A History of Race and Resilience in an Agricultural City
Carol Lynn McKibben



FIGURE I.1 Map of Salinas with Alisal

IN THE SUMMER OF 2016, Diego Ruiz gave me a tour of Alisal (also called east Salinas), a subdivision of Salinas. He showed me warrens of apartment buildings that gave way to single-family homes. We ended the tour with a stop at his home where his mother had prepared lunch for us. He lived with his parents, an older brother and sister-in-law, a toddler niece, and an adult sister. It was clear that the Ruiz family pooled resources to sustain their place as homeowners in Salinas and that they loved this city.

The Ruizes, like so many residents of Alisal in 2016, were a family of multigenerational co-residents living in a home that they owned. Diego’s parents were immigrants from Mexico, and grandfathers on both sides of his family had been part of the Bracero program, also known as the Mexican National Program. The family not only felt an allegiance to Salinas but also expressed a faith in the promise of the American Dream in all its associations with property and business ownership, educational attainment, and social mobility. They wanted their subdivision to be clean, safe, and as developed as the rest of the city with modern infrastructure, housing, parks, and recreational facilities. They lamented the lack of these things but expected action from city government and believed in the possibility for improvement. They considered Alisal their permanent home: a Mexican American cultural space in everything from the people who mostly spoke Spanish, to business enterprises catering to Mexican immigrant people, to the festivals and events that brought the entire Salinas community together as an identifiable Latino/a city. I marveled at their faith—in the American Dream and in the ameliorative power of government—despite evidence all around them of persistent inequality for people of color.

Fast-forward a few months into 2016. Bill Ramsey—a long ago Alisal resident—took me on an Alisal tour too. But his feelings about this subdivision were quite different from those of the Ruizes. To Bill, Alisal represented a liminal space in Salinas, a place one might begin living as a member of the working class but would aim to escape as soon as possible. The Ramsey family arrived in Alisal from Texas at about the same time as the Ruiz family did—amid the Great Depression—and as agricultural fieldworkers, but they came as white American citizen migrants rather than noncitizen workers who would be sent back to Mexico by the U.S. government after the harvest. The Ramseys came as a family, rather than as single men as the Ruiz grandfathers had done. Although they lived in Alisal throughout the years of World War II and the postwar, moving frequently within the subdivision as their collective family economic state rose and fell, the Ramseys left Alisal permanently just a decade after first arriving when their fortunes improved enough to afford better housing in Salinas itself, as most of their white Depression era contemporaries did. Most importantly, unlike Diego’s grandparents—who were forced to return to Mexico once their labor was no longer required in the fields—the Ramseys were never forced to return to Texas.

Bill Ramsey and his family became some of the most prominent Salinas residents, a position that many American migrants who hailed from the Dust Bowl region of the country also achieved within one generation.1 The American Dream of property ownership and educational attainment came true for the Ruizes too, but they did not achieve the great wealth or standing in the community that former Dust Bowlers (as they referred to themselves) enjoyed. By the 1970s, Bill had served as president of the school board and in various capacities as a community activist and had received multiple honors for his good works and community support. In 2016, he was disturbed by the prevalence of criminal gangs in a place he loved and, like the Ruizes, by the lack of infrastructure, new housing, and recreational facilities in the subdivision of Alisal. It was difficult for Bill Ramsey and for so many of his contemporaries not to conflate the influx of Mexican American people and Mexican immigrants with the more disturbing aspects of life in Alisal in the present day. Unlike Diego and his family, who believed that government existed to help them and improve their community, Bill Ramsey’s life’s experience and that of his cohort was evidence to him that America afforded economic and social opportunity to anyone who worked for it, and government intervention should be kept to a bare minimum. This view of equal opportunity overlooked such government-funded subsidies as federally insured mortgages given almost exclusively to white families, and policies and practices in employment, education, and social networking awarded historically on the basis of a white racial identity.

