Long time the Arroyo Grande resident, Caren Ray has never let being a woman get in the way of achieving anything she has ever wanted to do. Ever.
“My whole life has been all about breaking that gender barrier,” Ray said on a recent rainy afternoon inside Cafe Andreini in the Village of Arroyo Grande, where she spoke about the last 50 years of her life. “I didn’t set out to do that, but that has been my whole life.”
Born in 1968 in Hollywood at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, Ray, along with her younger brother, Chad, and their parents, lived in the City of Angels until the early 1980s when their parents divorced. It was at that time Ray’s mother moved out of the city with her children, relocating to the Central Coast—Arroyo Grande to be exact. Ray has lived in Tree City USA, also known as Arroyo Grande ever since, except for a short stint following her high school days when she left for the big city to earn her bachelor’s degree at UCLA.
Now, 36 years later, Ray has been elected to lead her beloved city as its mayor for the next two years; she will be sworn into office on Dec. 11, serving a two-year term and also making her the only female in the last 30-plus years to be elected to the seat. She is also only the second female in the last 100 years to be elected mayor in Arroyo Grande.
One of the neatest experiences thus far, since winning the election last month, has been receiving a card from the only other elected female mayor in city history, B’ Ann Smith. Smith served as mayor some 34 years ago.
“I don’t think I could have received a card from any other person (that would have meant as much), and it came as a surprise because I don’t know her,” Ray said, noting Smith wrote she knew firsthand the responsibility of the job and believed Ray would rise to the occasion. “I was just in awe.”
Although Ray realizes being mayor doesn’t carry more weight than any of her fellow council members on the dais, she does have plans for how she wants to see council meetings conducted and the face she wants to present to the community.
“I want to get teenagers to come into our chambers,” said Ray who advocates for the democratic process, as messy as it is sometimes. “I want women to see that a working mom can do this job. I want young men to see that this is the norm, that we have women and men serving.”
Ray’s sons were 5 and 8 when she started her political career. They are now 16 and 18. The boys learned adult skills like how to shake someone’s hand and be around adults at a young age because of Ray’s involvement with politics, which also presented opportunities that likely would not have been available to her otherwise.
“Politics was a great gift for my kids,” she said. “It allowed me to have conversations with them about their lives, social media and how to take that punch. I got a lot of parenting and teachable moments out of politics, so as a mom it wasn’t a sacrifice. It was a gift.”
Ray has also served on the City Council and the Arroyo Grande Planning Commission, with her upcoming stint as mayor marking her 14th year in public service. She was first appointed to the Planning Commission in 2005, when she was still a stay-at-home mom taking a hiatus from her high school teaching job in Santa Maria to raise her two small sons.
Ray served on the commission until 2010 when she joined the council—another appointment—and ran unopposed for that seat in 2012. When 4th District County Supervisor Paul Teixeira unexpectedly died in June 2013, Ray was appointed by the governor to fill that vacant seat. That appointment saw her become the sixth woman in the county’s 150-year history to serve as a supervisor, a seat she held for two years. She lost her bid to retain the seat to now incumbent 4th District County Supervisor Lynn Compton.
“I just expected to serve four years (on the City Council). I never in a thousand years expected to be supervisor,” Ray said about her successful appointment to the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors.
Other firsts that Ray can also chalk up to breaking down those gender walls include her years of playing water polo at Arroyo Grande High School, where she not only played boys water polo, but she was also the first girl to ever compete at the varsity level on the boys team. She had to play with the boys because there was no girls’ team. Ray earned two letters as a water polo player and also lettered every year she swam competitively at the high school. She was AGHS’s first-ever female varsity starter for the boys’ water polo team.
“All the self-confidence I have, and success, I can attribute to going to great schools, having great teachers, coaches and a great community that gave me opportunities,” Ray said.
By her senior year, she was also a cheerleader, a top student—Ray graduated 17th in the class of 1986—and having the time of her life. She was headed to UCLA to study pre-law and was going to be the first in her family to attend a four-year college. Both her parents only attended junior college.
Prior to attending UCLA, Ray made an unintended pit stop at Cuesta College, where she was encouraged to join the men’s water polo team by its then-coach, who told her if she could physically handle the game and workouts, he had no problem with her being female.
“That was the end,” Ray said with a laugh. “I’m going to Cuesta because there really weren’t any opportunities for girls in water polo at the time. I am the one and only female that has ever played at Cuesta for men’s (water polo). I wasn’t starter. I wasn’t the best on the team. I wasn’t the worst on the team, but I worked really hard and I learned a lot about myself. I am very proud of that. It’s a big achievement.”
While attending UCLA, Ray worked for a small law firm in Westwood and although she loved her job, she realized that she didn’t love the profession. After graduating, she wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted to do and wound up traveling around Europe and the former Soviet Union for a bit. The Berlin Wall had recently come down and there was political unrest in many of the countries Ray visited, which had a profound impact on the young American.
“I didn’t think that was going to be a life-changing thing,” Ray said about her trip, adding she decided to become a teacher when shereturned to San Luis Obispo County after her travels, attending Cal Poly to read her teaching credentials. “It gave me a sense of humility and community because as Americans we are so isolated from the rest of the world, just geographically speaking, that it’s easy to think that what goes on here is the norm and when you get out there and find out it’s not the norm, it’s very special and worth fighting for.”
Ray has taught social sciences at Santa Maria High School since finishing her studies locally in 1993 and was also the first female hired by her department in the last two-plus decades.
“Interestingly, I grew up surrounded by men and I put myself, for whatever reason, into a man’s world,” Ray said. “I have brothers and that is probably why, because I am most comfortable (around men). My teammates were guys.” During her off time, Ray enjoys traveling and working to restore her Victorian home—a family effort—in the Village of Arroyo Grande. She is also an avid NFL and NHL fan, and it goes without saying she loves Arroyo Grande. “Truly, I believe we (Arroyo Grande) are the best city in the county and you couldn’t pay me to live anywhere else.”