Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Salinas's image problem

Every couple of years, Salinas grabs national media headlines for all the wrong reasons: Police killings of criminal suspects caught on camera; the sensational courtroom drama of local convicted murderer Jodi Arias. Each story draws the major corporate media outlets to town, eager to shoehorn some reference to Salinas native John Steinbeck into the narrative.

Maybe we look like a real- life version of a tawdry reality TV show to them. It wasn’t always like this. I’ve covered the town for more than 20 years, largely as a features writer and columnist. I also served time as an education and city reporter for two local publications, The Monterey County Herald and the Salinas Californian. Other local media outlets covering the town include the Monterey County Weekly, NBC/ABC affiliate KSBW-TV, CBS affiliate KION-TV and Univision affiliate KSMS-TV.

Once upon a time the juiciest national story about Salinas might have involved an e.coli outbreak linked to one of our produce giants. The town has changed, as violent crime reports in town have fed the media’s appetite for sensational headlines.

Salinas calls itself the Salad Bowl of the World, which sounds like a healthy thing, but our billion dollar lettuce economy is complicated—maybe more complicated than outsiders care to understand—and our struggles are a window into California’s future.

As Silicon Valley is to software, Salinas is to lettuce: We didn’t invent the salad bar, but we introduced the world to bagged salad. We are the model for modern agricultural technology and production. There’s a 90 percent chance that bagged salad you bought for dinner was produced here. But the innovation in lettuce growing, packing, and shipping that brings you a “healthy” meal also includes a lot of unseen hands. And these hands are mostly Mexican migrants who make up about 34 percent of our town’s population, according to recent US Census Bureau data.

What do you think happens when one of California’s richest industries conducts business in and culls its workforce from a highly concentrated immigrant community? Lots of under reported stories, such as the ripple effects of low academic achievement numbers amongst English Language Learning students or the population density in certain areas of town. Or stories that get misreported as something else. (See reality show, above.)

For instance, Forbes recently named Salinas the second least educated city in America. Media outlets leached onto the story and the study it was based on and repurposed it as a list of the dumbest towns in the country. Among several indicators, the list factored in the number of available jobs that require a college education.

But really, how unexpected is this? When so much of your workforce is manual labor based, you can bet that there won’t be a load of workers sitting on college diplomas.

When I read that, I saw it as a grand insult to the delicate skill and craft of our local farm laborers. The idea that Salinas is a dumb town is itself pretty inaccurate. Harvesting produce doesn’t require an advanced degree, but it’s no job for dummies. Have you ever attempted to pick a strawberry field? I haven’t, but I understand from growing up here the careful technique required not only to gently pick the produce, but to do it at a rapid fire pace. I have great respect for the job. Our farm workers move fast and efficiently.

You have to be smart and know the land to be successful in the fields. Forbes didn’t have the time or just didn’t bother to report that crucial nugget of information.

Ironically, Forbes did have time to host an Ag-Tech summit in town recently. Billed as “Reinventing America: The AgTech Summit,” the summit brought together Silicon Valley and Global Ag leaders, many based here in the Salad Bowl, together for breakout sessions on the booming AgTech industry. It was an invitation-only event. I mention that because it shows the contrasting sides of this town’s image. We are uneducated enough to make top 10 lists, but somehow industrially sophisticated enough to host big business think tank sessions.

It also lends credence to a recently held belief that Salinas may provide a window into the future of this State. We are a rural community steeped in Old West tradition (we host the biggest and oldest Rodeo in the state). At the same time, the town’s economic and cultural divide widens by the year. As recently as 2011, Salinas was one of the top 22 most segregated city’s in the nation. A study by professors at Brown and Florida State University created a dissimilarity index which identifies the percentage of one group that would have to move into a different neighborhood to eliminate segregation. Salinas had a 60.9 percent white-Latino dissimilarity rate. Those types of numbers put us in lock-step with the national immigration debate. Our mix of old school labor practices and modern social challenges make for a unique special case study of life in the Golden State. Add to that our recent development as a Silicon Valley bedroom community, and you have a town that offers a bit of everything that people relate to the California experience – sunshine, soil, and sync.

That’s part of what makes covering news in Salinas a tough gig. Everything is sneaky complex. The gang violence that generates so many local headlines isn’t the result of a reckless immigrant population, as some GOP zealots like Donald Trump would have you believe. It’s one of the conditions that grows out of many decades of cultivating an impoverished and underserved migrant community. Yes, Salinas has poverty, but it’s also a place where rents are so high that sometimes two or three families must pack into a single apartment unit to afford a place to live and survive. During the harvest, these families can work 10 to -12 hour shifts, six days a week to provide for their children.

Those children in turn sometimes suffer from the unintentional neglect of busy working parents. This makes them vulnerable to the streets.

Local media does what it can to tell these stories. Investigative journalist Julia Reynolds recently published the book “Blood in the Fields: 10 Years inside California’s Nuestra Familia Gang.” The book analyzed the socio-economic and cultural forces that played into the emergence of one of the most sophisticated criminal organizations in the U.S. It also shed light on efforts from community members and law enforcement in the fight to curb gang violence.

For the most part it’s something that is understood on the surface by locals and all but ignored when national media comes to town.

And that leads to a lot of misunderstanding about the town’s image and identity. Largely, that this town is unsafe and people are in danger of violence on every corner.

It’s tough to recover from the blow of bad national news every few years. This town is still learning to adapt. People do their best to shrug it off and carry on.

I like to keep it positive and remind my neighbors about something John Steinbeck said late in his life, right before he decided he wanted to be buried in his home town.

“Not everyone has the good fortune to be born in Salinas.”

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