The story of Salinas is not a simple narrative of Anglo Americans and Latinos/as, however. Salinas’s multiple Asian communities—which include the Filipino/a community with both its Hispanic and Asian origins—add complexity to the politics and social order of the city (historically and in the present). The Cacas family, for example, arrived in Salinas as immigrants from the Philippines in the 1920s but acquired wealth more quickly than the Ruizes, although considerably less than the Ramseys. Originally from Alisal, the Cacas family moved into the wealthier and whiter sections of Salinas by the 1950s and shared a politics closer to the Ramseys than the Ruizes. Another example, Linda Wong Gin, traced her origins to Chinese American parents who left Monterey in the 1930s for the more welcoming environment of Salinas where they established a successful grocery store and raised four children. Linda married into a prominent, long-established Chinese American family in Salinas and became a successful banker, achieving a similar socioeconomic success as Bill Ramsey and so many other Anglo American Salinas residents. Unlike Bill Ramsey, she expressed support for the farmworker movement. But, like Ramsey, Linda Wong Gin is a philanthropist and strong advocate for the local community college’s efforts to offer opportunities to all of Salinas’s children.

When one looks at the city of Salinas, one sees a community divided along class and racial lines that sometimes intersect. One sees tension and struggle rather than progress or decline. Middle-and upper-class Asian, Mexican, and Anglo Americans continue to live mostly in the neighborhoods surrounding the central city, and poor and working classes of all backgrounds live in Alisal, just as they did from the late nineteenth century onward. As recent scholarship on minority-majority cities shows, the nineteenth-century origins of city-building are as important as the complex history of class and race relations for an understanding of these racially and socioeconomically diverse communities.

Andrew Sandoval-Strausz’s excellent analysis of urbanization in Dallas and Chicago argued that the influx of Mexican Americans to cities throughout the country (not just the Southwest) created an urban renaissance, despite the marginalization of people of color and their exclusions in housing, education, and development. Along the same lines, Llana Barber showed how Latino/a immigrants arrived in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in the mid-twentieth century and reinvigorated a deteriorating manufacturing town. In both examples and in most scholarship on American cities that have become minority-majority Latino/a entities, Asian people are left out of the story altogether, however. Although this study also emphasizes Latino/a contributions to urban revival in Salinas (despite serious discrimination) in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, along the lines of Sandoval-Strausz and Barber, it also shows how complicated city-building became when multiple Asian groups and Anglo Americans came together with Latinos/as to create a community based on the production of agriculture.

I begin with Indigenous People and their use of the area that became Salinas as a place for gathering food and hunting rather than settlement. I move into the nineteenth century to show the persistence of all communities in the Salinas Valley, even in the wake of Anglo American immigration. I analyze city-building that included multiple groups of Asians and women, which came about in various states of tension complicated by class divisions and events such as war, economic crisis, and sweeping demographic shifts brought on by fluctuations in immigration policy on the receiving U.S. end. Salinas fought hard to become the county seat and urban center for Monterey County and for the Central Coast region in the nineteenth century. This came with unexpected problems but also great opportunities to cope with the most profound challenges of any given year (or century).

In the first hundred years of its life as a city, Salinas built up and out—dominating the county and the region politically as the county seat and economically as an innovative agricultural center. Salinas also became the focal point for some of the most virulent labor conflicts in America, notably in 1936 and then in 1970. By the 1980s and 1990s, Salinas was beset with the same economic, social, and political catastrophes that afflicted every other city in California (and the nation) in transition from mostly white to minority-majority. The influx of poor immigrant populations in a time of national (and statewide) fiscal austerity and social and political upheaval added a level of crisis to urban America and urban California, also shared in Salinas. However, Salinas (unlike so many other minority-majority towns and cities in California and the nation) did not become either paralyzed or polarized, nor did it descend into a permanent state of economic distress. Instead, pragmatists carried the day, and the city coped fairly successfully, improving safety, education, access to public health, and greater political representation, even in the midst of economic crisis and a pandemic. This was largely because its agricultural economy sustained the city regardless of the fiscal, political, or social pressures. The transition to a Latino/a majority did not happen seamlessly, but it did happen relatively peacefully and in concert with replenished Asian and white communities that did not flee the city but continued to reside, support, and invest in it, identifying all the while as part of a greater agricultural whole.

Between 2014 and 2020, the city of Salinas became a change agent that brought its Latino/a majority into the center of its economic, political, and cultural identity, but within the complex context of Filipino/a, Japanese, Chinese, and Anglo American life. It revitalized its downtown and its outskirts. It built a new public library and broadened educational opportunities for the most vulnerable—and in so doing, provided real alternatives to the gang membership that had dominated headlines in the 1990s and early 2000s. It revamped both its police and fire departments, including women and Asian and Latino/a people in positions of authority. It no longer made the front pages of the national or local media for its high crime, violence, or racial and economic injustice as had been the case during the 1980s and 1990s. It did so not despite its nineteenth or early twentieth-century history, but because of it.

