The dental patients of Dr. Arnel Mariano, have known Carmen Gastelum-Serrano as the office manager for the past 26 years. She has been the one who confirmed their appointments, explained dental work and truly cared for the patients.
“I enjoyed talking to the community, explaining dental work and how it was best for them. I present the information to the people so they felt I was not smelling their pocketbook, but giving them information… a treatment plan for the best way to work with their insurance and then talk about out of pocket. A lot of people don’t work that way,” she said.
Gastelum-Serrano recently retired from her office manager job after a total of 31 years. She was first hired at City Dental under Dr. West and worked for him for five years then Mariano bought the practice and she stayed for the next 26 years.
Gastelum-Serrano, who has known some of her patients since the time they were very young and they are now in their 20s and have their own children. She felt an attachment to the regular patients of the practice she had known for a long time, and took the time to call them and announce her retirement - so they would not be taken by surprise the next time they went to the office.
Although Gastelum-Serrano loved her work she felt it was time to stop. “I want to enjoy my senior life, spend time on myself, enjoy my husband and grandchildren. I thought of staying until I was 70. My dad worked until he was 62 and then died at 73. He worked so hard, he gave it his all, but the end part of his life was taken away,” she said.
Gastelum-Serrano moved to Imperial Beach from Chula Vista with her family in 1968 when she was 15 years old. She is the only girl in the family and has six brothers. She liked her role as the only sister and felt as their caretaker and enjoyed hanging out with her brothers. She said it got harder to be the only girl as she became older and started to date since her brothers were very protective of her.
Gastelum-Serrano said she was raised as beach kid, surfing, doing track and gymnastics and geared towards sports. She played AAA softball and the love for the sport has kept her coaching it until she was 50 years old.
For two years she worked for the IB Times when John and Tania Mahoney owned the newspaper. She was a photographer and videographer, recording city council meetings with an old fashion video camera.
Gastelum-Serrano likes being involved in her community, something she has kept up over the years. She credits her mom Ofelia Gastelum for that, since she was a member of many clubs in the city including the Whalers and the the Woman’s Club. Her father Larry Gastelum was of Yaqui Native American descent. Her mom was Mexican and Navajo although Gastelum-Serrano said it was never verified. The family lived in house at Citrus Avenue and Corvina Street. “We have fantastic memories of us children there,” she said.
Ten years ago her brother Alex passed away, followed by her father two weeks later. Gastelum-Serano said it was devastating for the family. “For some reason God made it happen that way. He thought we could handle it,” she said.
Her brother Alex was known as the “dream catcher” guy. Three years after his passing, one her granddaughter asked Gastelum-Serrano if she could teach her how to make dream catchers. Gastelum-Serrano taught her granddaughter how and continues making dream catchers to this day.
For the past 15 years Gastelum-Serrano and her husband Eli, who is of Chumash Native American descent, have been involved in the Native American community. He is a drummer with a group called “Native Drums” which prays for people who pass away and for healing.
One of her brothers, Anthony, was instrumental in starting the Pow Wow by the Sea in Imperial Beach about 15 year ago. Gastelum-Serrano has been involved with the event over the years.
Gastelum-Serrano recalls becoming interested in her heritage when she was in her mid to late 20s when one of her brothers took her to a drumming event. “I felt at peace,” she said of that day.
Gastelum-Serrano is staying busy these days making dream catchers, bracelets and feeding and watching a blue jay that comes by her house around this time of year. She also prays for people who are sick or who passed away.
She enjoys walking and feels it is important to be thankful for everything we have and looks forward to taking Tai Chi and Zumba classes once the pandemic is over.
Gastelum-Serrano has three children and six grandchildren and has been married for 31 years.
Right now Gastelum-Serrano has enjoyed staying home. She said she misses her co-workers, especially one in particular who started working at the dental office a year after her. “We had a little private party. It was much appreciated. A lot of people don’t get validated as they are working. I loved doing [my job],” she said.