By Dennis Taylor
Heartbreak is a hard way to rekindle a relationship, but that’s how Sonia De La Rosa was reacquainted with the place where she grew up.
De La Rosa, who spent her formative years in King City, was hired in December as the new chief administrative officer for Monterey County, relocating from Fresno just in time to begin sloshing through the ruins of the first of two devastating floods caused by record rainfall in the county.
As CAO, arguably the most powerful non-elected position in Monterey County, De La Rosa’s presence during the floods sent a clear signal of the difference she is bringing to her new job as a native daughter and Latina who grew up in a farmworker family.
Her day-to-day duties include overseeing all county departments, oversight of personnel matters, preparation and monitoring of the county budget, and advising the Board of Supervisors on a variety of issues, as well as other responsibilities. Handling devastating floods was not a typical part of her job.
‘They were like my parents’
A memory she’ll likely carry forever is the morning she surveyed the devastation in Pájaro — March 13 — when De La Rosa, chief public information officer Nick Pasculli, and Sheriff’s Cmdr. Mark Caldwell rode in high-water vehicles to meet with locals who, in many cases, had lost everything they owned.
“These were people who were dealing with the reality that so much of what they had suddenly was gone,” she said. “It was a very emotional day — people were extremely angry and upset that this had happened.”
The level of anxiety she encountered there was explosive, and De La Rosa felt agonized as she listened to the high-volume frustration and vitriol from the people — her people, farmworkers, just like her own family.
“These folks were just like my parents, but the differences were that my family never had to endure a flood like that, and my family was documented. A lot of those people are undocumented, and they were very frightened about their legal status here in the United States, worried about their ability to receive government assistance for their families, whether it was unemployment compensation or something else.”
Pasculli said De La Rosa’s hunger to immediately step into the trenches of one of the worst natural disasters in the history of Central California was greatly appreciated by her coworkers.
“She spent an enormous amount of time in our Emergency Operations Center — more than any other executive I’ve seen,” Pasculli said. “She was there every day, often working 24-hour shifts, which was incredible.”
Said De La Rosa: “In my mind, if I’m asking somebody to do something, I have to be willing to do it myself.
“Quite a few of our folks were doing the same thing — going days in a row without rest,” she said. “That experience gave me a different perspective in real time — better knowledge of the needs of our people in Emergency Operations, and how to meet those needs.”
Life lessons learned
De La Rosa and her four siblings were the children of Benjamin and Maria Joaquina Martinez, who grew up in Mexico and toiled throughout their adult lives in the agricultural fields of Monterey County.
“My dad, who still lives in King City, was a foreman, first for Monterey Farming, then for Scheid Vineyards, finally retiring from Gill Farms in South County,” she said. “My mom, who passed away in October 2021, also was a farmworker, and retired from Scheid Vineyards.”
The four oldest kids — Sonia and her brothers — also spent much of their childhoods in the fields. “It was backbreaking work, exactly what you see: You’re working all day, bent over, or you’re running back and forth, carrying things to the big truck,” De La Rosa said. As the oldest daughter, Sonia typically began her day at 4 a.m., helping her mother prepare lunches — tacos with homemade flour tortillas — for the work day. Her father and brothers slept a bit later, because “their roles were different,” she said.
Weekends also were an exercise in perpetual motion.
“Our parents were strict, and it was always about movement — sweeping, mopping, cleaning the bathroom. My brothers worked with my dad in the backyard,” De La Rosa recalled. “There was never a time in our house to be a couch potato.”
De La Rosa remembers the life lesson she’d repeatedly hear from her Spanish-speaking parents: “You don’t get anything by doing nothing. The lazy person works twice as hard!”
English as a second language
The four oldest siblings (all born in Tecate, Baja California) learned to speak English as a second language from kindergarten forward at Santa Lucia School, alongside classmates who also were primarily Spanish speakers from farmworker families, many of them migrants.
“Ours was not a migrant family, but we certainly started out as ESL kids, because my parents only spoke Spanish at home,” said De La Rosa, whose effort to become bilingual was accelerated by watching American TV shows — “Lassie,” “Bonanza” and “The Lone Ranger” were favorites — on the family’s tiny black-and-white set. “As we all grew older, we’d interpret for our parents.”
Young Sonia enthusiastically embraced her learning opportunities at Santa Lucia School, San Lorenzo Middle School and King City High, where she was an honors student, and graduated with three scholarships.
She took her scholarships to CSU Fresno, earning degrees in criminology and Latino/Chicano studies.
Learning about herself
“There wasn’t a whole lot in our history books about Mexican-Americans back then,” she said. “I learned in college that there are so many people just like me, raised by strict parents in farmworking communities, and I got a glimpse of others from a similar background who were able to accomplish so much.”
As a student, she interned with the Fresno County Probation Department, which hired her full-time as a victims’ advocate in November 1998, then promoted her to an investigative assistant position, assigned to domestic violence.
De La Rosa spent 24 years with Fresno County, where she most recently focused on how to better serve the homeless population with Health and Human Services.
Her job as county CAO took her away from Rodrigo De La Rosa, her husband of 28 years and an employee of Fresno County’s Sheriff’s Office, as well as their 14- and 19-year-old sons, two adult daughters, four dogs and three cats.
“My husband is still there,” she said. “I go there to be a wife and mom on my days off, and he drives here whenever he can, but it’s definitely a balancing act.”
She’s happy that her oldest son has now moved to Salinas. “Before that, I had nobody to talk to except my fish, Marvin — and Marvin and I were having a rough time.”
De La Rosa believes that the kinship she feels with county residents has been helpful at her new post, particularly during interactions with a population still struggling to recover from the flooding.
“When we were visited by the governor, one of the things I asked of him was: ‘Please don’t refer to these people as poor families.’ These are resilient people, and they’re going to come back from this better than they were, because that’s who they are.’
“My goal here, moving forward, is to build an organization that is very responsive to the community, and the ability to change things that aren’t working,” she said.
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