This story shows just how this version of urban life was accomplished, not by one group alone, especially not by white men only, but by a multiracial, gendered community with a shared belief in American ideals of democracy and equality, even when that belief system proved naïve or misplaced. Salinas people are pragmatists, first and foremost. Salinas is a kind of imperfect model for America in the twenty-first century—multiracial, usually respectful, and attempting to be inclusive in everything from neighborhoods to political representation but often falling short, dependent as it was (and is) on a moderate politics that accepted inequality.

This book contributes to the scholarship on California in multiple ways. It adds to our understanding of city life in the context of rural regions and agricultural economies. It shows us how city-building happened not as a linear process but in a continual and fluctuating state of struggle and tension. In this way, this narrative of Salinas adds to our understanding of race relations and racism in California cities that are in the throes of demographic change.2

Salinas, with a population in 2021 of nearly 160,000 (out of a total county population of over 437,000) is the most important urban center in Monterey County; it is a majority Latino/a but racially diverse city and the county seat for Monterey. It is situated at the head of the rich agricultural region known as the Salinas Valley, some 17 miles inland from Monterey Bay, 106 miles south of San Francisco, and 325 miles north of Los Angeles in the Central Coast region that stretches north to Santa Cruz and south to Santa Barbara. This region encompasses both the wealthiest places in California and the nation (Carmel, Pebble Beach, Santa Barbara) and the poorest (Seaside, Marina, small towns in the Salinas Valley). The region is defined by and identified as a place of great agricultural production and wealth and also by the poverty of immigrant Latino/a people who work in agriculture. Yet, with the exception of Lori Flores, whose analysis of Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans in Salinas figures prominently here, Salinas and the entire Central Coast has been overlooked by scholars.3 The complexity of race relations in urban life, but in a rural agricultural context, is told here.

Salinas was the site of some of the fiercest labor battles in American history—home to multiple racial and ethnic communities that lived side by side in a kind of complex tension, coexisting, accommodating a normative American white racial hierarchy yet nipping at its heels. Salinas shows us how a typical American city, located in a rural, agricultural setting, managed to sustain a complex social order without breaking down into violence. This is a story of struggle to get America right—socially, politically, culturally, and economically—all the while facing some of the most difficult challenges and biggest crises of American life in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. To make sense of Salinas history and to understand its significance in the context of urban California, we need to return to its roots, even before the nineteenth-century founding of the city, in order to expose the tremendous changes over the next one hundred and fifty years that created a city known almost entirely for its twentieth-century conflicts over labor rights and race (as portrayed by John Steinbeck and Carey McWilliams and embodied in César Chávez) but not really known at all.

This story is the culmination of a thirty-year love affair with urban history as it played out on the Monterey Peninsula. My first book, Beyond Cannery Row: Sicilian Women, Immigration, and Community in Monterey, California, 1915–99, focused on ethnicity and gender as transformative in the development of Monterey from Steinbeck’s sleepy Cannery Row to a full-fledged, industrialized city. My second book, Racial Beachhead: Diversity and Democracy in a Military Town, analyzed race relations in the development of the military town of Seaside, California—a place that became a model of socioeconomic opportunity and political inclusion for African Americans and Asian people at mid-century. This book analyses how Salinas—an agricultural and majority Latino/a city with a significant population of multiple Asian groups and Anglo Americans—evolved to confront some of the most profound challenges of the last three centuries.

The questions driving all my work (and especially this one) are all about city-building. What is a city, who creates it, and why do they do so in a particular geographic environment and at a particular moment in time? Who gets credit for its existence and its subsequent development? How is city culture invented, and why do diverse groups of people choose to join the process of city-building and identity formation? How inclusive and fluid is the process of city-building and city identity as demographics change, or as international, national, regional, and local events occur to disrupt (or accelerate) transformations in the city’s economy, in its politics, and in its cultural and social life? What does it mean for a city to be marked for success or for failure, and how do its residents cope with such designations?

