DOWNEY -- A 20-year-old woman, barely two years out of high school, working at Coca-Cola and the founder of her own non-profit.
A 24-year-old professional golfer.
A 16-year-old owner of a vintage fashion boutique store.
These are just some of the young people listed in our inaugural “40 Under 40” feature, included in this magazine. These are 40 people under the age of 40 who are doing extraordinary things. Each of the people listed either currently resides in Downey, are natives of Downey or attended Downey schools.
The list includes high-achieving students, entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, animators, athletes, actors and actresses, singers, models, journalists, community leaders, and more.
Compiling the “40 under 40” list was easy because the number of young people in Downey who are doing incredible things is staggering. The excruciating part was reducing the list to just 40 people.
Statistics show that Downey’s population is becoming younger, meaning the city’s reputation as an aging, conservative bedroom community is fast becoming a thing of the past. Downey is angling to become the medical hub of Southeast Los Angeles County (and with it comes high-paying medical jobs), and there are new stores and restaurants catering not only to young people but growing families.
Downtown Downey is indicative of this youth trend with its new nightlife, which would have been unheard of 10 or 15 years ago. On Friday or Saturday nights, it’s not uncommon to see lines snaking outside Mi Cielo or DB Lounge.
The tricky part is keeping these successful people in Downey. While there isn’t much the city can do about soaring real estate prices, Downey can remain an attractive option by investing in amenities that young people value, such as good schools, access to public transportation, walkable shopping districts and bicycle lanes. It helps that Downey has a stable local government.
One of the “40 under 40” selections is Omar Gatica-Analco, who graduated from Warren High School in 2016 with highest honors. He’s in the Bay Area now, five semesters away from a Bioengineering degree from UC Berkeley. But his hometown isn’t far from his mind.
“After finishing my college education, I hope to return to Downey and give back to my community in any way I can,” Omar said in an interview conducted via Facebook. “It's because of Downey that I have been blessed with the opportunities set before me. Words cannot express my gratitude.”
Downey indeed invested in Omar via its top-notch schools, safe neighborhoods, and philanthropy. Let’s hope he and other successful people like him return home.
Below are this year's "40 Under 40" selections, in no particular order. Thank you for making Downey special.
Rogelio Pardo has spent much his of life helping others, from his days at Warren High School to UCLA, where he studied environmental engineering before pivoting to transportation planning. His work with the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition led to him to help found the Downey Bicycle Coalition (DBC).
Rogelio and the DBC helped identify funds for Downey to pursue, leading to the development and adoption of the city’s Bicycle Master Plan, as well as funds to host a CicLAvia-type open streets event.
Rogelio returned to graduate school at USC for a master’s degree in urban planning. While in school, he continued his advocacy efforts while working for the region’s metropolitan planning organization (SCAG)
George Manzanilla is a freelance editor and video producer. While attending USC, he was turned on to the world of surf photography and surf films. “I loved surfing, travel, cameras, music, it just mixed everything I liked into one thing.”
What started as a hobby become a career. He traveled to exotic surf locations shooting and editing surf films, choosing to work freelance as a way to have more control over his work. Shooting and editing surf and skate projects evolved into working for different apparel brands who were hungry for video content to promote their brands.
Today, he works primarily as a freelance commercial video editor on commercial projects for companies like Nike, Ford, NBA, Patagonia, Billabong and Stance.
You may not recognize his name or face, but chances are you’ve tasted his creations.
A budding restaurateur, Dino Marougas created the menus at Gaucho Grill - Downey and Poached Kitchen. He has helped open more than five restaurants during his career and in 2017 created Parea Restaurant Group.
Marougas has plans to open two more Downey restaurants in 2018: Louks: Greek Baby Donuts and PitaGR: Greek Street Food.
The granddaughter of renowned Mexican performer Pedro Infante, Lupita Infante is making her own name in the music world.
The Downey High grad released her first studio album last year and is currently participating in “La Voz Mexico,” the Mexican version of “The Voice.” Her popularity further soared this past October, when she was written up in “People Espanol.”
Even with her budding music career, Lupita found time for school, graduating from UCLA this past summer.
Nick Velez enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 2005. In 2006, he deployed with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion 4th Marines as part of the Surge Strategy into the most dangerous cities of Iraq. Upon returning home, Velez opened Bastard’s American Canteen in downtown Downey, proudly named after his battalion.
Velez is founder of the non-profit Save the Brave, an organization that helps veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He remains a staunch advocate for the veteran community, serving them through outreach and fundraising efforts.
