RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
One leader for whom immigration has always been an issue is Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles. He steps down this weekend, after two terms in office. He's the city's first Latino mayor in over a century, a local boy born in East L.A., far from the L.A. that dreams are made of. He joined us here at NPR West to talk about his time leading the second-largest city in the country. Good morning.
MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: Good morning to you, Renee.
MONTAGNE: We've just heard an update about the immigration bill. Let me just ask you: This being Los Angeles, an incredibly diverse city, what does it mean here?
VILLARAIGOSA: One out of 10 Angelinos is undocumented. One out of 10. Fifty-seven percent of the city have at least one immigrant as the head of household.
MONTAGNE: And we're talking not just about Latinos, obviously.
MONTAGNE: We're talking about Asians and all...
MONTAGNE: ...from everywhere.
VILLARAIGOSA: Yeah, they're from everywhere. Forty-four percent of the new businesses that are started are started by these immigrants. There's an economic, not just a human rights component to this. And that's why it does matter to L.A.
MONTAGNE: Recently on our air, the head of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials said that during your tenure these past eight years, L.A.'s Latinos haven't felt - and I'm quoting him - that "their concerns are being debated." Does that criticism sting?
VILLARAIGOSA: Oh, I don't pay much attention to it. You know, a lot of you made a lot of ado - and I don't mean you specifically - about the fact that I was the first from my community to be mayor in 133 years. And I said, get over it. I won't be the last. And almost nobody in the city mentions the Latino mayor. On the East Coast they still do. They're kind of enamored with all of that. But here in L.A., it doesn't really matter to most people.
MONTAGNE: Well, one thing in these eight years, you've called yourself the transportation mayor and...
VILLARAIGOSA: People have called me that. I haven't called...
MONTAGNE: Would you take pride, though, in that label?
MONTAGNE: I mean, you got voters to say yes to a tax to pay for a subway to the sea.
VILLARAIGOSA: A half penny sales tax, generating $40 billion over 30 years. We've built four light rail or busways since I've been mayor. We're in construction in four more, the most ambitious public transportation construction program in the nation.
MONTAGNE: Although you are leaving behind a city that is more gridlocked than ever before.
VILLARAIGOSA: I was a little late for your show, and I like to joke whenever I'm late that the mayor hasn't fixed the traffic. The fact of the matter is we have to build the city in a way that incentivizes people living along transportation lines, so they do get out of their car once in a while.
MONTAGNE: If you had to focus on one thing that you think is key for not just L.A., but California, I mean, there are several. It could be the environment. It could be education. It could be things that...
VILLARAIGOSA: It's education. The civil rights issue of our time is this issue of the achievement gap. It's the democracy issue of our time. If you want to enlighten citizenry, they've got to be able to read and write. It's the economic issue of our time. You want to compete in the new economy, you have to have intellectual capital.
And in the last eight years, here in L.A. - a little-known fact - we've reduced from a third of our schools that were failing to 10 percent. We've increased the graduation rate from 48 percent to 66, but there's a lot more that we need to do. We need to do it in L.A. We need to do it in California, and we need to do it in the nation.
MONTAGNE: Well, I wonder if there was a moment in your life when you imagined yourself - because you certainly were not raised in a home that was well-off. You were mostly raised by your mother.
VILLARAIGOSA: Who I always acknowledge, by the way. She was a great woman, you know, gave her four kids the sense of the possible. And she was mom, dad, grandma, grandpa. She was everything. And, yeah, I grew up poor, very poor, but I grew up with a great mom and a lot of love and...
MONTAGNE: It sounds like you had it in you from the very beginning, but there was a time when you were a teenager, though, when probably nobody would have looked at you and said, that's going to be the mayor of Los Angeles.
VILLARAIGOSA: Probably. Probably. I mean, I was a high school dropout. I was kicked out of school before that. I was a tough kid and had a paper route in City Terrace, and these are the hills of City Terrace, about three miles away from City Hall. And you could see City Hall from the top of the hills. And I would be up there, and I would see City Hall, and I didn't even know what it was.
I knew it was the image I saw on "Dragnet," but I certainly didn't think that I'd ever get elected or be mayor. But that's why we're so lucky to live in this country. This is a place where the possible happens every single day.
MONTAGNE: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, you will be mayor for - until...
VILLARAIGOSA: 11:59 and 59 seconds on Sunday night, and then I'll ride into the sunset.
MONTAGNE: All right. The outgoing mayor of Los Angeles. Thank you very much for joining us.
VILLARAIGOSA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.