René Mendez is the city manager of the city of Gonzales, in Central California’s Monterey county. Previously the Inyo county administrator, he helped establish the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership, Monterey Bay Community Power Agency, and Salinas Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency. Before joining a Zócalo/California Wellness Foundation event, “What Makes a Good Small Town?,” he chatted in the green room about his love of sci-fi, being the oldest of five brothers, and the hands-down best taco filling.
What is your morning routine?
I get up, I do some stretchy stuff and try to get the body moving. I tend to catch up with some news, and then get ready to come into work. I eat at my desk.
You are the oldest of five brothers. Do you think that oldest sibling mentality has anything to do with your penchant for management?
It may. I mean, my baby brother was a city manager. I think a lot has to do with watching my dad. He was a foreman of a 2,500-acre ranch in the Central Valley of California. And I watched him manage a huge workforce, do everything—payroll, pesticides, irrigation, all of it.
What has been your quarantine guilty pleasure during the pandemic?
Me and my oldest, who was home from college, started binge-watching a lot of shows. Stuff that’s probably not that great, like The Magicians. I’m way into that kind of sci-fi, supernatural show. I like to tell people, I don’t like to read anything that’s good for me. I like to enjoy it.
You grew up in the Central Valley and dedicated your career to its communities. What was it like going away to graduate school in North Carolina?
It was an experience that I wouldn’t trade. It got me out of where I was at and exposed me to the rest of the world, to students coming from all , and professors—it opened my thought process and took me out of my comfort zone.
For my family, even though we were a farmer community, education was our pathway. The banners at my back [points to a collection of collegiate banners on his office wall] represent where all my family has gone: my brothers, my nephews, nieces, my son, my wife, sisters-in-law, etc.
What is your favorite taco filling?
Hands down, avocado.
Do you have a hidden talent?
I know how to play the saxophone. And I’m the tennis coach at the high school. I played tennis in college. I’ve been coaching since I’ve been here. My first year team, I ended up with six girls. [Now,] my average team has about 30, 32 girls.
I tell folks there’s two great ways to connect with the community. One is you tend bar at church functions and stuff like that. And [two is] when you coach. It exposes you to not only the kids, but their families.
How do you decompress?
I'm not very good at it, but I like to play golf. I tend to exercise and read. Those are the three things that I like to do.
What was the last book you enjoyed?
I’m reading Obama’s book [A Promised Land]. It really points to where this country was going in a lot of issues that he encountered along the way.
What was your favorite place to go when you were a child?
Early Sunday morning before church, you would see my brothers and I go to the tennis courts. We played tennis and then we’d do whatever sport was in season. But we always started with tennis, and we knew nothing about tennis. I don't know why we took it up. We were able to buy some pretty inexpensive rackets, and we just started going out there. Me and three of my brothers went on to play college tennis at Stanislaus State.
Have you had a teacher or professor who changed your life?
When I started as an undergrad, I was going to be a business major. I set up a meeting with the dean at the business school the second week, and it wasn’t a great meeting. He gave me a catalog and just said, “Look at this.” [After the meeting] I was waiting for my macroeconomics class to start, just hanging out there, and the professor walks in and started talking to me. Dr. Kotke. I became an econ major and now have a bachelor’s degree in economics. He taught me caring and working with folks, and it opened my universe. The message was sometimes all you have to do is just start up a conversation—you never know where it’s going to go. I know that that’s kind of hokey, but it’s actually true.
What is your favorite household chore?
Mowing the lawn. I have my routine. We got a dog about a year ago, a Shiba Inu, and she follows me around while we’re out there. I know how long it’s gonna take me, and the edging—I just enjoy doing that.
What is the last thing that inspired you?
Fortunately, the result turned out OK, but we had an attempted suicide by one of our young people. But I think what inspired me is how that really galvanized some of our other youth. We have a Gonzales Youth Council, that’s something we’re very proud of, and they activated around mental health. How they really just rolled up their sleeves, said “What can we do? How can we do it?” There are moments where you see little things that give you hope for the future.
And I think it’s incumbent upon what we do for a living [as community leaders] to support that and frankly to not get so process-heavy. Sometimes we kill creativity with how we approach things. We always say our youth are our future, and we were them once, too. Sometimes it’s just good to recognize it.