«Salinas is a city with a storied past, a complex present, and a spirited determination to overcome intractable problems and the negative stereotypes ...»
22.7 percent of those are naturalized citizens (less than half the statewide rate). And a significant number are undocumented, one of the highest concentrations in the state. Those
Among registered voters, turnout is far below the state average and lags particularly in the poorer areas of the city. In both the last presidential election year and the last local election year, turnout in Salinas was 10 points below the state average. Despite a mayoral contest in 2014, only 17,550 people voted in Salinas. In the higher income area in the north of the city, however, turnout was 20 points higher than in the East Salinas area.
Like similar cities in California, Salinas is frustrated by its limited ability to raise revenue and control its own destiny. It has a weak mayor form of government that vests most decision-making power in the appointed city manager. Facing legal challenges, Salinas adopted a district election system in 1988 (by only 103 votes), and the first Latino city council member was elected the following year. Anna Caballero, who had worked as a farmworker advocate and lawyer, became the first female and the first Hispanic mayor in 1998. Her successors in City Hall have been white men.
In some ways, those who are officially disenfranchised are the most visibly civically engaged, as they struggle to affect public policy through grassroots efforts and community organizing. A balkanized city — the Alisal is separated from the rest of Salinas by Highway 101 — has led in some places to greater neighborhood identification. The Alisal, home for successive generations of immigrants and working poor, has the lowest income levels and highest crime rates, but the neighborhood has a strong identity, a thriving business district, and a vibrant arts scene. (See this short video on the Alisal Center for the Fine Arts) | 14 Salinas was the heart of Cesar Chavez’s farm worker movement in its days of greatest strength, primarily the 1970s, a decade bookended by two of the largest strikes in agricultural history.
The strong presence of the United Farm Workers at that time galvanized a generation, and the tradition of social activism and engagement still resonates with veterans of the movement and their families. Several nonprofit organizations, including the Center for Community Advocacy and California Rural Legal Assistance, grew out of the movement and have provided direct assistance to communities as well as serving as training grounds for a new generation of potential leaders.
The strikes, marches, and protests of the 1970s and 80s also polarized Salinas, and the legacy of those divisions remains. The presence of a small Latino middle and professional class, including elected and appointed officials, has changed the political and social dynamic, as has the passage of time. But underlying tensions persist. The polarization surfaced in a recent debate over a proposed farmworker housing complex in Spreckels, the community just south of the city limits that housed the first sugar plantation.
Growers facing labor shortages have sought permission to import more guest workers under the federal H2 program, which requires employers to provide housing. Tanimura & Antle, one of the largest growers, proposed building a dormitory-style complex of 100 two-bedroom units on land the company owns in Spreckels. The plan includes recreation and amenities and T&A estimates each unit would house eight workers — which would double the population of Spreckels. The plan received county approval this summer only after angry opposition, some of it racially charged.
FUTURE OUTLOOKSalinas has demonstrated an ability to turn crises into opportunities.
When the libraries nearly shut down for lack of funds in 2005, they were rescued by local fundraising and a vote to raise a dedicated sales tax. The libraries not only stayed open, they expanded, became community centers, and attracted a friends group that has become a visible, imaginative civic force: They pioneered mobile paleteros, or ice cream carts, that move around the city dispensing books and library cards and providing mobile Wi-Fi hot spots.
That sort of creativity and determination will have to overcome the other history in Salinas:
good intentions that falter, promising projects left half-finished.
The reasons to hope for Salinas’ future center on two things. The first is the geography, which offers opportunities despite sometimes seeming like a jinx. Can Salinas capitalize on its own strengths and grow by building stronger ties to prosperous neighboring regions?
The second reason for hope is its young people. The more first-generation college — and high school — graduates that Salinas can produce, the better the chance more Salinas residents can rise into the middle class. Immigrant parents are often the most passionately committed to providing their children with the education they lack; with clearer pathways, could immigrant families integrate and move up, lifting Salinas with them? Could innovative programs in schools and in the local universities make a significant difference?
| 16 There is energy on the streets of Salinas. East Salinas’s arts and theater scene is vibrant, and its retail bustles. There’s new investment downtown, anchored by a new headquarters for Taylor Farms, with retail and restaurants on the first two floors. Next door, the National Steinbeck Center is financially stable for the first time and its new director is committed to charting a course that ensures it becomes not only an extension of CSUMB but also a cultural resource relevant to the Salinas community. Restaurants and bars are staying open later.
Yet, the challenges to reaching a better future for Salinas loom large. Many of the city’s problems stem from forces beyond its control — the nearby prison in Soledad, gang feuds in the state, the statewide challenges of building affordable housing, a California governing system that puts a straitjacket on local governance. The programs and efforts to improve Salinas are numerous, but small; the poverty is entrenched and the jobs are low-wage. Climate change and the drought are creating more pressure on the always fragile world of agriculture, upon which Salinas depends.
Salinas needs a critical mass of educated young people and success stories to overcome the outside world’s negative perceptions, because those perceptions shape reality. They can make it more difficult to attract talent to Salinas, and aspiring, accomplished young people from Salinas seeking opportunities face the added hurdle of preconceived ideas and low expectations.
It’s possible to envision far better futures for Salinas. To a large extent, it will be up to the young people of Salinas to chart that course. A new generation will have to mature into leaders who can turn energy, commitment, and innovative ideas into lasting change.
