About one hour south of the wealthy Silicon Valley, sits the agricultural, immigrant town of Salinas. On the east side of Salinas, in a neighborhood known as Alisal, deplorable housing conditions and gang violence are part of daily life. Big changes happening within the community, however, are bringing about a sense of renewal.
The city of Salinas, California, sits at the head of a fertile valley. Every day Americans eat produce that is hand-picked by migrant farm workers here. Along with an abundance of other crops, 80% of the nation's lettuce and artichokes are grown here, but few understand the challenges the farm workers and their children face. These farm workers are the backbone of agriculture in the United States and contribute to our food supply, yet they live in the shadows, in inadequate housing, and in dangerous neighborhoods, where gangs prey on vulnerable young people who are left home alone, while their parents work long hours in the fields.
This documentary profiles several children of migrant farm workers living in the Salinas Valley, specifically in Alisal. Without resources, and sometimes undocumented, their future is often uncertain, but their hope and resilience is abundant. The film helps viewers understand this immigrant community that is often misrepresented in the media, which often focuses on gang violence, marginalizing the lives of those who work in the fields, and their children. Furthermore the film brings to light the systemic causes of the problems in East Salinas and highlights the successes and hopes of this community, despite adversity.
Leaders in the community say Alisal is one of the most densely populated area in California – some say more densely populated than Manhattan, New York. Latinos make up 95% of the population, which is predominately low-income Mexican immigrants. Immigrant families, who work in the fields, live in cramped, unhealthy conditions because of the high cost of housing in Monterey County. Alisal is a young community: 37% of its residents are under the age of 18 and only 4% are over the age of 65.
As you drive around Alisal you see garages with messy foam insulation outlining the garage doors. These are converted garages, where families, sometimes multiple families, live, with questionable electricity and water, often on a cement floor, with rodents abundant.
Alisal High School has had major problems with gang violence, but students, faculty and staff show great pride in their school. The high school’s demographics: 97% of the students are Latino; and 77% are eligible for free or reduced lunch. That’s compared to a 41% average for the state. Students the director spoke to brought her to places on campus, where there have been shootings, murders, or gang violence. Salinas is home to an estimated 16 street gangs, with at least 3,000 members.
Alisal is separated from the rest of Salinas by the 101 freeway. Alisal was once known as “little Oklahoma.” More than three thousand Midwesterners settled in East Salinas during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. In the 1930s the community was renamed “The Alisal.” It was annexed to the City of Salinas in 1963. The plight of the “Oakies” living in Alisal was brought into America’s consciousness by the music of Woody Guthrie and the stories of John Steinbeck. The Bracero program brought Mexican workers to the agricultural fields from the 1940s to the 1960s. More than 4 million Mexican farm workers came to work in the fields in the United States under the Bracero program. Many of these workers settled in Alisal.
East Salinas is the center of gang violence in Salinas, which has increased dramatically since 2005. Gangs specifically target the Alisal neighborhood for recruitment because parents are often not home to supervise their children.The number of homicides in Salinas has increased by more than 400% since 2005, reaching an all-time high of 29 in 2009.
Despite the challenges in Salinas, there is a growing sense of community pride and a desire to improve social and economic conditions in Alisal. The young people of Salinas, the children of migrant farm workers,are educating themselves and changing their lives, one generation at a time.