Salinas: The History of Race and Resilience in an Agricultural City

Wed February 24th 2021, 2:00pm
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Salinas: The History of Race and Resilience in an Agricultural City

Questions and Answers by Carol McKibben

To the best of your knowledge, are there any similarities between the agricultural/urban characteristics of Salinas and San Jose of 100 years ago?

For comparison to San Jose See Stephen J. Pitti, The Devil in Silicon Valley (2003). San Jose’s origins were not so much based on agriculture as on mining, however, and the gold rush migrations had a much bigger impact on its population. As well, the Mexican American community was truly marginalized and impoverished there. It was a far harsher racial setting and less diverse than Salinas.

What do you forecast for the future of Salinas?

I cannot forecast the future! I am hopeful that Salinas might withstand both the severe economic impacts of the pandemic because of its powerful ag economy. I also like the forward thinking school system, which includes investment in Hartnell and CSUMB, and the good work being done to end gang affiliation. 

How has/is ag-tech shifting the political economy and/or power dynamics of Salinas?

AgTech intensified power at the top. Power has not shifted so much as consolidated, so that corporations such as Taylor Farms really control the economy (and politics) of the city. That said, companies like this invest heavily in the community, in downtown, and offer employment opportunities to so many residents and former residents—so good happens too.

Was incarceration of Japanese-Americans really the "brainchild" of Salinas?

When 769 people of Salinas were polled by the Chamber of Commerce about Japanese Americans shortly after Pearl Harbor, only one person thought that they should remain among the population. The poll hit the media throughout the state with headlines in newspapers in California “The People of Salinas, Who Know Best Oppose the Release of Japs” influenced policy-makers in keeping Japanese American citizens and nationals in concentration camps. 

What lessons, if any, does Salinas provide as to how a city can work its way out of gang violence?

The study from the Naval Postgraduate School was compelling and might serve as a guide for other cities that have a problem with gang violence. Improving educational opportunities for youth, including offering extracurricular activities, enforcing attendance and initiating programs that encourage students to graduate high school all make a big difference in circumventing gang membership (and gang violence), but this is an ongoing problem for Salinas too.

You mention John Steinbeck's literature. What novels and short stories do you reference in your book?

The most relevant of Steinbeck’s work for this book are East of EdenIn Dubious Battle and Grapes of Wrath. My favorite Steinbeck, however, is The Red Pony. I always hope the pony lives, but no.

What is the history of the African-American community in Salinas?

The African Americans who settled Salinas mostly lived in Alsial and arrived as working class fieldworkers. However, a few stayed, bought property and became important members of Salinas’s middle class. Most however, left to live in Seaside, nearby, which became the center of African American life on the Monterey Peninsula—and a segregated space. See Carol Lynn McKibben, Racial Beachhead (2012).

Was there local opposition to the embrace of nearby prison expansions?

Most Salinas residents welcomed new industry as a sign of progress, so with the exception of environmentalists there was little opposition to these changes and little resistance to the annexation of agricultural land. The prison was considered a good thing too—a place originally conceived as an institution for rehabilitation rather than punishment.

Could you comment on segregation in Salinas Public Schools, the effect of multiple school districts, the tensions of naming an elementary school after Tiburcio Vazquez and the importance of Hartnell College?

Salinas has way too many school districts—all with vastly different policies and populations, mostly based on class. I would have supported the renaming of the school in honor of Tiburcio Vasquez—a resistor, not an outlaw.

As an Alisal High (and Stanford) Alumni, I have observed many Alisal Alumni returning to work in the community as teachers, leaders, etc. I've wanted to write about this and was wondering if you cam across anything similar?

I love it that so many Stanford students in particular are returning to Salinas to support the community, but I cannot quantify that. We need to! Love your research topic and glad to help.

How do you make sense fo the tension between the public facing leaders in local government vs. the agricultural elites that don't have such a public face

See Question 3. It is impossible to know how much power ag elites exercise, but we can be sure it is significant. They did not want to be interviewed by me.

What has caused the disappearance of Chinatown?

Chinatown has not disappeared. It is being revived by an organization called the Asian Cultural Experience, which is a collective. People of Chinese descent are no longer forced to live there and have not been since the 1950s.

