An ode to the hometowns that shape us, for better or worse

Artwork: Casey Supple

I seem to remember my hometown most when it rains. The historic downtown streets collecting puddles, colorful awnings dripping onto passing umbrellas and the smell of freshly roasted coffee beans from my favorite local cafe.

I never thought I would feel homesick for Salinas, the small agriculture town where I spent the first 23 years of my life, but some days I can’t help it.  

Best known for its connection to John Steinbeck, Salinas has been called “The Salad Bowl of America” or, in more critical circles, the gang violence capital of the world.

That last description stings, mostly because it’s true.

Obviously, we don’t get to choose our hometowns. I certainly didn’t ask to share roots with some of the most notorious gangs in history, yet growing up in such a unique environment has shaped me in ways I am only now beginning to understand.  

I suppose I was always conscious of the violence growing up. Yet stories of gang shootings were so frequent that they began to blend in with the wallpaper.

Those stories shed light on a part of Salinas I never saw. Like separate worlds inhabiting the same fertile valley.

And when you drive past the strawberry fields and lettuce crops in the morning, it is difficult to see anything besides beauty.

Farmworkers pepper the dark green landscape with colorful sweatshirts, barely visible through a blanket of rolling fog.

All I can remember are the parks that sprouted community gardens, the advocates at city hall fighting for sustainability, the citizens with heart and strength, their Spanglish rolling off their tongues as they spoke of change.

I suppose you learn to be at ease in your surroundings. Eventually the dichotomy of violence and peace becomes a part of you. You began to see the grit of gang violence as a test of courage, reclaiming the streets with every morning stroll to the donut shop or every nighttime bike ride in the rain.

This is why the rain always takes me back. Back to my tiny studio apartment I could barely afford, above a bustling downtown bar that blasted karaoke every wednesday night.

Back to the historic cinema on main street that still lights up each night, even decades after it’s windows were boarded up and it’s tenement structure abandoned.

Back to the place that John Steinbeck called East of Eden.

I miss the streets I lived on as a child, the friends I made and lost as I changed over the years.

I miss the coffee from The Cherry Bean, the familiar faces of shop owners and homeless people.

I miss knowing the cracks in the sidewalk like the back of my hand. I miss the Salinas Donut Shop, the bus station that I frequented before I had a car.

I miss the sense of belonging, the feeling of home amidst the chaos.

But as time passes and I begin to explore Fresno, I feel my roots beginning to re-grow. I’ve begun to frequent new cafes. I recognize street names and appreciate the unique areas of this city.

I will never love a place the way I love Salinas.

Just like I have changed since moving away, each time I visit my hometown it feels a little more foreign to me. Although I still remember it most when it rains, I know there is a chance I will never call the Salinas Valley home again.

For this reason, I will always carry a true appreciation for the beauty of struggle and an acute awareness of tragedy.

To know gang violence is to understand that nothing is what it seems, that even the quiet little towns we grow up in are not perfect.

But it is their imperfections that challenge us. Much like dandelions that grow through cement and wrap around barbed wire, we are more resilient with each transplant.

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