Play Video

Salvador Melendez

Episode 104

A Time & Place for Montebello

Salvador Melendez is a Council member and past Mayor of the City of Montebello. In this capacity, Salvador is responsible for formulating policies, protecting the welfare of the City of Montebello, and overseeing the City of Montebello’s financial operations. He is also a member of several organizations like: The Montebello Lions Club, League of California Cities, Independent Cities Association, Southern California Association of Governments, Claremont Lincoln University Council, Board member of MELA Counseling, SGV COG, and Metro Advisory Council.

Salvador was born and raised in Los Angeles County to immigrant parents. He has seen firsthand the importance of public service and giving back to his community. In his free time, he likes to spend time with family and friends. Salvador attended Rio Hondo College, where he earned his A.S. He then attended California State University, Los Angeles, earning his B.A. in Political Science with an emphasis in International Relations. Recently, he obtained his J.D. from the University of La Verne College of Law.

Additionally, Salvador Melendez joined AltaMed Health Services in 2021 as a Senior Policy Analyst in the Government Relations department, specializing in the workforce, Local, State, and Orange County policy affairs. In this capacity, he advocates for access to quality and affordable health care, specifically for underserved communities in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, and works closely with local, state, and federal elected officials.

Best way to contact

Salvador Melendez Quotes

  • “That class changed my whole trajectory, and I started taking school seriously.”
  • “Election day happens, and ballots first come in; I’m in fourth place, and the top three get in. I’m like, and I didn’t do that bad. And as the results kept coming in, I kept climbing up, and I am in first place. The next day, I wake up with over 200 messages. They were mostly from people trying to find out who I was because I was an unknown in the political world.“
  • “That class changed my whole trajectory, and I started taking school seriously. I went in all in. I wanted to make a difference. I got involved in different political clubs and decided that some things were happening in Montebello that I didn’t like.”
  • From childhood, a sense of public service was instilled in Salvador Mendez through his parents. Though they didn’t have much, they always helped other people and gave what they could. 
  • This sense of public service drove Salvador to run for public office because he felt Montebello had become stagnant.
  • Through his leadership and service, Montebello has a growing sense of community with stalwart businesses like BLVD MRKT and Angry Horse Brewery. 
  • In addition, they are redeveloping the mall and building 1200 new homes.
  • Salvador continues to serve Montebello and help the city define its identity while keeping in touch with its past.

Your connection to the San Gabriel Valley is obvious. You are a public servant for the city of Montebello, but what other connections do you have to the San Gabriel Valley?

Yeah, I got elected to the council about four years ago and just recently won my reelection. Things have changed a little bit. We went from at-large to district-based elections.

We used to be part of the San Gabriel senate area, and the assembly district was part of the San Gabriel Valley. So I got to come a lot to the San Gabriel Valley and Montebello, which will be an interesting question because I consider ourselves part of the San Gabriel Valley.

I know other folks say we’re part of the gateway cities, but I think we’re in between.

I’m typically always here in this area because many of the issues are not just based on Montebello but are more regional issues. And sometimes, it takes collaboration between different organizations, stakeholders, and council members to push and put some issues together right.


Are you a native of Montebello?

Yes, I was born and raised in Montebello. I lived in Pasadena for a couple of years, in Whittier for one year, but I lived most of my life in Montebello.

Talk about your experience growing up in Montebello. What was that like? What are some of the things that relate to what you’re doing now?

When I grew up in Montebello, it was a working-class neighborhood.

My dad had three jobs while we were growing up. I have two siblings, one older sister, and one older brother. It was five of us in a little small apartment.

My parents always invoked volunteer public service. When I was six or seven, I started working at a church, Miraculous Medal, which is in Montebello.

I knew we were struggling, but we always had food on the plate. We always had food on our plates. And even though we had a little bit, we were always taught to give back to the community and people who might have had more in need.

But I had a great childhood. I was involved in sports, and I was involved in all different service clubs. So always being around the community and working together and working on projects was always something that I’ve always been a part of.

You described Montebello as working class, but the primary demographic there is Latino, is that correct?

That’s correct, we have a predominantly large Latino population, but we also have a large Armenian population. Some of the first Armenians that came over after the First World War came to Montebello, and right now, the Asian American population is growing.

So we have one of the largest populations of Armenians. In front of the Miraculous Medal is the Armenian Genocide Monument, the largest outside of Armenia.

So we have a very, very rich history of Armenians.

I never heard about the growing Asian American population. Where is that happening?

It’s in the northern part of Montebello.