“My dad came here when he was 15 years old and he started working in the fields then, and he still is. For the past four summers or so, whenever I’m out of school, I’ve worked in the fields to see what my dad does every day and appreciate what our parents do for us. I worked in the lettuce fields, cutting lettuce, and it’s nonstop for eight, 10, 12 hours a day. When I would get home, I would go into my room, lay down on the floor, and just crash out. I don’t know how my dad does this, every day.” Alonso wants to set an example for his two younger brothers, to encourage them to study hard in school.
“Here in Salinas, especially on the East Side where most of the population is Latino, people get the impression that most of us are gangsters, shooting, you know. But that’s such a small percentage of the population here … most of us are so willing in our life to study, to get further in our education.”
Like all 90 students in the program, he received a $30,000 scholarship from a foundation established by Andy Matsui, founder and president of Matsui Nursery.
Source: “The Heart of Hartnell.” See full video.
1872 – Southern Pacific arrives in Salinas; city becomes the county seat 1897 – Claude Spreckels builds world’s largest sugar beet processing plant; establishes a town and company-owned farms, and employs hundreds of Chinese and Japanese workers 1911 – First Rodeo is held.
1915 – Highway 101 is built; Salinas has paved streets 1920s – Lettuce replaces beets as major crop when iced rail cars make it possible to ship vegetables. Artichokes appear.
1921 – Architect Ralph Wyckoff designs Salinas High School, part of a burst of Art Moderne and Art Deco buildings.
1928 – Salinas airport opens 1930s – Dust bowl migrants settle in the Alisal; strikes and labor strife in the fields 1936 – Bitter and violent lettuce strike.
1936 – Monterey Court House begun with sculpted heads by Jo Mora.
1939 – Grapes of Wrath is published.
1942 – Braceros arrive, Mexican guestworkers recruited as wartime replacements 3,586 Japanese from Salinas and surrounding areas, including 46 SHS seniors, detained in Rodeo grounds before transfer to internment camps 1948 – Marilyn Monroe is crowned first Artichoke Queen and visits Salinas jeweler to promote diamond sales.
1948 – Salinas Junior College becomes Hartnell 1950s – Population is 13,917; over the decade Salinas annexes 43 areas, doubling in size Refrigeration cars put shed workers out of work 1953 – Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital opens, hub of new health care industry 1956 – Valley Center shopping becomes destination mall for the region, anchoring expansion of industry and retail jobs
1960s – Decade of growth sees three new high schools, two libraries, and City Hall. Industries expand, including Firestone, Peter Paul, Nestle 1962 – Steinbeck awarded Nobel Prize
1989 – $10 million worth of damage from the Loma Prieta earthquake 1990 – Population is more than half Hispanic 1996 – President Clinton goes to Salinas to applaud city’s efforts to curb gang violence, a problem that exacerbated with splits between rival gangs.
1998 – Anna Caballero becomes city’s first female and Latino mayor 1998 – National Steinbeck Center opens on Main Street 2000 – Census reports 151,060.
2005 – Maya Cinemas open on Main Street, part of efforts to revitalize downtown 2005 – Loss in revenues threatens to shut Salinas libraries; fundraising campaign keeps them open limited hours till residents pass a dedicated tax hike 2009 – Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital is sixth largest employer in Salinas with 2,200 workers 2015 – Salinas supplies 80 percent of the country’s lettuce and artichokes, among other crops.
Joe Mathews is California and Innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square. He writes the syndicated Connecting California column for Zócalo and 30 media outlets around California.
Joe is co-author, with Mark Paul, of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California Press, 2010). His previous book was The People’s Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy (PublicAffairs, 2006), an account of Governor Schwarzenegger’s first term and his use of ballot measures as governing tools.
Joe also serves as a professor of practice at Arizona State University, as fellow at ASU’s Center for Social Cohesion, and as co-president, with Bruno Kaufmann, of the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy — which brings together academics, journalists, activists and other experts on initiative, referenda, and new forms of deliberative and participatory democracy.
Formerly a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and Baltimore Sun, Joe has also served as Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation; as storyteller of the multi-stakeholder process known as the Delta Dialogues; as a contributing writer at The Los Angeles Times; as a blogger at Fox & Hounds Daily and NBC’s Prop Zero; and as radio and TV commentator on all things California.
Joe lives in the San Gabriel Valley with his wife and three young sons.
Miriam Pawel is an author, journalist, and independent scholar who has spent the last decade researching and writing about agriculture, the United Farm Workers, and Cesar Chavez. Her most recent work is The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, the first biography of the founder of the United Farm Workers, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award and winner of a California Book Award gold medal and the Robert F. Kennedy Book Prize. Her previous book, The Union of Their Dreams – Power, Hope and Struggle in Cesar Chavez's Farm Worker Movement, was a groundbreaking narrative history told through eight participants in the movement.
Prior to writing books, Miriam spent 25 years as a reporter and editor at Newsday and the Los Angeles Times. She continues to contribute to the Los Angeles Times op-ed pages and also is a frequent contributor to Zócalo Public Square.
She has been a fellow at the Alicia Patterson Foundation and a John Jacobs fellow at the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship to complete her work on the Chavez biography.
Miriam is a native New Yorker who has lived for the last 15 years in Pasadena.