What is the history of indigenous peoples/Native Americans? How were they treated?

I start my book with indigenous people, who were the victims of genocide. But they were survivors too and intermarried with populations of Spanish, Mexicans, and other immigrants. They are still here.

The Voting Rights Act and its inclusion of Monterey County as an ara required to have federal oversight before making changes in its voting policies and procedure enabled equity efforts to increase Lation participation/representation. Deleting this requirement has made it more difficult to improve representation.

Agreed—voting rights are everything and deleting that requirement directly impacts Monterey county.

Event Description

Dr. Carol McKibben and Professor Michelle Anderson will discuss the historical development of Salinas, CA, an urban center defined by its rural, agricultural economy. Cities like Salinas that blur the distinction between rural and urban complicate our understanding of race relations and urbanization, immigration, and political identity in America. 

This conversation is inspired by the work being published in Dr. McKibben's forthcoming book, SALINAS: The History of Race and Resilience in an Agricultural City (Stanford University Press, 2021). 

From the Publisher on SALINAS: The History of Race and Resilience in an Agricultural City:

This book analyses how Salinas, an agricultural and majority Latinx city with a significant population of multiple Asian groups and European origin whites evolved to confront some of the most profound challenges of the last three centuries. We explore questions about city building, race relations and labor rights,  demographic change, and the impact of international, national, regional and local events on city life and how these reflected life in California and the nation. We discuss what it means for a city like Salinas to be marked as a success or failure, and how its residents coped with such designations over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Carol Lynn McKibben draws on extensive original research, including oral histories and never-before-seen archives of local business groups, tracing Salinas’s ever-changing demographics and the challenges and triumphs of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Mexican immigrants, as well as Depression-era migrants from the Dust Bowl region of the South and white ethnic Europeans. McKibben takes us through Salinas’s early years as the economic engine of California’s Central Coast, the Lettuce Strike of 1936 that would inspire John Steinbeck, the incarceration of Japanese Americans in WWII, the bracero program and its implications for postwar immigration policy, farmworker strikes in the 1960s and ’70s, and the city’s response to fiscal crises and rising gang violence and crime rates in the 1980s and ’90s, including nearby Soledad Prison as an example of how mass incarceration reinforced racial inequality. The book ends with a reflection on how the Covid-19 epidemic has disproportionately affected communities of color, particularly farmworkers who already live on the margins. 

Throughout the century-plus of Salinas history that McKibben explores, she shows how the political and economic stability of Salinas rested on the ability of nonwhite minorities to achieve a measure of middle-class success and inclusion in the cultural life of the city, without overturning a system dependent on an ideology of white supremacy. This timely book brings complexity to our understanding of race relations, economic development, patterns of settlement and urban development, and the impact of changing demographics on regional politics in urban California and in the United States as a whole. 


Color headshot of Prof. Michelle Anderson

Michelle Anderson
Professor of Law, Stanford Law School
Robert E. Paradise Faculty Fellow for Excellence in Teaching and Education, Stanford Law School

Michelle Wilde Anderson is a scholar of state and local government law. Her work combines legal analysis, empirical research, and humanistic reporting to understand concentrated poverty and municipal fiscal distress. Her recent publications explore restructuring (such as bankruptcy, disincorporation, and receiverships) in cities and counties facing chronic poverty related to deindustrialization. These issues affect not only Rust Belt capitals such as Detroit, but also post-industrial cities in California, rural counties in the West and South, and small towns across the country. She is currently writing a book about what we need most from local governments in America’s high-poverty, post-industrial areas.


Color head shot of Carol McKibben

Carol McKibben
Lecturer, Departments of History and Urban Studies, Stanford University
Affiliated Scholar, The Bill Lane Center for the American West

Dr. Carol Lynn McKibben is an Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturer. She has been teaching courses in California history, Urban history and Immigration history for the Department of History and Urban Studies at Stanford University since 2006 and for the bill Lane Center for the American West since 2020. She has also engaged in numerous community based research projects on the Monterey Peninsula for thirty years. As Director of The Salinas History Project Dr. McKibben is currently engaged in a community based research project that aims to re-examine the historical development of the city of Salinas in regional, state, and national context.