A bona fide community leader, Russell Skersick sits on several local boards, including the Downey YMCA. He is past president of the Rotary Club of Downey and has earned several awards in recognition of his volunteerism. The Downey Unified School District’s board of education appointed Russell to the Measure O oversight committee to oversee the responsible distribution of the $248 million bond measure.
Russell served as president of the Downey Association of Realtors and has testified before Congress on the importance of homeownership. He is executive vice president of Century 21 My Real Estate.
Emely Lopez’s community involvement started early at Warren High, where she belonged to Girls League and ASB. She served on the Downey Youth Commission for two years and was Miss Downey for 2016.
At Cal State Long Beach, she is involved with student government, holding the position of College of Education Senator and Student Ambassador. She enjoys researching issues in education that are taking place at a local, state and national level. “The inequality in
our school systems is something I’m passionate about transforming so that all students, regardless of socioeconomic background, can receive the tools and resources they deserve to succeed,” she says.
Lopez plans to begin her career as an elementary school teacher and eventually work her way up to one day serve as superintendent of the Downey Unified School District.
Genesis Jara is a first-generation college student who was raised here in Downey. As a freshman at Cal State Long Beach, she was the community relations director of the Hispanic Students Business Association and eventually president of the organization as a sophomore. As a junior she now serves as the ASI Chief Government Relations Officer, advocating for students’ needs at local and state government levels.
She has worked for companies such as Amazon, Honda and Coca-Cola, and interned for California state Assemblymember Cristina Garcia.
With her mom, Jara recently founded her own nonprofit organization, Gown Me Up, which provides high school girls with gowns for prom.
Jara plans to one day run for local office in Downey and eventually the state, running on a platform of social justice and advocacy for underrepresented communities.
Savannah was a 4-year letter winner in golf at Warren High, leading the Bears to three CIF Divisionals. She was named Warren High’s Rookie of the Year in 2007, and league MVP as a junior and senior.
She went on to UC Riverside, winning Player of the Year honors for 2014-15. She then turned pro and won the Texas Women’s Open and two Cactus Tour events in 2016. She made her LPGA debut this year.
A two-time mayor of Downey, Fernando Vasquez was elected to the Downey City Council in 2010, when the city was still very much in the throes of a crippling national recession. As a councilman, Vasquez was an enthusiastic supporter of redevelopment, and no redevelopment project was bigger than the Promenade at Downey: 1 million square feet of retail, office and restaurant space that replaced a formerly vacant Boeing plant.
Vasquez invested his own money in downtown Downey, partnering with two others to open Mi Cielo, a rooftop lounge at 2nd Street and Downey Avenue that attracts trendy young adults for cocktails. Vasquez is also president of Prima Waste Management, Inc., a company he founded in 2011.
Christian Brown was well-known around Downey and the surrounding communities as a staff writer for the Downey and Norwalk Patriot newspapers for several years.
Brown received his bachelor’s degree in Communications with an emphasis in print journalism in 2009, and a master’s degree in journalism from USC. After a lengthy tenure as staff writer for the Downey Patriot, Brown took over editor duties of the Norwalk Patriot newspaper in July of 2016.
In August of this year, Brown accepted a position as head of the journalism department at Cerritos College.
Even as a young student at St. Joseph’s High School, Downey’s Jacquelinne Mejia knew she wanted a career in journalism. She interned at the Downey Patriot, writing feature stories on local personalities and getting her feet wet as a budding journalist.
After graduating high school in 2007, she went to the University of Missouri-Columbia, graduating as a journalism major. She wasted no time in starting her career, landing a job as business reporter at the San Fernando Valley Business Journal before becoming deputy editor for Lossip.com. Her career really took off in 2015, when she was named social media editor for KNBC-4.
In 2016, Mejia left KNBC for Fusion TV, relocating to Miami where she manages the television network’s social media platforms.
Marc Shelton is owner and proprietor of the Lock & Key Social Drinkery, the highly-regarded bar and restaurant in downtown Downey. The restaurant’s signature dish is a 40-oz. tomahawk steak and video of it went viral on Facebook, amassing more than 67 million views.
Before opening the Lock & Key, Shelton worked at the Rio Hondo Event Center, where his father managed the restaurant and catering facility.
After graduating with highest honors from Warren High in 2016, Omar Gatica-Analco went off to UC Berkeley, where he is majoring in bioengineering with a concentration in either medical devices or tissue engineering. He will obtain a minor in electrical engineering and computer science.
This past summer, Omar interned at Seung-Wuk Lee nanomaterials lab, where he worked as an undergraduate researcher. He also became a member of the Bioengineering Honors Society, which organizes outreach events for high school students interested in STEM-related careers.