And as a matter of fact, we’re bringing around 1200 new homes into Montebello. And a lot of that is going toward the growing Asian American population. But yeah, we have around 11 to 12%.

So you described your childhood with your two siblings and parents in a small apartment in Montebello. What happens after high school for you?

I’ll be honest. I wasn’t the best high school student. I didn’t take high school seriously, so I didn’t know what I wanted to do.

I ended up going to a community college, Rio Hondo College. And I went there trying to be a theater major. I wanted to go into film, do something like that.

I also took a political science class and had an excellent counselor. When I took a political science class, I found a passion for it, and I said, you know what? I wanted to major in political science or go into something with international relations.

That class changed my whole trajectory, and I started taking school seriously. I went all in. I wanted to make a difference. I got involved in different political clubs and decided that some things were happening in Montebello that I didn’t like.

There was no progress or change, and I wanted to give back. After two years, I transferred over to Cal CLA and got even more involved with different organizations, and then I helped in different campaigns.

After that, I took a break from politics and decided to attend law school. In my first year, I decided to run for office, which is probably something I would never recommend to anybody dealing with the first year of law school and running for office. But that’s how I started my whole trajectory of getting elected.

Did you finish law school?

I did, yes.

Do you practice law?

I don’t. I never took the bar. I graduated last year and was one of the few exceptions that went in there without the idea of practicing law.

My realm of study or my passion has always been policy. I’m in government affairs, and I’m a senior policy analyst.

So policy has always been where I wanted to go.

When you were growing up, was there a strong sense of city identity in Montebello?

In my childhood, there was, but then little by little, I feel like we started to lose that, and we didn’t really have, I guess, city pride, and we just lost touch with that. And I don’t know how that happened.

There was no real central gathering point for the community.

Yeah, we didn’t have that. And that’s why it’s been one of my priorities to get that back. We started by bringing the fireworks show, started the farmers market, and partnered with Boulevard Market and Angry Horse Brewery.

They’ve been able to organically build the community. It’s the little hub that we’re creating in Montebello, where people go, hang out, have ice cream, and have a drink.

That’s what it sounded like to me after having shows with them, that this was becoming the center of Montebello.

Even when we do our farmers market, we have it right there. So it could create this synergy between the business owners and the community.

When we have our big street fest, we have it there. That’s where we want to build our downtown. Organically, it’s becoming a little hub of our little downtown Montebello.

I think you need that kind of community center to keep a community safe and healthy.

Yeah, for sure. We look at what other cities in the San Gabriel Valley are doing. We want to have Alhambra, Main Street; we want to have Monterey Park, create that on Garfield, create that synergy.

We see other little downtowns. I know we want to be realistic. We can’t have a downtown like the city of LA. But we could have little areas where we can take pride in.

That’s the balance that we’re always trying to figure out. When I was elected, one of the first things a resident told me was that change is not always progress. Some folks want the city to continue to be the way it used to be. And that’s not a bad thing.

I think there needs to be a balance. We’re bringing in a Top Golf by the golf course. The mall got sold, so there will be some changes there. We’re bringing in 1200 new homes, we’re putting together downtown Montebello, the metro is going to pass through Montebello, so we’re bringing in a lot of new stuff.

But at the same time, we’re trying to figure out how to keep our identity in Montebello. And that’s the challenge. How do you bring these new things to your constituents, but at the same time, don’t change it too much that you lose the identity? That’s always the challenge.

What are the issues with something like a shopping mall versus a downtown development type of thing?

Well, I think with the mall, the anchor stores are one of the highest performing in the region.

I think the issue that not just the mall in Montebello is having, but a lot of sales have gone digital. And then you have the Amazons of the world, and they have to adapt to it.

I believe what they’re trying to do is make it an entertainment first, shop second, experience. Like most cities in San Gabriel Valley, we have what are called arena numbers that we have to meet in housing.

So even the new concept of the mall is going to be experienced first, shopping second, and then building housing around it.

When I think of cities that have revitalized their downtown or main street, Alhambra and Pasadena come to mind. They’re destinations. You don’t go there for one particular thing on a Friday night. You go hang out and experience everything, and it changes the whole community.

Yeah. Alhambra did a great job. It took them a decade to build Main Street, but they put a good plan together, and it’s a success.

Old Town, Pasadena, has great restaurants and places to drink. There’s a little bit of something for everyone, and that’s what we want to do.

I remember you saying something about identity, and what do the people who want to keep Montebello the same say about that? And what is the identity of Montebello?

