Jennifer Mendiola threw herself into work and play with such passion, her friends and colleagues lived in awe of her.
When she died in the Ghost Ship fire, Mendiola, 35, was close to finishing up her doctorate in health psychology at the University of California Merced. She focused on the social and emotional factors that influence healthy and unhealthy behavior. To watch her presentation on the “Daily Impact of Social Relationships” is to see a woman in command of her facts and enthusiastically optimistic about improving public health.
“Social interactions are important. They can make us feel happy, supported, loved,” Mendiola says in her talk. “But sometimes, we don’t get enough social interactions, or they aren’t always positive, and they can make us feel alone, and even sick.”
One semester away from earning the title “Dr. Mendiola,” she had already published articles in academic journals and mainstream media like the Los Angeles Times, in which she wrote an op-ed on the implications of resistance to flu shots among Latinos in California.
“She had this strong sense of justice in the world,” says Zora Burden, a close friend of Mendiola for 20 years. “She was a sister to me, like family.”
Mendiola worked as a social worker and advocate for the marginalized while getting her degree. But it would be a mistake to think she was all work and no play. “I think she’d want to be remembered for her sense of humor -- and her dancing,” Burden says of her old friend.
From the time she was a teenager, Mendiola loved live music, especially goth, punk and new wave. She grew up in Sacramento, but when her academic career brought her to San Francisco State University, Mendiola took full advantage of the Bay Area’s nightlife. “Her biggest passion in life was dancing,” Burden says. “She felt free and could lose herself completely at clubs. She was an incredible dancer.”
San Francisco actor Zachary Culbertson met Mendiola in the early 2000s when they were both in their 20s. They often saw each other at venues like Kimo’s and the Cat Club, and briefly dated at one point. “The last time I spoke with her online, we had plans to see Peter Murphy,” Culbertson says, referring to the English goth vocalist. The night they were scheduled to attend Murphy’s concert was the night President Barack Obama released a statement to the nation about the Oakland warehouse fire. “How dramatic and strange and sad,” Culbertson says.
Mendiola was at the Ghost Ship the night of the fire to see her boyfriend, electronica musician Micah Danemayer, perform. Danemayer also died as the couple attempted to flee the warehouse together. They had just moved into an apartment together in Oakland, cementing their blossoming relationship.
On a memorial page for Mendiola set up on Facebook, friends posted pictures of flowers left at her new front door, as well as a live stream of Danemayer’s recent memorial at Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland.
“They were so deeply in love they couldn't stand to be apart, and were constantly texting or calling each other,” Burden says. “They planned to get married and talked of having children.”
“She was kind. She never judged anyone by outward appearances,” wrote Lisa Jensen in a eulogy for her friend of 13 years. “She wanted to be appreciated for what she had on the inside, which was tremendous. She embraced life the same way she embraced her studies: fully and completely, and touched so many people along the way.”
Read Jennifer Mendiola's op-ed about the implications of resistance to flu shots among Latinos here.