Cindy Montañez, councilmember for the City of San Fernando and CEO of TreePeople, passed away Oct. 21 at 49 years old, leaving an indelible mark on both her native city and those who knew her. Funeral services are pending and both a private and public ceremony is expected.

“My great friend Cindy Montañez lived up to her name as a person who climbed mountains and helped others to as well,” said Adan Ortega, chair of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. “Watching Cindy never giving up, accepting richly deserved accolades, but also literally issuing assignments to those of us she saw in the last year, we will continue to climb mountains because by the very nature of her actions to propel us, we can never forget her.”

The councilmember has a long list of achievements throughout her career. As a freshman at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Montañez participated in a 14-day hunger strike on campus, which would lead to the creation of the César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o and Central American Studies.

Montañez became the youngest person to be elected a San Fernando council member at 25 years old. She then became the youngest Latina elected to the California State Legislature as the assemblywoman for the 39th district at 28 years old, and she continued to make history as the youngest female Democrat and first Latina to chair the Assembly Rules Committee at the age of 30.

As an assemblywoman, 10 of her bills were signed into law. One of the most important pieces of legislature that Montañez authored was the Car Buyer’s Bill of Rights – which requires all licensed auto dealers in California to hand over a list of prices for financial items, including insurance and warranties, and provide buyers their credit score with an explanation of how it’s used.

Her list of achievements is long – and her drive and determination were instilled by her parents who worked hard as immigrants and encouraged education. She attended First Lutheran School in San Fernando and as a youngster, she was encouraged by her father to exercise, run and swim, even earning a spot on the Junior Olympic team. 

Her ambition to achieve was paired with a desire to serve. Starting as a college student at UCLA, where she was noted for her activism and concern for environmental issues. Prepared to step into the spheres of influence, she served as a state and city of LA commissioner and assistant general manager at the LA Department of Water and Power. She was also a board member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Montañez, who was battling an aggressive cancer, had received numerous honors from both the community and political officials. In early August, she was first honored at the Mission Hills home of renowned artist Lalo Garcia – organized by Javier Verdin, co-founder of Ballet Folklorico Ollin – as a grass-roots gathering. This community tribute opened the door and other recognitions followed. 

In the California State Assembly Aug. 28, Assemblymember Luz Rivas designated Montañez’s birthday, Jan. 19, as Cindy Montañez Day.

On Sept. 9, the Pacoima Wash Natural Park was renamed to the Cindy Montañez Natural Park. At TreePeople headquarters on Sept. 28, she was honored with a pollinator garden and bench with a view of the valley and San Fernando. And most recently, Gridley Street Elementary School will be renamed, becoming Gridley-Montañez Dual Language Academy in the next school year.

Although unable to walk, Montañez attended each of these events in her wheelchair – accompanied by her mother, Margarita Montañez – speaking to the best of her ability, offering advice and always graciously thanking those who came to honor her.

While many would know Montañez as the CEO of TreePeople or a San Fernando councilmember, those closer to her saw her as much more. Daniel Delgadillo, who worked for Montañez when she was an assemblywoman, is one of them.

“In the end, we became good friends,” Delgadillo said. “It took a while for me to change that mindset to see her from a boss to a friend. We were hanging out and she would always call me out and she’s like, ‘No we’re friends, we’re friends. I’m not your boss.’”

Delgadillo currently works as a senior staff analyst for the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission. He recounted how they met around 2003, when he applied for a fellowship program and she had just been elected and needed a field representative. He wanted to learn policy, which she offered to help him do. Even after many years, he has never forgotten what Montañez did for him.

“I always told her I am who I am in my career because of her,” Delgadillo said. “I would always refer to her as my madrina de politica [godmother of politics] because she gave me that opportunity. I am the first in my family that made a career in government, and it was because of her.”

He said they first became friends back when Montañez was in support of a gay marriage bill. Her office was being protested, and Delgadillo heard that her parents’ home was targeted and became a site for protestors as well. Delgadillo is an openly gay man but kept his sexuality a secret at the time due to fear of retaliation against his family. But seeing Montañez and others struggle to connect with those in the gay community, Delgadillo mustered up his courage, spoke with Montañez, the district director and chief of staff, told them he was gay and he was willing to connect them with the gay community.

“I spearheaded all of her LGBT issues,” Delgadillo said. “I would staff the LGBT events and that’s how we started getting really close with each other.”

Although they went their separate ways after her term was over, they stayed in touch, whether it be over the phone or over drinks. When Montañez told him of her cancer diagnosis, Delgadillo was devastated, having lost his own mother to cancer. It was even more personal as his mother was undergoing treatment when Montañez was running for the state Senate; she let Delgadillo take time off to be with her.

He continued to see Montañez, even as her condition worsened. Delgadillo described her as a kind and gentle soul, as someone who was humble, spoke in a calm and collected manner and was born “hugging a tree.”

“I’m glad that we became really good friends and we always kept in touch and she has a special place in my heart,” Delgadillo said. “That’s my Cindy. I always say that. It’s mi Cindy. You’re my girl. You’re my baby girl, and she will always be my baby girl. She was just like a sister I looked up to.”

Sergio “Checo” Alonso – a music teacher at San Fernando High School and an instructor in the City’s prized Mariachi Master Apprentice Program – was also friends with Montañez, having known her when they both attended UCLA and having a similar circle of friends. While both undergrad students, Alonso said his admiration grew for her during the fight against Proposition 187 and 209 and when she with other students went on a hunger strike for the establishment of a Chicano Studies program. “Cindy was a guerrera on campus fighting for the rights of Mexican Americans and other people of color,” he said.

Their friendship continued when they returned to San Fernando and started getting involved more in the community around the late 1990s and early 2000s. During that time, the concept was first developed by Virginia Diediker, the City’s cultural arts director, to establish a student mariachi program with master musicians and Nati Cano, the founder of Los Camperos, Montañez was elected to the City Council and Alonso was on the City’s Cultural Arts Commission.

“She was always supportive in all kinds of ways, either attending our events or writing support letters for our grant proposals,” Alonso said. “On a personal level, I know her family is from Veracruz … and Cindy and her mom, especially, would say, ‘Hey, whenever you go back to Veracruz to study [music], remember you have family over there. … If you want to stay at my family’s house, you’re more than welcome to be there.”

The two would be in touch off and on throughout the years, though there were times they would meet up by pure chance. Alonso told one story of how he and students from the mariachi program were invited to perform at a TreePeople event, not knowing Montañez had joined the nonprofit organization and said seeing her there was a pleasant surprise.

Most recently, he said that Mariachi Los Tigres from San Fernando High was invited to perform for Hispanic Heritage Month for the LAUSD board, and coincidentally, it was that same meeting that the board paid tribute to Montañez.

“I went up and gave her this big ‘ol hug and I couldn’t let go. I got choked up and so did she,” Alonso said. “This emotion just came across me … and also [I was] happy for her because she was getting recognized there. … It was an opportunity for me to talk about her to my students and what she has meant to our community, what she has meant to our music, how she’s been connected to the mariachi and what the students do.”

Alonso thought of Montañez as someone who was really passionate, true to her ideals and someone who didn’t just “talk the talk, she walked the walk.” He said he felt personally proud to be able to call her a friend.

“Even until her final days, she was there in the community. She was there in support. She was there among the people, and that’s exactly where she liked to be.”

The San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol will cover the upcoming services for Montañez and additional testimonials.  

Editor Diana Martinez contributed to this story.