“After finishing my college education I hope to return to Downey and give back to my community in any way that I can,” Omar says. “It's because of my community that I have been blessed with the opportunities set before me. Words cannot express my gratitude.”
Is there anything Hector Beltran doesn’t do? A jack-of-all-trades, Beltran is a web designer, capable of building a stunning e-commerce website. He is general manager of Paramount Auto Center, his family’s automobile dealership, and an artist, helping his friend Don Lamkin with the downtown mural “Downey Doodle-icious.”
He has more than 10 years experience in combat training, specifically Brazilian jiu-jitsu, pankration and MMA. He’s a board member and vice president for the Downey Museum of Art and committee member for the Public Works Committee representing District 3. He’s also ran a Christmas toy drive for the last 10 years.
This year, Beltran helped launch Kingston Coffee Co., which delivers churro-flavored cold brew coffee and freshly-roasted coffee beans from around the world straight to the customer’s door.
In an era where everyone wants to be a model, Brandi Bondoc is the real deal. The Warren High School alumnus travels the world as a highly sought-after fashion model, making her a familiar face in fashion shows and in magazines.
Repped by Newark Models, Bondoc chronicles her travels on Twitter and Instagram. She works at Disneyland in her downtime.
After studying radio and journalism at Cerritos College, Downey’s Patty Rodriguez landed an internship with radio behemoth Clear Channel as a marketing and promotions assistant. From there, she was off and running.
Rodriguez climbed the corporate ladder and today is senior producer of the nationally syndicated radio show “On-Air with Ryan Seacrest.” In 2013, she launched Mala, her own custom line of gold and silver necklaces that embrace her cultural heritage.
A year later, Rodriguez founded Lil’ Libros, a book series that introduces bilingual literature to children by exposing them to Latin American culture through pictures and words.
As owner of Famous DJ Agency, Francisco Sandoval manages one of the fastest-growing DJ services in the area. The company has provided music and hosting services for a number of corporate clients, including Macy’s, JC Penney and Home Depot.
Famous DJ Agency also lends it talents to local events, including gigs at the 24 Hour Relay for LIfe, Rose Hills Memorial Park, and at local ribbon-cuttings and business mixers. Francisco even served as Master of Ceremonies at the East L.A. Christmas Parade this year, where Oscar de la Hoya was grand marshal.
Miranda Cosgrove gained national prominence in 2003 when she landed a prominent role in the Jack Black film “School of Rock.” She was a recurring cast member in the Nickelodeon series “Drake & Josh” before getting her own tween sitcom, “iCarly.” Cosgrove also voiced Margo in the animated film “Despicable Me” and its sequels.
In addition to acting, Cosgrove is also a pop singer, having released an album titled “Sparks Fly.” She embarked a national tour in 2011 in support of the album.
A talented singer, Natalia Loya has been singing publicly in Downey since her days at Doty Middle School. She finished as runner-up on “La Voz Kids,” the Spanish language edition of “The Voice.
Her debut album, “Por Primera Vez,” was released last year. She has also opened for Las Cafateras at the Fonda Theatre. Loya recently expanded into makeup services, earning a loyal following on social media.
Mikayla Minnig is one of 300,000 children nationwide diagnosed with juvenile arthritis, a painful chronic disease. In response, the former Miss Downey princess founded Change For Arthritis, a non-profit that supports arthritis research.
Minnig has testified before Congress about juvenile arthritis and the need for increased government research funding to find a cure. She is also an ambassador for the Arthritis Foundation.
It’s probably safe to say that an animator’s dream job would be at Pixar Animation. Briana Ornelas is living that dream.
Briana was always an amateur artist, but she really discovered her passion in an art class at Stauffer Middle School. At Warren High, she joined the school’s animation program, which is where she created her first animation project. Upon graduation, Briana was accepted into the prestigious Laguna College of Art and Design. Not only was she accepted, she received a $40,000 scholarship.
Last year, Briana was accepted into Pixar’s highly-competitive internship program. The job required Briana to relocate to northern California, where she spent the summer working on different assignments and learning Pixar’s unique computer animation software.
Today, Briana is a freelance animation artist who is poised to do big things in the industry.
Jared Head is a rocket scientist currently working at Griffith Observatory, showing off the wonders of the cosmos to the public. He also appears as a co-host on TMRO (pronounced “tomorrow”), one of the longest-running and most-viewed podcasts specifically dedicated to covering spaceflight and space sciences.
Head continues to work as an advocate for the increased opportunity and participation of women, people of color and the LGBTQ+ community in STEM fields.