Yeah, about 15-20 years ago, Montebello started building a lot of senior living homes.

So Montebello has been known to be a big senior community. I think we have around six different senior communities throughout the whole city. There’s been an effort to build stuff around that, build stores, build retail, and we’ve gotten some pushback from some of the community members.

Even BLVD MRKT, or Angry Horse, wasn’t an idea that many community members were sold on. It was the first brewery that would come into the city, and people didn’t want it so close to a residential area.

These two projects have been a catalyst in the area because it’s shown that it can work in Montebello. We must continue demonstrating to communities that these projects can work and help bring other businesses into that region.

A few members would fight against the metro line coming in, and we’re finally getting it passed. But there’s still a lot of pushback for the metro line to pass through Montebello.

There are a lot of people that come into our meetings that are trying to fight it. They think that we’re dividing the community even more. I’m a proponent of it because I feel that we need more transportation avenues.

But we have a community that’s been reluctant to change, and we’re trying to bring it in, little by little. What I’ve noticed in local governments, it takes a long time.

As you go over the hill, there are oil rigs. Is that still going? Does the city get revenue from oil?

Yeah, we still get revenue. Those oil wells are not active anymore. There’s a certain portion of them that are, but they’re outside the housing property or where the housing development is going to happen. But most of the oil wells in Montebello are not active anymore.

We ask each guest to bring an item of significance with them. What did you bring with you today?

This was given to me by a friend when I first announced that I was going to run. The story behind this is that when I first started communicating to people that I was going to run, many told me it’s not your turn. Don’t do it. You’re too young. Finish law school. And there is some writing that says, Yes, I’m young. Yes, I’m progressive, and it is my time.

These are words that always stick with me. I always put it on my desk, and I always think of it; I always look at it, and it’s a clock with a globe map of the Earth in the center of it.

It means so much to me because even when I got elected, I still had that imposter syndrome.

Going into the first couple of years, it was difficult to navigate a lot of strong personalities. I quickly learned that you’re not going to please everyone, and you have to stick with your gut feeling of what you think you’re doing is the best for the community. So that always sticks with me because you’re always going to get these challenges, and you just have to understand that people elected you, people chose you, and you’re there to represent the community.

You wanted to avoid coming into last place, and you ended up winning, and what’s the journey been like since then?

When the ballots first come in, I’m in fourth place, and the top three get in. I said okay, I didn’t do that bad.

As the results kept coming in, I kept climbing up, I got into first place, and then the next day, I woke up with over 200 messages, and it was mostly of, like, people trying to find out who I was because I was not known in the sense of in the political world.

So it was a bit challenging just navigating through all the different interest groups and community members wanting different things, different stakeholders, and at the end of the day, everybody’s trying to have your ear on certain issues, and it’s a matter of how you put all that together and make the best decision, right?

It was challenging in the beginning, and we had some tough issues, and I found people like our city manager, Renee Bobadilla, an awesome guy, one of the best city managers in the area, who was able to help out a lot.

The second year I became the mayor, and two months into it, the pandemic hit.

There was no book on how to deal with a global pandemic or what to do with it. So we were all trying to figure it out. It was also a difficult time with law school, too, adjusting to it.

I had to reassure the community that everything was okay because you’re the lead in the city and make sure the community members feel that things are okay.

People worked 10-15 years to build what they had, and literally, within months, gone, right? That, for me, was probably one of the most difficult and challenging moments.

What prompted you to run?

I felt like the community was just very stagnant. Right. There were no changes, nothing happening in the city.

Pico Riveras was changing; new businesses were coming in, and everybody was moving forward, but Montebello was just in the same spot.

So for me, I feel like we missed a lot of key opportunities. And at the end of the day, my vision was never to run for office. I talked to a few residents. They encouraged me, and sometimes you just have to do it. And that’s how I ended up in council.

If people want to get in touch with you, what’s the best way to do that?

Thank you for having me here, and I appreciate the conversation and letting you guys know a little bit more about Montebello and myself.

People can find me on Instagram, @salvadormelendez_montebello, and on the City Of Montebello website. All of my information and my contact information is there.

Picture of Salvador Melendez

Salvador Melendez

Mama Lu’s Dumpling House. I think it’s one of the best dumpling places.

Skate or Pizza Skate or something like that. It’s shaped like a skateboard, the pizza. It’s really good. It’s great. It’s in Alhambra. Yeah. And just to name a few spots. 

BLVD MRKT and Angry Horse. Those are some of my favorite spots in the San Gabriel Valley.