In the community, Schools

In Ontario, Melendrez finds his voice as councilor, mentor

Eddie Melendrez, quiet-natured son of migrant farmworkers, is emerging as a leader in Ontario.

He has grown more comfortable with public authority, more willing these days to wade into controversial issues from his seat on the Ontario City Council.

He didn’t relent when some members of the Ontario School Board earlier this year questioned whether he was the best choice to fill a vacancy.

Speaking forthrightly, Melendrez told that board he was more than ready to add school duties to his volunteer work.

Melendrez’s evident passion and strong community support led another leading candidate for the school board seat to drop out. Melendrez won the appointment by unanimous vote.

He now holds seats on two of Ontario’s most significant and powerful public entities. He also is on the board of the nonprofit Community in Action.

And Melendrez knows he has the chance to show the area’s Latino people that they, too, can be part of the local power structure.

“I feel a lot of responsibility and a lot of weight,” Melendrez said in a recent interview. “The only way I know how to lead is by example.”

Local supporters

Lynn Johnson, a volunteer who serves on the city Parks Committee with Melendrez, was one of those urging his appointment to the school board. He also backed Melendrez in his run for city council in 2020.

“I support Eddie because of his passion for the people in the community that generally have been underserved,” said Johnson, retired from Saint Alphonsus Medical Center Ontario. “I just feel like he’s the right guy at the right time to begin to affect change locally.”

“It’s huge when it comes to Latinos to see Eddie in a leadership role,” said Mike Padilla, a friend of Melendrez for 20 years who works for the Ontario School District. “It really brings to light the possibilities of what a young man, a Latino, can do. It can be done.”

Melendrez is the descendent of farmworkers from Texas.

“My family has been in this country before it was the United States,” he explained at a recent meeting, referring to territory in Texas that was once part of Mexico.

Migrant farm work brought his family to Vale when he was a child, part of the annual cycle of state-to-state travel to follow crops and work.

When his parents divorced, he spent time with his mother’s strawberry picking crew in Vale. He said he recognizes now the inequities his family and others face. He recalled an occasion when a crop duster began spraying pesticides while he and others were still working in the field.

“Even now, Oregon has one of the most  lax laws on pesticide spraying,” he said.

He also spent time with his father, traveling through the country for field work.


Melendrez, now 38, grew up in what he describes as a tough part of Bakersfield, California. He remembers his mother cooking up meals for “bad ass kids” in the neighborhood. She served them without question, he said.

It was there he took up boxing, a passion he maintains to this day. He said he boxed in a local league and then, as a teenager, was asked to coach younger fighters.

“That was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” Melendrez said. “I was more afraid of that than boxing. That helped me break out of my shell – having those kids look up to me.”

Melendrez had his dreams.

“I thought I’m going to be world champion one day,” he said. “The very next fight, I broke my jaw.”

Eddie Melendrez spars with mentee Adam Nungaray in his garage on Wednesday, June 15, 2022, in preparation for Nungaray’s upcoming match. Melendrez says training and mentoring empowered him “to be a better person – to be a good boxer, but a great coach.”

His mother returned to Vale in 2006 and Melendrez followed.

He held a string of jobs but also found a local boxing program to help. He was back to coaching.

“I just wanted to give back,” he said.

He said at one point he was working for Oregon Trail Mushroom in Vale and then was admitted to a welding program to learn that trade. He said a mentor pushed him to do well and to believe in himself.

After an encouraging conversation with a bank teller, he applied to the Malheur County Juvenile Department. He started in 2019 and worked there seven years.

Padilla said Melendrez worked closely with young people who had gotten into legal trouble.

“He communicated well with parents,” said Padilla, who also worked at the county agency at the time. “He could take a negative and turn it into a positive. He could build a youth’s self-esteem real quick.”

One spoke up for Melendrez during his bid for the school board opening.

Adan Nungaray described for the board about being “a 14-year-old wild child going through a tough time at home and stuck in the juvenile court system.”

He was put on a work crew managed by Melendrez.

“He showed me that he wasn’t there for the money,” Nungaray wrote. “He was genuinely there for the youth – the way he would not just oversee us but would get his hands dirty with us when the jobs were hard.”

Nungaray told school board members that he was now “the 27-year-old mature, head-on-straight Adan that wants to do his best for his family, himself and his community.”

Melendrez moved to Community In Action, helping young people at risk because of homelessness and poverty. He also established a nonprofit to use boxing as one way to connect with and engage local youth. His service won him designation in 2018 as “Man of the Year” by the Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce.