I was inspired to research and write about Salinas by my friend and colleague Ray Corpuz, city manager par excellence, who hailed originally from the Philippines and came to Salinas by way of city manager positions in Tacoma, Washington, and Seaside, California. Ray wanted to rectify what he believed was a grossly unfair narrative about Salinas as a place that had failed—a center of violence, poverty, and crime in which the majority of Latino/a residents faced oppression and disdain from whites and in which the Filipino/a, Chinese, and Japanese American communities no longer played any role of significance in the life of the city. Instead, he saw Salinas as a place that was thriving economically, culturally diverse in a mostly congenial political context dependent as it was on a multibillion-dollar agricultural industry that was at the forefront of technological innovation and international reach. He personified inclusion as a Filipino American head of city government. He installed women and minorities at the top of every city agency and worked with a multiracial, majority Latino/a city council that was the poster child for the political incorporation of ethnically diverse groups of people. He emphasized the multicultural aspects of the city in which every community was represented on the city’s calendar of events and celebrations. We agreed that the story of Salinas was both complicated and important, and its history needed to be investigated.

I was not so sure Ray was correct about the myths concerning Salinas. It appeared to me that there was truth to those narratives of class and racial oppression, high crime and widespread violence, and also that the apparent inclusiveness might be more façade than reality. As I dug into the sources, however, I discovered more than just oppression or inclusion. I found a rich and complex history about a very diverse group of pragmatic visionaries who were Asian, Mexican, immigrant European, and southern white, women as well as men. They sometimes came together (and often came apart) over the course of two and a half centuries to create a relatively compatible community defined by their connection to agriculture and their version of an American city that they believed (often naïvely) offered the same opportunity to everyone to move up the socioeconomic ladder. They were often wrong about how fair America was either politically or economically, but their steadfast belief in the possibility of socioeconomic mobility for all kept the majority of Salinas’s residents from directly challenging the racism in city life.4


I had full access to materials previously unavailable to historians and other scholars, and this book benefited enormously as a result. The Monterey County Historical Society, the Grower-Shipper Association (sometimes called the Salinas-Watsonville Lettuce Men’s Association or the Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association; I use GSA throughout the book for consistency), the John Steinbeck Library, Salinas families from every ethnic and racial group, the chamber of commerce, nonprofit organizations, and the city of Salinas itself provided me with more evidence than I could possibly include here; they gave me special insight into the history of Salinas as it evolved over the course of the late nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. Over the course of three years, I was able to leisurely pour over manuscripts, newspapers available only in hard copy, minutes of meetings at the city council dating back to the mid-1800s, minutes from the Grower-Shipper Association meetings dating from 1930, and miscellaneous documents located in the basement of the Grower-Shipper Association and the chamber of commerce. Some of the reason that these sources remained hidden away and unavailable to scholars for so many years was simply due to disorder. Local archives lacked both funding and interest in organizing them, much less making them available for scholarly review. As well, there was always concern about what scholars might do with materials taken when no one really knew much about what was in the archive, as was the case with the Grower-Shipper Association.

Two sources in particular gave me invaluable insight. First, the minutes from the Grower-Shipper Association meetings from the 1930s until the 1936 strike were remarkably complete and unvarnished records of what was going on behind closed doors with this important organization. Before the La Follette congressional hearings (1936–1940), association members clearly believed their meetings were confidential affairs, and they spoke freely. Their views, values, and numerous disputes showed chaos within and how strategies and goals were considered and achieved. Second, the Salinas Independent, a self-described union newspaper, written for and by working-class residents, offered a window into perceptions, goals, and views of working-class members of Salinas of any ethnicity. They expressed a vision of the city that was surprisingly in line with the business community, but it also revealed important fissures.

Salinas is currently and clearly a Latino/a (I defer to narrators who preferred “Latino/a” to “Latinx”) majority city. However, this work made Asian Americans’ (Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino/a) experiences central. Asian groups lived in Salinas from its founding in the 1870s and never left. They increased in numbers over time and played an important and active role in the development of the city. Their story is as much Salinas’s story as that of Anglo Americans and Mexican Americans. The narrative accounts from Salinas’s Chinese American, Japanese American, and Filipino/a American residents, past and present, made a significant contribution to this story.

Memory is tricky, but perspectives matter. That is why, although so many residents and former residents were called upon to contribute their insights, comments, and revisions to this work at every stage of the research and writing, I made sure to compare and check narratives against other quantitative evidence such as census data and used contemporary newspapers and government documents extensively throughout. I organized community events to share evidence and analysis, eliciting critiques and sometimes surprising accounts of labor strikes and other important events in the city’s history.

