1930 to 2021
Pride in her Puerto Rican heritage
Dolores Mendez—a lively, eloquent woman whose immense pride in her Puerto Rican heritage was exceeded only by maternal instincts that led her to care for countless foster children as lovingly as she cared for her own—passed away of natural causes at her son Gary’s home in Castro Valley, CA, on Saturday, June 19th, her family members rushing to her side. She was 90.
Her husband and friends called her Loli, mainly because she thought the customary nickname for Dolores, Lola, sounded like “a fat old lady”, which she was not. She adored the Italian operatic pop trio Il Volo and Johnny Cash. She watched the Price Is Right every morning, spent her afternoons with Meredith Viera playing 25 Words or Less, and Bob Hearts Abishola was her favorite sitcom. She looked forward to her 3rd Sunday of the month meetings at the PRUMA (Puerto Rican Union of Mutual Aid) club, a staple in her life since the 1970s. When the pandemic lockdown prevented her from gathering with friends at the club, she was devastated.
The third time was the charm
One of three children, Dolores Rivera was born October 8, 1930, in Oakland, CA, to Rose and Ray Rivera, an upholsterer. She and her younger siblings, Ray and Pearl Jane, remained close all their lives. Raised a Catholic, she graduated from Mission High School, in San Francisco, Class of 1948.
She married three times, first to Robert Tomlinson, then to Armando Gonzales, and finally to William “Bill” Mendez. The third time was the charm, a union that lasted for 60 years.
And children arrived—from various husbands and foster sources. Lest it become too complicated, here is a list. Daughter Veronica Tomlinson, b. 1950; daughter Jeanette Dane, 1950; son Armando Gonzales, 1952; daughter Rolyn Gatti, 1960; daughter Gloria Gonzalez, 1960, and sons Gary Mendez, 1962, and Robert Mendez, 1970.
Although fostering children was Bill’s idea, Rolyn Gatti said Dolores was “a great foster mom. She was strict but ran a good ship.”
She woke the kids up and made hot cereal for them every morning. If someone smart-talked or didn’t behave, Ma, as they called her, advised them of her wishes in stern terms. And they listened. She never disciplined with violence and insisted on organization and neatness.
Always tell the truth
Her one axiom was to always tell the truth because you can’t always remember made-up stories. One quality all appreciated was that Dolores always listened to all sides of a story before making up her mind.
In 1980, Bill and Dolores, purchased the first of three Subway Sandwich stores, which they owned for the next ten years. They employed all those in the family that wanted to work, and many friends as well.
The kids described it as a “wonderful experience.” They said they thoroughly enjoyed spending more time with their parents and watching them operate in a different capacity. They were able to see them as more than just Ma and Pop.
One missed business opportunity Dolores often talked about happened in 1974 when the couple had a chance to buy a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. Thinking no one would buy fried chicken they could make for themselves at home, they passed. They could have kicked themselves. So, when Subway came a calling, they saw a future in the franchise and hopped aboard. But keeping the stores afloat proved difficult, and in 1990, they sold them.
Before Subway, Dolores was a successful real estate agent. Since she had maintained her license, she was able to return to it after the stores were sold.
A tough cookie
At just 4-feet-11 and petite, with a wicked sense of humor, Dolores was as full of life as she was full of fun. She loved to dance and socialize until the wee hours. She was also a tough cookie and never at a loss for words. Her favorite, uh, phrase was “That’s a lot of Bull S—.” An ice-cold Coke her drink of choice, her family looked forward to those times when she indulged in a few sips of wine.
The wine seemed to loosen her tongue to such a degree that she would become a master storyteller with fascinating and captivating tales of her life. They were wonderful evenings, all say.
Daughter Rolyn described her mom as “a powerhouse, intelligent” and she “truly loved to talk with family about current affairs and her animals.”
