From 10,000 feet, Salinas resembles an uncut diamond in the middle of a patchwork quilt of lettuce fields. To journalist and author Claudia Meléndez Salinas, it says a lot about her adopted home: With the right perspective, Salinas holds gems that otherwise remain obscured.

“Salinas might not always seem pretty in the traditional sense,” Meléndez Salinas says while sitting at the Cherry Bean, a coffee shop in Oldtown Salinas. “But the history, hard work and resolve of the people, especially the Latino community, has made for a place with a strong cultural identity.”

The city of 160,000 is often overlooked by people who come to Monterey County to visit Cannery Row and the aquarium, the pastoral Carmel Valley and rugged, world-famous Big Sur. It’s widely known as the childhood home of and inspiration to Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck, as the source of most of the nation’s lettuce and leafy greens, and as a city long plagued by issues related to poverty.

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David Lopez woke up wet and shivering on the ground behind a row of hedges in downtown Monterey. To say he woke up might be saying too much. The chilly night didn’t give him much rest. As the first pedestrians of the day started walking by his sleeping quarters, he pulled himself up, brushed off as much mud as he could and made his way down to the waterfront hoping he could find company with one of his few friends.

Lopez is a sturdily built man who once lived a violent life on the streets of Salinas, but at 66, life outside is wearing on him. He says he feels tired. He looks exhausted. He wonders if a trip to the ER or a night or two in jail might make him feel better. But what he really wants is a backpack, or better yet, a blanket. His was stolen a few days earlier, making life in the darkening days of late November harder than normal.

He walks toward Cannery Row where his friend Douglas slept on the beach. Douglas finds himself on the streets for a different reason: Substance abuse and likely mental illness stripped him of his tenuous hold on a working-class existence. Lopez, on the other hand, says he was released from prison in 2012 after spending 35 years behind bars, a senior citizen with no family to stay with, and no marketable skills.

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