Two years later, he was running for Ontario City Council.

Padilla said he and others convinced Melendrez to run.

“This was nothing something he thought of doing on his own,” Padilla said. He and others “thought he would really be a good fit. We gave him encouragement -– ‘This is right up your alley. You can really make a difference.’”

Melendrez said he was influenced by a candidate for Idaho Senate who spoke of needing to be involved to make change.

“I remember him saying, ‘If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re on the menu,’” Melendrez said.

City Councilor Eddie Melendrez calls for greater community involvement following an appointment review for the Diversity Advisory Committee, which currently has two vacancies. “If you don’t step up, someone will step up for you,” said Melendrez at the Tuesday, June 12, 2022, council Meeting.

He said he wasn’t seeking to oust anyone from the council but rather “show the youth that they can have a say as well.”

The early days of the council were a struggle.

“Many times, I wanted to quit,” Melendrez said in his appearance before the Ontario School Board.

He said community supporters urged him to stick with the role despite the challenges – advice he often gave youth. He had to take his own advice.

He said some people in those early days were upset that he was remaining relatively quiet during council sessions. He said that was largely because he didn’t understand city government or his role.

Settling in

He grew more comfortable, learning about city government and city council procedures.

“I found my voice,” Melendrez said. “I feel a lot better.”

He exhibited that new political confidence when word came earlier this year that Planned Parenthood was establishing a clinic in Ontario as abortion was being outlawed in Idaho. Two councilors spoke of their opposition to the clinic.

Melendrez, who is married and has a daughter, stepped forward with a different view, and providing other information.

“What I was trying to do was to make sure to tell the other side,” Melendrez said.

He said he was surprised how little public backlash there was to his statements. He said he got a couple of critical messages through his city email, one writer saying they would remember his actions at the next election and another reminding Melendrez that Ontario is a conservative community.

His bid for the school board generated some heat as well.

He told the board in early May that he remains committed to helping local youth, particularly youth of color.

He said it would be great “for youth to see someone that looks like them making leadership decisions.”

The board members were divided.

Adding a new role

Director Blanca Rodriguez supported Melendrez so children “see themselves reflected” in school administration. Director Matt Stringer said that the “makeup of the board should match the student demographics of the district.”

Director Eric Evans said he wanted a candidate with children in the school system. Melendrez later explained his daughter attends Four Rivers Community School because of its immersive language program.

Evans said he thought the application for Melendrez seemed “an afterthought” and that “I question his ability to give time.”

Director Craig Geddes said he was looking for someone with deep involvement already in the school district.

“I don’t see the same commitment to the school district from Eddie” as from another leading candidate, Jamie Taylor.

But at a subsequent board session, Taylor told the board “I’ve had my eyes opened” and told Melendrez that “it is impressive what you’ve done with the youth.” She took herself out of the running.

Geddes and Evans said they had not presented their concerns clearly previously and both changed to support Melendrez.

Janie Mandrez wrote the board to support him.

“Representation matters at all levels of leadership, especially when making critical decisions that impact communities of color,” she wrote. “With close to 50% of the population now Hispanic, leadership must represent and reflect its community.”

In a letter signed by 25 people, the board was told that “the majority of citizens and children in Ontario are Hispanic or Latino yet they are severely underrepresented.” The letter supported Melendrez because he has an “an in-depth understanding of poverty, culture and the obstacles our families face.”

Another writer, signing as M. Hernandez, chided Evans and Geddes for their treatment of Melendrez.

“Eddie doesn’t look like you but he looks like my community,” Hernandez wrote. “Eddie has served kids and families you have never served.”

Hernandez described as “embarrassing and shameful” the behavior of the two directors.

“You are ignoring the importance of my community and their unique needs so you can continue putting on more people that think like you and have the same experience as you,” Hernandez wrote.

Padilla has confidence Melendrez will continue developing as a leader in Ontario.

“He’s not done learning and growing,” Padilla said. “With more time, with more knowledge, I think he’s got a lot to offer the community.”

Melendrez, who is now a community organizer for the Oregon Food Bank, said one of his goals is to get more people volunteering for civic duty in Ontario.

“It’s really easy to vent,” Melendrez said. “It’s another thing to show up, to volunteer, to be part of the solution.”

City Councilor Eddie Melendrez is tackled by his daughter, niece, and nephew at play in his home in Ontario.

Contact Editor Les Zaitz by email at [email protected].

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