The John Steinbeck Library contained a rich collection of interviews, particularly from the 1930s, that helped enormously in piecing together the complicated story of city-building. Meticulous analysis of city council meetings and city documents available to me through the cooperation of city agencies and library staff filled out the picture of urban development and redevelopment, controversies past and present, and the struggles city government staff and elected officials experienced as they attempted to solve complex problems within a particular political, economic, and social context. I tried to understand their decisions and choices on their own terms as they grappled with some of the most pressing problems of their day.

This work benefited enormously from the expertise and generosity of staff from Stanford University’s Department of Special Collections and especially from the expertise of Kris Kasianovitz and the Social Sciences Resource Group. I utilized materials from the National Archives branch in San Bruno; the University of California, Davis, Department of Special Collections; the University of California, Berkeley, Bancroft Library; and the California State Archives in Sacramento to add breadth and depth to the local history collections that I drew on for this book.

A range of secondary sources helped me understand and place Salinas’s story in broader national perspective. The work of scholars in ethnic studies, Chicano/a history, urban history, agricultural and labor history, and the history of California and the West also gave me important, broad understandings of Salinas in American historical context. Lori Flores’s seminal work on Mexican and Mexican American experience in Salinas was my starting point and a godsend of research and analysis. This book also builds on terrific new scholarship that expands the scope of analysis of urban California from large metropolitan areas like Oakland, San Francisco, San José and the Silicon Valley, and the Los Angeles region to look for new understandings of past and present demographic, political, social, and economic change in smaller towns and on the important Central Coast. Some of this new scholarship complicates our understanding of how and why towns and cities in regional context developed as they did, for good and for ill. Some of this important work is an indictment of past policies that gave us a new and stubborn inequality despite a progressive political climate and investment both by government agencies and more recently by tech giants.


This book is divided into three parts. The three chapters of the first part—“Beginnings: Search for Order, 1850–1930”—show purpose and planning for the region from the outset—and not only by Anglo American conquest but also by Chinese settlers from nearby Monterey and San Francisco, all of whom had a vested interest in displacing former Mexican citizens and establishing an urban center connected to the financial center of San Francisco.

The first chapter, “Claiming Space, Imagining Community,” explores how and why Salinas was constructed in its entirety and quickly rather than organically as a long-settled place in California. As such, it was typical of the towns and cities in California that emerged at mid-century. Building on David Wrobel’s Promised Lands, this chapter also reveals how Anglo American boosters used newspapers and other advertisements to attract nineteenth-century white migrants and assuage their concerns about California’s racially diverse population; while they were encouraging this white settlement, these promoters importantly gave minority groups just enough space for whites to take advantage of their labor in creating the city. I show here how Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans believed that they too were accepted members of this emergent city through cultural inclusions; but power imbalances gave Anglo Americans predominance from the outset, even as other groups did their best to overcome inequality and Anglo American power structures, already in place by 1880. Building on scholarship by Peggy Pascoe, Beth Lew-Williams, Nayan Shah, and Cecilia Tsu, the chapter shows that proximity led to normative intermarriage and sex across racial lines, especially in California’s agricultural regions.

Chapter 2, “Racial Crossroads,” examines both the urgent city-building in Salinas and the breathtaking pace of agricultural development that funded it as the twentieth century dawned. Building on the work of Stephen Pitti, Cecilia Tsu, Erika Lee, Elliott Barkan, Dawn Mabalon, and Rick Baldoz—other scholars of immigration in California in the early twentieth century—this chapter focuses on new migrations of Asian people (Filipino/a and Japanese) but also Anglo American people, many of whom came from other areas of California (rather than abroad), as was the case in so many towns that formed a hinterland for San Francisco. This chapter also tells the story of agriculture through the Spreckels Sugar conglomerate and just how profitable agriculture became for elites between 1880 and 1930; this wealth was built on the backs of the mostly Asian groups of different origins who did not just labor in the fields but also invented methods that created new markets for berries and lettuce (both of which surpassed sugar beets in profitability, which had, in turn, displaced wheat production). The wealth generated by new crops built Salinas, benefited whites far more than Asians, and made Salinas the undisputed urban center for the Central Coast region by 1930—a crossroads for business and commerce, state government, and even tourism. And yet, I argue here that marginalized racial groups (particularly Asians) managed to achieve some wealth through property ownership and as middlemen labor contractors; they did so in just enough numbers so as to create a sense of possibility that circumvented their challenging the structure of white supremacy that dominated California and the nation.

