Being raised in a community where your history connects to every part of your present, it is difficult to find the courage to leave. It is similarly difficult to forge a path and stay.
Questa del Rio News is committed to highlighting different members of our community, both those who have created their paths and planted their own roots in the community that raised them, and those who have pursued lives outside of the community – through our Representando series. This series is dedicated to those who are Representando communities in northern Taos County, in various facets of life.
For our November issue, we interviewed Melissa G. Rael. Melissa graduated from Questa High School in 1993. Upon graduation, she moved to Las Cruces to attend New Mexico State University (NMSU) on an academic scholarship. Her mom and dad graduated from NMSU, so following in their footsteps was a natural progression. After three semesters in Las Cruces, she knew it wasn’t for her and made steps to transfer her scholarship to Albuquerque, where she could attend the University of New Mexico.
During her junior year, Melissa studied Spanish abroad in Seville, Spain, where she lived with a family for a semester. She recalls how lucky she was to learn to cook Spanish food with the family while she attended school. She sometimes makes traditional tortilla Espanola and paella, common native Spanish dishes.
Graduating from UNM summa cum laude in 1997, Melissa double-majored in Mass Communications and Journalism with an emphasis in Public Relations and Spanish. In her senior year, she interned at a public relations firm in Albuquerque and was hired full-time upon her graduation.
During her ten years with the company, she worked her way up from an Account Executive to the Director of Meeting and Event Operations. While moving up in her career, she and her husband, Jonathan Rael, also raised their family, having three sons Jonathan James (JJ) born in 1999, Elijah born in 2000, and Joshua, born in 2002.
In 2006, she realized that if she wanted to continue to pursue her career goals, she would need to take a leap of faith. “The PR firm started planning events for several clients, the company expanded, and there wasn’t an opportunity for another promotion. I realized that if I wanted to continue climbing the ladder in my industry, the only way I could do it was by starting my own business.” This realization is what led to the establishment of MGR & Associates, LLC a conference and event management firm.
“When people hear me say I am an event planner, they think I plan weddings and parties, but that is not what I do. We are a soup to nuts, or beginning to end full-service firm and we specialize in planning and managing major conferences and events.“
Over the past 17 years, Melissa has built her company by taking on clients throughout the country. Some of her services include marketing, managing registration, logistics, graphic design, site selection, and on-site management.
The company has withstood challenges along the way, most notably the 2020 pandemic. “It was as though our team had to return to school and quickly learn about virtual meeting platforms and transform our skill set to offer online services. Through it all, we ensured our clients didn’t lose money when canceling and negotiating future venue contracts. Surprisingly we also increased our clientele. This experience helped us thrive and expand our services,” Melissa says. This challenge was undoubtedly a testament to her ability to change direction and adapt, especially when it was crucial and necessary.
When asked about the staffing operations of her company, she shared that she has contractors and how special it was to have the ability to bring on family members as staff for some events, roles which have been filled by her mom Rosalie Ortega, and aunt Lisa Archuleta. “I can bring them along with my team to events to work our registration desk. They are both very organized and love talking to people, so it’s a perfect role for them.”
The business has turned into a family operation on occasion, with her sons getting involved in the company, and assisting with contract positions as well. “JJ really shocked me when he joined us for his first conference. It was in Anchorage, Alaska and he was only 19. He was so impressive and professional. I thought who is this kid?” she says as she laughs.
Melissa and Jonathan, both from Questa, have a special place in their hearts for the place they call home. “We have worked to ensure we maintained our ties to home. Our boys love Questa. Growing up, we’d go to Questa to watch my youngest brother Jesus and other cousins play sports, and my boys would say they wanted to move to Questa so they could play all the sports like them. Our kids have gone on to bring their friends to Questa to show them how special home is, and they now love Northern New Mexico, too.”
Melissa and Jonathan are also involved in the pilgrimages for vocations. She says she has completed around twelve 100-mile pilgrimages over the years. “My grandpa Bernie started doing the pilgrimage until he was in his 60’s. Then, of course, Jon has been doing this for 30-plus years. It was a calling for me to get involved.” Her last pilgrimage was in the summer of 2023, and she says it’s an experience unlike any other. “When you experience it, it’s like a vacation from life. You don’t have your phone or any electronics, and it gives you a chance to grow spiritually, reconnect with other guadalupanas, and form a sisterhood bond with them for life.”
In addition to her titles of being a busy businesswoman, wife for 25 years, mom, and guadalupana, Melissa has expanded her title to Nana (grandma). Her oldest son JJ and his girlfriend Sydney blessed the family with baby Layla Georgia in 2021. “God knew what he was doing when he gave me a granddaughter. I never had a sister or a daughter, so now I get to do all the fun girl stuff with Layla. We also share a middle name, which makes my bond with her much more special.”