Urban historian Carol Lynn McKibben likes to think she would have written Salinas: A History of Race and Resilience in an Agricultural City without the request of former longtime Salinas City Manager Ray Corpuz and the access she was granted to critical archival materials.
Though her birthplace is New York City, McKibben’s understanding of home is connected to the ranch her family had in Gilroy. She became a Californian as a child and now teaches California history at Stanford University.
The Salinas project started in 2016 and wrapped up in 2020. McKibben was “impressed and surprised” with what she found – for example, the intensity people still feel about the farmworker movement of the 1970s, with a push to secure better pay and working conditions on farms. “Those divisions persisted. The movement inspired the whole generation of politicians and activists,” McKibben says.
Among facts, she also found a whole bunch of foundational myths that obfuscate race and labor relations in Salinas. “When people tell the story over and over again, they start to believe it,” she says. But beneath family histories of luck and resilience, there are real socio-economic events and political decisions that created deep divisions.
In 1872, Salinas stole the county seat from Monterey and local government brought even more attention and events to town. By 1924, it was the wealthiest city, per capita, in America. The ’30s brought labor strikes, but the 1940s were economically glorious again, although against a backdrop of social turmoil and mass incarceration of Japanese Americans. While “genocide and overpowering were real,” McKibben says, intermarrying and purposeful covering of your racial tracks was common.
“Diversity,” McKibben says, “so much diversity when it comes to class, stages of migration.” To an outsider, any given ethnic community in Salinas can appear a monolith, but in reality, each comes with diversity that makes Salinas nothing if not a mosaic. “I wanted to use ‘mosaic’ in the title of the book, but no one lets writers do anything,” she says.
McKibben is hopeful about Salinas’ future and the new generation of activists and politicians leading the way. This hope for the future, she adds, “has everything to do with Salinas’ history.”