Patrick's Day at City Hall, and she is wearing a conservatively cut dress in a leopard print. Compact and direct, she turns from her takeout lunch to make the case that the khaki green highlights in her leopard print are a sufficient nod to the holiday.
Her ascendancy to top mayoral aide has made her a formidable force in Los Angeles politics - so much so that her turn last winter as grand marshal in a Boyle Heights holiday parade is rumored to have provoked the ire of that area's sitting City Council member, District 14 representative Jose Huizar.
Guerrero is no stranger to hardball politics, having cut her teeth as a community organizer. Her initiation as a lead organizer for United Neighborhoods Organization in L.A. involved naturalizing 5,000 immigrants, which meant convincing federal authorities to conduct naturalization interviews in churches. Her efforts helped slash the process to 90 days.
Her path to power was neither traditional nor predictable. She was born in 1970 in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, and came to the United States when her Mexican immigrant father, a "bracero" in the guest-worker program, was made a permanent U.S. resident thanks to a Sonoma County apple orchard owner whose fruit was harvested by Guerrero's family.
After she graduated from high school, Guerrero returned to León in Guanajuato, where her parents maintained a second home, to study at a new Catholic law school. Her presence at college was provisional. Her U.S. education, she says, "had to be validated."
Not long after, she came to a fork in the road. She got pregnant before earning her degree, returned to Sebastopol and enrolled in adult school."I was pregnant with my oldest child, who's now 23, and I had to get on some basic public assistance," she says.
Her night-school courses led to an office job at the Sonoma County Faith Based Community Organizing Project (later SNAP Sonoma Napa Action Project), part of a network that taps into the Saul Alinsky - inspired Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a community-organizing juggernaut that works to empower disenfranchised areas and train new leaders in policy-change tactics.
Guerrero moved to L.A. in 1995 to work for United Neighborhoods Organization on L.A.'s Eastside, then took a position with the Center for Community Change, traveling statewide. Her role with the CCC, she recalls, was "to train new community leaders and activists, and give them the tools to make their voices heard - and influence policy."
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"I've always been good at mobilizing people around the things they care about and getting what they want for their community," Guerrero says.
In the late '90s, she met Garcetti at Occidental College, where he taught. They shared a commitment to progressive politics. In 2001, newly elected City Councilman Garcetti hired her as an organizing director. In 2006, he promoted her to deputy chief of staff, then to chief of staff in 2008.
"It's a privilege to work for someone as smart as he is, who also rewards talent and creativity and hard work," she says. "It encourages you to be the best that you can be."