Mónica Morales was 2 years old when her family immigrated from Mexico to Watsonville. She grew up attending local elementary schools, graduating from Watsonville High School while her mother worked in nearby agriculture fields and canneries.
This background, she said, is sure to guide her in her new role as Santa Cruz County’s new Health Services Agency (HSA) director. Morales was announced as the new director on Nov. 29.
“I’m still processing,” Morales said. “I’m very excited. I have a lot of roots in Watsonville … For me, coming back is almost like doing a 360. I’m proud to come back and serve my community.”
The position will have Morales overseeing the health and well-being of county residents, focusing not only on clinical services but also broader prevention. The job entails keeping communities as informed as possible about physical, emotional and behavioral health issues, and protecting the most vulnerable residents.
“I want to continue the work the leadership of the county has already been doing,” Morales said, “so that all individuals can rebound from the losses of the pandemic. It’s not just about health. It’s about our institutions, businesses, systems … The county has a strong role to play, so that we are rebounding in an equitable manner.”
Key priorities, Morales said, include ensuring that services are available to residents. The county is experiencing a major increase in homelessness, and rising cases of suicide, overdose and anxiety—especially in teenagers.
The healthcare workforce has also been severely impacted, she said.
“Even before the pandemic we were underfunded,” she said. “During the pandemic, people realized the role of public health. It was eye-opening.”
County Administrative Director Carlos Palacios said in a press release that the county conducted a nationwide search to fill the position.
“It became clear that the best candidate was raised in Watsonville and knows our community well,” said Palacios, also a Watsonville resident. “I’m pleased to welcome Mónica and her family back home, and look forward to working with her to protect the health and well-being of our residents.”
Morales earned bachelor’s in sociology from UC Santa Cruz and a master’s in public administration from Columbia University in New York. She currently holds the position of Deputy Director of the Center for Healthy Communities for the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), where she oversees environmental and occupational health, injury and violence, chronic disease prevention, suicide prevention, and substance use and addiction programs.
She is also a planning member of the California Children’s Behavioral Health Initiative, a representative on the UC Merced Farmworker Research project and on the California Health and Human Services Alzheimer’s Advisory Committee. She is a board member of the National Association of Chronic Disease directors, serving as president from 2019-20.
Morales has also served as the deputy director of CDPH’s Fusion Center for Strategic Development and in several roles with the Nevada State Division of Public and Behavioral Health, including statewide Chronic Disease Director and Deputy Bureau Chief for Child, Family and Community Wellness.
Morales said she is eager to return to Watsonville. She will move back with her family: a 7-year-old daughter, 4-year son and her spouse, Adriana (and their dog, “Choco”).
“Being from the area, I have a sense of the dynamics,” she said. “My relatives still live there, so I keep ties. I recognize the pockets that have been underserved.”
Being a woman of color, she said, has also helped her “connect the dots” in rural and working class communities.
“I do have a lot to learn, but having that experience brings a lot to the position,” she said.