Eric Pierce is editor of the Downey Patriot, managing the newspaper’s newsroom and guiding its coverage of local news. Earlier this year he also assumed editing duties at the Downey Patriot’s sister publication, the Norwalk Patriot.
Eric is a board member of the Downey YMCA and Downey Symphony, and is past president of Gangs Out of Downey and Downey Los Amigos Kiwanis.
He is an appointed member of the Downey Unified School District’s Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee, which is responsible for ensuring the proper spending of the $248 million Measure O bond fund.
As head of the Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Cal State Los Angeles, Barney Santos is teaching a generation of students the skills needed to become successful entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurship is something Santos knows plenty about. He founded Gentefy, a company that invests in and builds companies that ignite redevelopment in Hispanic communities. He is also the former head of Exploratory New Ventures for New Business Models Unit at Unilever, an international consumer goods company.
A standout softball player at Downey High, Anissa Urtez earned a full-ride scholarship to the University of Utah. A shortstop, she made an immediate impact her freshman year, hitting for a .353 average and helping turn 27 double plays, making the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team.
After graduation, Urtez signed to play softball professionally with National Pro Fastpitch. She was also named to the Mexican National Team.
Alicia Edquist started working as an instructional lab technician in Cerritos College’s Journalism department in 2006, teaching budding journalists how to report stories through immersive storytelling. In 2014, she was promoted to an adjunct journalism professor.
She served more than two years as the communications director for the Journalism Association of Community Colleges and runs the Twitter account @AE_Media, where she reports local news. Edquist has raised thousands of dollars for breast cancer research via the now-defunct Avon 39 Walk.
Ricky Ostendi is a Downey native who enjoys painting, sculpting, and his favorite of all drawing. Inspired by cartoons like “Looney Tunes” and “Tom & Jerry,” Ricky thought to himself, “This is something I need to do.”
He started at Griffiths Middle School, while teachers taught him of Pharaohs and pyramids; Ricky would draw them rather than take conventional notes. His passion for drawing grew year after year as any and every elective class that he took had something to do with art. After graduating from Warren High School in 2001, Ricky decided that he still had room to grow as an artist. He enrolled at the Art Institute of Orange County and graduated with a BA in Media Arts & Animation.
Today, you can find Ricky’s work in a number of restaurants, bars, and galleries. His original urban style art is easy to spot and even easier to enjoy.
A sophomore at UC Berkeley, Downey’s Paul Shin is leading an effort to become the first group to successfully fund, design, and build a rocket entirely developed by students that can be launched into space.
The project is promising enough that it has been selected to be discussed at the country’s most renowned aerospace conference -- the IEEE Aerospace Conference -- in 2018. The rocket will be publicly unveiled at the 2018 International Space Development Conference next May.
Shin was a member of Downey High’s Striking Vikings robotics team.
Mikayla Bisson’s foray into community service began at Doty Middle School, when she became vice president of Builders Club. After matriculating to Downey High, she began as service project chair for the school’s KIWIN’s club, a service organization for teens in California, Nevada and Hawaii.
MIkayla went on to become the club’s treasurer and president, before becoming a KIWIN’s ambassador. On April 23 of this year, she was voted to lead KIWIN’s as its governor, an important position that puts her in charge of all 53 KIWIN’s clubs and its 2,600 members. She also presides over district conventions and meetings of the 18-member Board of Trustees.
Boasting a 4.32 GPA, Mikayla is on track to graduate early at age 17. She’s already been accepted to Central Michigan University but other options are Ohio State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Maria Dolores Torres Muro
Born in Zacatecas, Mexico, Maria’s parents immigrated to the U.S. Though she was an undocumented immigrant, Maria’s parents taught her early on that hard work and an education were the keys to success.
Maria began attending college while still a junior in high school. She earned a Master’s degree in clinical psychology on top of her bachelor’s in the same field. For the past 11 years, Maria has worked in the non-profit sector. She is the executive administrator for a legal non-profit association and is a founding member of Ferias Legales, a 501 (c)3 organization that provides free legal resources for underserved communities.
Before there was Stay Gallery, Downey artists had virtually zero public space to showcase their works. They were relegated to pop-up exhibits in restaurants, office buildings, theater lobbies, basically any open space that would have them.
Valentin Flores was one such artist and he decided to do something about it. In 2007, he founded Downey Art Exhibit, a not-for-profit entity that worked not only to give artists proper space in Downey, but to infuse the community with a healthy dose of culture. Stay Gallery opened in 2012, with Flores as executive director.
