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Chula Vista mayor Mary Salas recounts growing up in Chula Vista, attending SDSU, and her years of public service. (SDSU) Chula Vista mayor Mary Salas recounts growing up in Chula Vista, attending SDSU, and her years of public service. (SDSU)

Chula Vista Mayor, SDSU Alumna Mary Salas Reflects on Breaking Barriers

A passion for community service led her to the top elective office in San Diego County’s second-largest city.
By Nandi Maunder and Mario Sevilla

Six years ago, the residents of Chula Vista elected Mary Salas as mayor making her the first Latina to hold the office. Salas’ commitment to developing and modernizing her community over her 30 years of public service is a reflection of her personal lifelong journey toward reinvention. 

Salas’ childhood and K-12 education prepared her to be a stay-at-home wife and mother, but after her divorce, she had to develop an entirely new set of skills to support her family financially. Salas went back to school, and it was a San Diego State University professor who set her on a course to make history. 

Salas is a fifth-generation Chula Vista native and the second of three daughters; her mother, a homemaker, her father, a World War II veteran and airplane mechanic. She had no ambition for politics but remembers her uncles were all “civically minded people,” one who would become Chula Vista’s first Latino elected to the elementary school board.

“My mom, her idea for me was to become a nice little housewife and have a nice husband that would provide well for me,” Salas recalled. “That’s old school. That’s the reality I was brought up in.”

Salas got married after high school and spent almost two decades as a stay-at-home wife and mother. When her marriage ended in divorce, Salas became the sole earner and provider for her two daughters. 

“A lot of people don't change if you’re in a comfort zone, a routine,” she said. “So if your world is disrupted you’ve got to take a look at that and reset, do a reset. I always felt when I got married out of high school, I was really missing out, and that I had limited my life.” 

Salas decided she wanted to become a teacher or social worker. 

“I always wanted a job where I could interact with people…a job that would take me out of Chula Vista and travel,” she said. “I would sit in my front yard and look across the Silver Strand and just pretend I was traveling on a stagecoach.”

Making School a Family Affair 

Salas enrolled at Southwestern College with her oldest daughter. They often took the same classes, and Salas and her two girls studied together. Her daughters not only saw the future mayor as their hardworking mother but also as a highly motivated student.

“It was the happiest time of my life with my girls,” Salas said, “It was really fun for us to be in that space together, learning together.”

Salas transferred to SDSU because of the university’s “commitment to serving community, and serving (Chula Vista) students.” 

“I think that when you’re looking at SDSU, who they’ve educated over the years, how I really feel that students feel more welcome in that institution than others,” she said.

Salas says the lessons she learned in school broadened her perception of herself. She also discovered political activism and advocacy. Salas said an SDSU social welfare policy professor “opened my eyes to the possibility of the power of politics.”

“There was so much going in my life at that time, I was absorbing it all and changing so much,” she said. “But certainly SDSU’s School of Social Work was great, my master social worker, the women I met through MANA…here we are. They encouraged me.

'What's She Doing in This Space?' 

Salas graduated magna cum laude from SDSU in 1989 with a degree in social work. Her studies and work in the community led her to multiple positions in public service, the height of which was her grassroots mayoral campaign and election in November 2014.

“It was such a great moment not just because I won, but because the community won,” Salas said about her win and campaign process. “I was not accepted as a politician here to begin with…It’s like what’s this? What’s this person doing running? It’s not her turn. What’s she doing in this space?”

“And so it was people believing in me that I could do it. It was them behind me, pushing me,” she said.

As mayor, Salas has increased civic engagement in Chula Vista by working directly with advocacy groups such as MANA de San Diego, which works to “empower Latinas through education, leadership development, community service, and advocacy.” 

Salas’ leadership dates back 30 years, and her advocacy for the South Bay will be felt for decades more. Last month, Salas, joined by state and local leaders, announced a partnership with SDSU to build a state-of-the-art Television, Film, and New Media Studios production studio in Otay Ranch, a project that fulfills Chula Vista’s decades-long goal of building a four-year institution. 

Another major milestone during Salas’ time as mayor is Chula Vista’s $1.35 billion Bayfront project. A new resort and convention center will soon overlook San Diego Bay, a view that once inspired Salas’ childhood dreams of escaping her humble beginnings and working to help people.

“This has been the most incredible opportunity in my life,” said Salas. “It’s not given to many people. I keep that in mind and try to recognize all the people that placed me here. It’s not my power, it’s collective power.”