Salinas, from its inception, was a place that was created and sustained by people who believed in the possibility of the American Dream. As Chinese Americans, Mexican Americans, and Anglo Americans were joined by immigrants from Japan, the Philippines, southern and eastern Europe, and Anglo Americans escaping poverty elsewhere, they formed a city identity built around agricultural enterprise and claimed prominence as the urban center of the entire Central Coast region.

Chapter 3, “A Lettuce Metropolis,” closes out Part I by tracing the beginnings of lettuce production and the wealth that it generated for the city. By 1925, Salinas had the highest per capita income in the nation. It also became the backdrop for one of the most renowned and prolific American writers of the twentieth century: John Steinbeck. Winner of both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes in literature, Steinbeck—whose roots were in Salinas—considered this city a microcosm of America: a true reflection, warts and all, of American people and American life in the earliest decades of the twentieth century.

The three chapters of the second part of the book—“Transitions: Conflicts and Opportunities, 1930–1965”—take the reader through the tumultuous mid-twentieth century of the Depression, world war, and new migrations that transformed urban California politically, socially, and economically. Chapter 4, “The Ins and Outs of Race Relations,” explores complex intergroup and intragroup relationships during a period in California (and in American history) when massive new migrations of people from the southern states, Europe, Asia, and Latin America impacted cities and rural areas in new ways. Radical labor organizing and backlash against immigration made front-page news and led to new policies, including the harsh 1924 Immigration Act that eliminated all immigration from Asia and severely restricted it from other parts. At the same time, minority groups adapted in strategic ways to counter the hostility directed against them. Social class always mattered. This chapter focuses on the Filipino/a community, particularly middle-class women, and the ways they claimed space in city culture, but it also analyzes communities of Japanese and southern Europeans to show the contradictions in race relations that defined Salinas and the rest of California in the first three decades of the twentieth century.

Chapter 5 focuses on labor and the specific strike of 1936 that first brought national attention to Salinas. Although narrators who exemplified this strike commonly referred to themselves as Dust Bowlers, most were not escaping the Dust Bowl but the impact of the Depression. Most of them were not even farmers; they were laborers or small shopkeepers before migrating to California. This new population of white Dust Bowl and Depression era refugees—made famous through Steinbeck in Harvest Gypsies, Of Mice and Men, In Dubious Battle, and Grapes of Wrath—showed class conflict to be alive and well in 1930s Salinas, but I also describe here how and why class identities intersected with race and gender to make the story of labor so much more complicated than Steinbeck depicted. Steinbeck and Carey McWilliams needn’t have feared that a permanent caste system would develop based on class alone as whites would quickly move up the class ladder in the aftermath of that strike, even papering over their own mistreatment by elites in the agricultural industry. I also explain in this chapter how class divisions within Japanese and Filipino/a American communities thwarted any nascent effort to challenge white supremacy by their members. Middle-class Asian American labor contractors sided with growers here as they did elsewhere, linking this history more clearly to Cecilia Tsu’s work on the Central Valley. Thus, in the 1930s the general population of Anglo Americans allowed non-white groups of mostly Asian and Mexican descent just enough space in city life to keep the peace; the power structure that was, first and foremost, built on racial exclusion made room for enterprising whites (even from the Dust Bowl regions), and it allowed just enough space to appease Japanese, Chinese, Latino/a, and Filipino/a American aspirants to the middle class. This strategy became the basis for the city’s organization and development going forward and precluded a more radical politics from taking root in Salinas. This is what happened in the rest of America too.

Chapter 6 zeroes in on World War II and its impact on Salinas, and it also brings the postwar into the story. First, the war drew poor whites, Filipino/a Americans, Chinese Americans, Mexican Americans, and Anglo Americans into the mainstream of Salinas almost overnight, as soldiers and Americans united—against the Japanese. In this chapter, I tell that story of incarceration and how Japanese Americans felt about it and responded, both during and after the war. I make clear in this chapter that the trauma had long-term implications for the city. Asian communities in Salinas paid attention to what happened to the Japanese during the war years, which affected their collective decisions to refrain from political activism both during and following World War II.

