Bridging communities "is what my whole life has been about," says Los Angeles Mayor-Elect Antonio Villaraigosa. But few of those hailing the victory of the first Latino elected to lead the City of Angels since frontier days know just how big a gulf he's had to span.

Antonio Villar, as he was born in 1953, grew up a poor Chicano kid from East L.A., raised by a single mom who worked as a part-time secretary in a state office. His father drank, and his parents divorced when he was 5, but he still remembers terrible fights. "I saw my father beat my mother," he recalls. "I remember my sister hiding under the bed when he'd come in screaming in a drunken rage." Studious and well dressed in grade school, young Tony made money by taking the bus downtown to shine shoes and sell newspapers. "I used to sell La Opinion in front of the Olympic Auditorium on the boxing nights," he says. "I've been working since I was 7 years old."

But his school career soured after he was diagnosed in 10th grade with a tumor in his spine that began to paralyze his legs. Once he recovered, he started getting into fights; he got a tattoo that read BORN TO RAISE HELL. He was kicked out of one high school and dropped out of a second. He eventually went back to school, where teacher Herman Katz noticed him in his remedial English class. "He stood out," recalls Katz. "He was bright, good-looking and brash." Katz mentored the young man, and even paid for him to take the SAT. "He just needed somebody at that particular time to say you could be something and do something in life," Katz says. The young Villaraigosa finished high school, graduated from UCLA in 1977 and went to law school at night. (He also got married, to Corina Raigosa, and merged their surnames.)

And last Tuesday he did something more, building a rainbow coalition--in a city where Latinos make up 48 percent of the population but just a quarter of the electorate--to become the first candidate to oust a sitting L.A. mayor in 32 years. The charming 52-year-old did it handily, capitalizing on widespread disaffection with the lackluster incumbent, James Hahn, to register a resounding 59-41 percent win.

But the bridge-building is just beginning, and Villaraigosa knows it. This city of 3.9 million--the nation's second largest--is as fractured as the seismic blocks on which it is built: ethnically, geographically, economically. Tensions between blacks and Latinos boil just below the surface, as recent outbreaks of violence in the city's schools make clear. Unemployment in the black community remains high, despite gains for the city's other ethnic groups. Angelenos all over town are frustrated with crime and traffic and failing schools. "We have to create a city where more people are making it. That has a broad appeal," Villaraigosa says with his usual eager manner. But solving L.A.'s problems means risking alienating one group in order to devote scarce resources to another. "It's easier to put an electoral coalition together than it is to keep it together in a governing coalition, when the bullets are live," says UCLA political scientist Franklin Gilliam.

Villaraigosa got a crash course in those dynamics just minutes into his first press conference as mayor-elect. Violence had just erupted at a high school where Villaraigosa was planning to take a victory lap later that day, a TV reporter informed him. Would the mayor-elect cancel his visit? "I'm going over there," he shot back. "I'm not going to be a mayor who hides under a rock." A school-district official tried to dissuade Villaraigosa's staffers from letting him go, but he wouldn't have it, and when he arrived at Taft High School in the San Fernando Valley, the scene was "completely out of control," he said later. The campus had been in lockdown, and frustrated parents were banging on the doors as the media swarmed outside. "It's important that we calm the waters and not incite fears," Villaraigosa lectured the cameras and the parents, after learning that the violence wasn't, in fact, race-related. But knowing too well this won't be the last time he has to deal with this kind of situation, Villaraigosa hastened to add, "I'll have zero tolerance for racial violence."

He's been calming the waters his entire political career. In the 1980s he worked as a union organizer representing black workers at the school district, and he served as head of L.A.'s ACLU office, which brought him in touch with Jewish liberals on the city's west side, an important part of this year's coalition. Along the way, he made friends who continue to be his allies. Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas was the local head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference when he and Villaraigosa cofounded a Black-Latino Roundtable in 1985. "He has always demonstrated a collaborative or unifying presence," says Villaraigosa's old ally. Elected to the California State Assembly in 1994, he became speaker four years later, and showed an ability to broker deals between rival camps. In 2001, he tried for the mayoralty, running on a labor-left platform. But excitement about the possibility of making ethnic history overshadowed his message. After losing to Hahn in a bitter runoff battle, Villaraigosa retooled, pledging to be a mayor "for all of Los Angeles." That approach comes at a cost: "My whole life there's been criticism that I wasn't Latino enough," Villaraigosa says. He's proud of his Mexican heritage, but, he says, "I don't wear it on my sleeve."

This week Villaraigosa will announce a transition team. And he's rushing to put together an administration that he promises will be "the most diverse in Los Angeles history." Big problems loom. More students in the public schools drop out than graduate, according to a recent Harvard study (Villaraigosa says he wants power over the school district, something current law prohibits). L.A.'s roadways remain hopelessly clogged (more reversible lanes and staggered work hours will help, he says). And his is "the most underpoliced big city in America," Villaraigosa says--a hole he hopes to fill by pledging to hire 1,600 cops in the next several years. "He's committed to that," notes a delighted L.A. Police Chief William Bratton. It's a daunting challenge. But a weary Villaraigosa leans back in his chair and smiles as he contemplates it. The poor kid from the east side knows a thing or two about getting from here to there. He's survived worse.