Dolores had two Chihuahuas, Buster and Jette. When Gary bought his mom one of the puppies as a gift, Dolores didn’t know what to name him. She said to the dog, “Hey, buster, what are we going to name you?” Robert responded, “It sounds to me like his name is Buster.”
And then there was the black feral cat she named Meow, Meow. Dolores would open up her patio door and call out “Meow! Meow! Where are you? Are you hungry?” Meow, Meow would appear and get rewarded with dinner.
Impeccable and well organized
Her home in Fremont, CA was always clean, impeccable, and well organized. Pictures of family covered the walls. She kept the dining room chairs covered with dry cleaner bags when not in use. If any of the kids slacked on chores, it meant coming straight home after school.
The children were also made to go to church every Sunday. When they asked why Ma didn’t accompany them, she explained that she had paid her dues and didn’t have to go anymore. And that someday, they would not have to go to church either.
A born philanthropist, Dolores worked hard for PRUMA, founded to provide death benefits for Puerto Rican families who could not afford to bury their dead. They later offered scholarships to children of members. Dolores organized monthly dances and fundraisers and served on the Executive Board and the Board of Directors in positions ranging from secretary to president, one of her proudest achievements. When she wanted to slow down, she became the editor of their monthly newsletter—with a lot of help from Robert.
Rolyn talked about how her mom encouraged her nursing career and advised her to “be yourself, work hard, and don’t take life for granted.”
That was true in more ways than one for Dolores. When she lost her 13-year-old daughter Veronica in a Canoeing accident on the Russian River on July 4, 1963, you would think it would have soured her forever. But she never let tragedy stop her.
The Lord only gives you what you can handle
In 2005, Dolores nearly lost her own life in a terrible car accident with Bill at the wheel. Their Lincoln Continental flipped down a 50-foot ravine three times. Neither was expected to survive.
The nurses at the hospital dubbed the couple “the love birds” because they were brought in holding hands and refused to let go. In the ER, the medical staff worked on Dolores and William side by side. Dolores, however, suffered with chronic pain for the rest of her life.
When her husband passed in 2017, she was inconsolable for a time. Two years William’s senior, she was certain she would go first. She often said, “The Lord only gives you what you can handle.”
Her later years were dedicated to genealogy research. Discovering family all over the world, Dolores chronicled her findings with great passion. Before Ancestry.com was around, she traveled to the Mormon Temple in Oakland to study ancestral documents.
For fun, she played the slots at the Cache Creek Casino Resort in Brooks, CA.
Dolores stayed in her own home until her failing health forced her to sell. After several moves to assisted living facilities, she landed at her son Gary’s home in Castro Valley, where she would spend her final days. She remodeled his place to make it more comfortable for her. It made her deeply proud and happy to have done this for her son. She would often sit in the kitchen and marvel at how beautiful it was.
Gary was at his mom’s side that final Saturday. At 7 AM, her caregiver, Manu Tuilotolava, arrived as Dolores passed away. Robert, Rolyn and Gloria soon came to say goodbye.
Everyone who knew Dolores felt that she was either their best friend—or favorite cousin—and she felt the same way about them. We can only imagine the grand time she is having finally joining her husband, children, and the family and friends she missed so much.
Predeceased by her husband William; daughters Veronica and Jeanette, and son Armando, Dolores is survived by sons Gary Mendez of Castro Valley and Robert Mendez of Oakland; daughters, Rolyn Gatti of Fremont, Gloria Aguirre of Discovery Bay; grandchildren Armando, Orlando, Mario and Veronica Gonzales, Jason Salmi, Gabriel and Monica Morales, and many great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
A memorial dinner in Dolores Mendez honor is planned for Thursday, August 19th, 2021, at 7 PM at Cache Creek Casino Hotel & Resort, 14455 CA-16, Brooks, CA 95606. A memorial service will occur on Monday, Labor Day, Sept. 6, at 10 AM at Sacramento Valley National Cemetery, 5810 Midway Rd, Dixon, CA 95620.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), https://www.aspca.org/