Today, armed with dual master’s degrees in urban planning and public administration from USC, Flores is a principal at Crawford Group, a design and marketing agency; program director for the Downey MAD apprenticeship program; partner of Parea Restaurant Group, and vice president and founding board member of the Downey Foundation for Educational Opportunities.
Only 12 years old, Downey actress Lainee Rhodes is already amassing an impressive list of film and television credits. She has appeared on the ABC comedy “Fresh Off the Boat” and the A&E documentary series “Obsessed.”
She’s appeared in more than a dozen films, including “Live By Night,” a 2016 drama directed by Ben Affleck. Lainee can also be seen in television commercials for Coca-Cola and Red Vines.
If that’s not enough, she’s also a model, represented by Beverly Hills-based Mavrick Artists Agency.
Zoey Luna first made headlines in 2014, when she successfully sued the Downey Unified School District after she was harassed on campus for being transgender. The lawsuit was settled out of court, with the school district agreeing to “ensure that gender nonconforming and transgender students can participate fully in the District’s programs and activities in a safe, educational environment.”
Since then, Luna has become a vocal activist in defense of transgender rights. She was the subject of a documentary, “Raising Zoey,” which chronicles her struggles as a trans Latina.
Jason Barquero is the official voice of the South Bay Lakers, the minor league affiliate of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Barquero’s work in radio began at Cerritos College, where he worked on the campus radio station. He went on to graduate from Cal State Fullerton with a bachelor’s degree in Speech Communication. In 2009, he completed his master’s degree in sports management at Cal State Long Beach and began producing on-air news reports for LakersNation.com. Barquero has also worked for Univision and was a finalist to be the San Diego Padres’ PA announcer in 2014.
Education has also played a large part in Barquero's life. A 1998 Warren High graduate, Barquero is a founding board member of the Downey Foundation for Educational Opportunities. He's worked in higher education for 13 years as a career counselor and is now at Occidental College as their Senior Director of Employer and Alumni Relations.
Prior to that, he was with Claremont College for six years in both alumni relations and career counseling.
It wasn’t long ago that Criseida Serpas was pouring drinks at her job as a bartender at a local dive bar. She didn’t hate the work, but her passion lay elsewhere.
This year, Serpas ditched the security of a steady paycheck and launched Criseida Couture, her signature line of curvy cocktail dresses. The dresses, which Serpas describes as “classic with a little bit of pinup vibe,” have been an immediate hit. Vera Jimenez, a KTLA meteorologist, wears the dresses often during her nightly segments.
“When you’re 80, what are you going to regret not having done,” Serpas recently posted on Facebook. “Now’s the time! In case you don’t have support, I’m here to tell you GO FOR IT!”
A budding entrepreneur, Samantha Tafolla has built a thriving business selling vintage clothing.
She sold her clothes at flea markets throughout Southern California and online through Poshmark. In November of this year, at only 16 years old, she opened a brick-and-mortar store -- Mas Vintage -- in Downey.
“We’ve been flea market vendors and weren’t really looking to open up a store as I am still in high school but the opportunity opened in the city of Downey, where I grew up all my life,” she says. “We are super stoked for the future.”
Longtime Downey resident Jovon Bernal had her first experience with yoga when she was pregnant with her daughter around 13 years ago. Having enjoyed her experience, she continued to study the physical and spiritual practice. Eventually, she went on to become a yoga instructor.
In 2016, Jovon opened Downey Yoga, the first yoga studio in the city of Downey. The boutique studio offers a variety of yoga classes, including Vinyasa, pre-natal and restorative.
“I am most proud that we can offer this ancient and beneficial practice to the community,” Jovon said. “The city of Downey, which I love very much, and the surrounding areas can now enjoy and practice yoga locally.”
Eight years in the Marines took Lloyd Vernis to Afghanistan and southeast Asia, but like so many before him, it brought him back with a fair number of struggles.
Vernis struggled to reacclimate to civilian life. He battled PTSD. Yet Vernis’ saving grace would also be picked up while he served his country: cutting hair.
Vernis attended barber school for formal training and soon after opened Pride Barbershop in downtown Downey. Vernis is also active in community service, particularly with organizations that help U.S. military.
Eileen Garrido was born with Tetralogy of Fallot, a serious heart condition that caused her heart to provide insufficient oxygen to her body. She underwent three heart surgeries: at age 5 weeks, age 13 months, and at age 15.
Eileen dedicated her life to giving back, forming the Beating Hearts Foundation, which supports children with serious heart conditions. She is a junior ambassador to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and was selected by the Archbishop of Los Angeles to receive the Future Leader Angel Award by the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders.
A talented singer, she has released several CDs and performs across the country.