Salinas: A Brief History and Demographics

According to the 2010 census, Salinas’ population is approximately 75 percent Latino (primarily Mexican/Mexican-American and Central American), 16 percent White, 2 percent African American, 1 percent Native American, and 7 percent Asian and Pacific Islander. The average income is 42K, with one-quarter earning less than 14K annually.

Salinas, CA

Salinas Valley also hosts a booming prison industry, creating two distinct economic engines in agriculture and incarceration. The agricultural industry’s needs for labor have made the Salinas Valley an immigrant magnet for much of the 20th century—attracting Dust Bowl migration from Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas; Filipino field laborers; Japanese flower growers; Chinese and Korean merchants; Italian and Portuguese fishers; and Mexican farm workers— all pursuing Golden State dreams. Many of them settled in East Salinas or Alisal (“grove of sycamores”), a smaller parcel of land used as a housing development for farm workers.

Phillip Tabera, longtime Alisal resident, professor, and Salinas Union High School District board member, remembers the highly racialized separation between the land allotments: “in the 30’s or 40’s, there was a city ordinance that said if you were colored, that you couldn’t cross the 101 bridge on Sundays. And if you were caught, you were brought back to the east side.” Whereas the City of Salinas was incorporated in 1874, Alisal remained unincorporated until 1963.

Even after incorporation, improvements seldom arrived to the new east side of town. Political representation did not increase; neither did economic opportunity. Public Works Director Petersen, who came into his position in 2005, describes: “When the East Side became incorporated in the 1960s, it hadn’t really been planned. The city has never really had the resources to make all the necessary changes.” Its oversight fell on Monterey County, whose codes generally weren’t as strict as the city codes.

Massive over- crowding occurred, the streets were not laid out properly, lighting was poor, and maintenance was neglected. The differences between Salinas and Alisal became strikingly obvious. “The entire Alisal area was a county area,” says Petersen. “It was built separate from the city, so it never had the same requirements and oversight that the city had. This lack of oversight eventually produced the highest density of population and the lowest levels of income.”

Salinas, CA

The growers families, who run an almost 8.1 billion dollar agricultural industry, have profited due to two co-occurring phenomena: the ongoing exploitation of laborers of color and a city unwilling to intervene in grower and organizer conflict.