This chapter includes the story of labor and the Mexican Farm Labor Program, also known as the Bracero program. Through the material from the Grower-Shipper Association, we see here how concepts of immigrant labor change from Salinas resident-in-the-making to commodity. I analyze how and why everyone in agriculture (growers, shippers, marketing people, and even residents only tangentially associated with food production) thought of Braceros as merely temporary (hence the term “guest worker”), not people who might join their ranks someday (as white southern migrants did) or at least become integral to Salinas’s diverse demographic landscape, as Asian and earlier Mexican American migrant groups had been. By contrast, Braceros were considered disposable and interchangeable, as painfully clear accounts from GSA records and correspondence showed. Many Braceros, like the Ruiz family, returned to Salinas and raised families. Their descendants have not forgotten how their grandfathers were treated and bear scars from that today, as narrators poignantly told me. I weave their stories into this section.

I end this chapter with an analysis of immigration policy in the postwar that lifted quotas on Asians by 1965, both replenishing and splitting Filipino/a, Chinese, and Japanese American communities within Salinas between those who arrived in the first half of the century, some tracing their family roots to the late nineteenth century, and those who arrived in the postwar era, during a more liberal immigration policy and better relations with Asia at the national level. I argue here that these new, better educated, and wealthier immigrants challenged long-established minority communities in Salinas in ways that shook up the assumption of homogeneity. It was not just a façade of harmony between groups, especially between whites and minorities, that needs exposure and analysis; it was also a papering over of fissures within communities, especially over class divides, that requires explanation. Inclusion was based on an acceptance of cultural difference at the expense of real social, political, economic equality. The façade held because enough members of a given group acquired status in Salinas’s middle class to create the sense of possibility, a myth reinforced with new immigration of well-educated Asian professionals who succeeded economically into the wealthy class, lived in white neighborhoods, and associated socially with other elites.

Part III focuses on the transformative postwar to the present. Chapter 7, “Expansion, Activism, and Civil Rights,” analyzes the impact of the annexation of Alisal in 1963, which doubled both the city’s population and boundaries; the annexation was based on Salinas residents’ new appreciation of Alisal’s population as majority white and economically stable. The idea that Alisal (or east Salinas, as it was also commonly referred to) was only a destination for migrant laborers had ended by the postwar period. Salinas’s leadership and the bulk of its population engaged in a concerted effort to annex the area in order to profit from its people and its growing economy.

This chapter also shows how Salinas’s business class sought to do more than just add to the city’s geography and population base. They invited large corporations and industries into the city, utilizing Salinas’s unique geography (an urban center without contiguous borders connecting it to any other municipality) to add tax revenue to the city’s coffers and ensure year-round, long-term employment. However, the dark side to their plan was industrial pollution, which generated a vigorous response from Salinas’s middle class—mostly women environmental activists. Theirs was part of a larger national movement that forced new regulation on oil and gas companies, as well as on industries generally by the 1970s.

Finally, and most importantly, Chapter 7 examines the United Farm Workers (UFW) movement in Salinas and in the context of these other developments and activism. The farmworker movement was one of the most important civil rights struggles of our time. As with the 1930s labor rights struggles, César Chávez and the UFW made Salinas (along with Delano, California) infamous in the same way it had been in 1936—for its mistreatment of working classes. The UFW sought the support of Asian groups in the city, but these groups, at least collectively, refrained from doing so (individuals from all groups were vocal supporters of the UFW). I show here how the entire city became involved in the UFW, for and against, and the impact this movement had on Salinas.

Chapter 8, “Politics and Empowerment in a New Era,” concentrates on the period following legislative successes made possible by UFW activism, when agriculture became highly industrialized and even more profitable; it also became truly global in its reach, marking Salinas as a critical food producer in the world. The new political players who came out of the UFW Chicano/a civil rights movement disrupted city government—not by knocking out the old political elite but by accommodation, persuasion, and moderation, still making incremental (yet important) changes in governance and representation. Cultural demonstrations of inclusion and access to economic mobility through property ownership and the establishment of small businesses continued to be the hallmark of Salinas’s response to racial tensions. The history and development of the National Steinbeck Center is included in this chapter as the city coped with the severe challenges of fiscal belt-tightening, environmental crisis, and tax revolts by investing in a reinvigorated Main Street, with the National Steinbeck Center as anchor.

Chapter 9, “Agricultural and Urban: Salinas in the Twenty-First Century,” explores Salinas’s battles over the rise in gang violence and high crime rates, similar to that of other minority-majority cities in the 1990s. The willingness to make changes at both micro and macro levels, while not always successful, did much to assuage even the harshest critics of policing as we entered the twenty-first century. The city’s focus on educational opportunity became the centerpiece of its strategy to confront and confound gang activity and to peacefully transition to a Latino/a majority city. The emergence of tremendous philanthropic support for the local community college (Hartnell) and the new California state college (California State University, Monterey Bay) located nearby provided youth in Salinas access to socioeconomic mobility through educational attainment. Farmworkers still suffer enormously in Salinas, but young people benefit from the investment in education that allows them to leave the fields for better employment, both in and out of agriculture.

That said, the largesse of the philanthropists is still largesse. It is based on a concept of white supremacy and tolerance of others, rather than genuine equality. The new Latino/a majority became the face of Salinas through political representation, but there remains a glaring lack of representation of nonwhite groups (other than a very few Asians) in the elite echelon of agriculture, now referred to as AgTech (to highlight its connections to Silicon Valley), which can be seen as a darker side of Salinas’s historical pattern of inclusion without actual challenge to structural, pervasive racism. Salinas, in a nutshell, is an example of how and why racism proved to be so persistent in American life.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the fissures in Salinas’s strategy of cultural and limited economic inclusion that kept minority populations, especially farmworkers, living on shaky and tenuous ground—aspirants to middle-class life but also dependent on service economies that evaporated with the pandemic. Yet, nonprofits once again stepped up to play an important role in coping with this new public health crisis, and formerly white-dominated organizations such as the Grower-Shipper Association became more representative, including selecting a Mexican American president.

Salinas remains the urban mosaic it always was, making space culturally, politically, and even economically for a diverse, stable, and conservative middle class. Salinas never erupted in the racial and class conflict that disrupted other municipalities in the country in 2020, which may not necessarily be either a model going forward or a good thing. In Salinas, agriculture was the glue that held everyone and everything together: a compelling economic driver that allowed younger generations access to jobs and mobility and blurred the dichotomy between what was rural and what was urban in American life.

We know a great deal about urban/suburban and exurban spaces in this country. Much scholarship has been devoted to manufacturing cities and the high tech regions that command attention today. However, we tend to caricature (and ignore) places that are rural, particularly in agricultural zones outside of major municipalities. The myth that people living in rural communities are backward in their thinking, fearful, and resistant to change is misleading, simplistic, and offensive. This unfortunate view of rural Americans prevents us from fully understanding the deep complexities of whatever we define as the American character and hinders our efforts to create good policy and more equitable and sustainable communities as a result. However, forward-thinking agriculturalists in the Central Coast region, with Salinas as the urban center, offer both new ways of understanding the rural past, not as separate from what was and is urban, but as integral to it.

Salinas became the epicenter of regional agricultural achievement with a global reach. This book is an effort to explain why that matters in understanding California and America, past and present. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and extending into the present day, the city of Salinas became one of the most critical centers of agricultural innovation in California and the nation, and as such it offers us a lens with which to understand California’s (and the nation’s) story in all of its wonderful complexity, weaving the wide variety of ethnic group histories into a comprehensive account of city-building. Like Steinbeck’s novels, this story is an effort to show how Salinas became America in a teardrop and how an understanding of its history offers a way forward in the tumultuous present that is riven by racial strife, political polarization, environmental catastrophe, and rampant inequality.


1. For an analysis of the rapid socioeconomic rise of Depression era immigrants from the Southwest to California, see James N. Gregory, “Dust Bowl Legacies: The Okie Impact on California, 1939–1989,” California History, 68 (3) (Fall 1989): 74–85.

2. Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, To Place Our Deeds: The African American Community in Richmond, California, 1910–1963 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); Alex Schafran, The Road to Resegregation: Northern California and the Failure of Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018); Robert O. Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003); Emily E. Straus, Death of a Suburban Dream: Race and Schools in Compton, California (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).

3. Lori A. Flores, Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016).

4. Resistors did protest this racism throughout the city’s history; Salinas maintained a very American structure of white privilege.