Salinas Valley Museum tribute to ag people

Sixty-three-year-old Manuel Morales Sr. smiled proudly as his grandsons reacted to seeing their grandfather’s image on the television in his Salinas, Calif., home.

The young boys were excited to recognize the retired farm worker they know as Grandpa. Morales was also proud that the videotape represented his part in telling the agricultural history of the Salinas Valley.

Morales was talking about a life in the valley that began as a 17-year-old bracero from Mexico. He told his story on a videotape about how he was sent back to Mexico after the bracero program ended, only to return as an illegal immigrant to work the fields and raise his family. The videotape was brought to his home by daughter Leti Bocanegra, agriculture exhibit coordinator for the newly opened "Valley of the World" tribute to Salinas Valley agriculture at the National Steinbeck Center.

The evolution of one of the most productive agricultural valleys in the world is a story about people — people like those found in John Steinbeck novels. People like Manuel and Bill Ramsey, owner of Mann Packing Co. and one of the leaders in establishing what has been called a premier agricultural museum.

The name of the new center came from Steinbeck in describing a story that would later become his novel East of Eden.

Steinbeck’s words from The Grapes of Wrath greet visitors to the new $5.2 million wing:

"Man, unlike any other thing…, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments."

The tribute to agriculture is about a lot of things — the evolution from cattle country to the most productive farmland in the world. It talks about the day ice was first used to transport lettuce to markets across the nation and the evolution of the salad packs, one of the most innovative marketing technique that has revolutionized the vegetable industry form the field to the supermarket. One exhibit tells of Monterey’s world class wine grapes.

Explores agriculture

The state of the art gallery takes visitors on an interpretative, interactive and audio visual exploration of contemporary agriculture and its historical roots.

However, the museum is more than a technology story, it focuses on the people like Bocanegra, her father, Ramsey and may others.

Mexican-born Leti first went to the fields with her mother at age 12; obtained a work permit at 14 and worked the fields in the summer through her teen years.

It was hard work. She "hated it. All the people I worked with me told me to get an education. Get out of the fields," she said. She followed their advice, attended Hartnell College and Heald College. She has decided to pursue a degree in museum science.

However, the people in the fields told her a lot more by their actions than their words. She learned the value of family, hard work and responsibility. She learned the value of working together.

Good life lesson

She long ago left the harvest fields, but they never left her. She looks at those years differently now and insists that her two sons work in many of those same fields and packing sheds when they get older to learn the lessons she learned.

She has many contacts with vegetable grower/shippers in her job and doesn’t miss opportunities to tell them it will not be long before her sons will be big and strong and will make good hands in the packing sheds or in the fields. She’ll see to it. They need to learn what she learned in the fields.

Bocanegra was working for a credit company when the museum staff contacted her to consider becoming the ag exhibit coordinator for the new $5.2 million ag wing. She jumped at the chance at being a part of telling the story of her heritage and the heritages of the other cultures which played major roles in the valley’s history.

More than 200 people had a hand in creating the agricultural museum. They told their stories and contributed artifacts and other items to the museum.

"We were offered so much more than we could ever use" in the 6,500-square foot wing. "People wanted everyone to know as much as possible about the Salinas Valley," she said.

The museum tells of the technological evolutions of the valley’s vegetable business. It also tells the story of the infamous short-handle hoe and of labor strikes over the years.

It also tells the story of the internment of Japanese farmers and how non-Asian farmers protected the farms of their Japanese neighbors while they were interned during World War II. Their farms were still there when they returned after the war.

It’s a museum of people for people, said Leti.

There is the cab of a large semi-tractor to show people how truckers spend hours hauling produce to market. In it is a copy of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley" a three-month travel log from Steinbeck and his standard poodle Charley about their trek across America in a pickup camper.

Giant screen

The museum revolves around a giant screen where you can see Morales tell his story along with a Japanese farmer sent to an internment camp, lawyer for the California Rural Assistance program, Ramsey and others telling their stories. Ramsey’s is proud to be an Okie whose family story was told in the Grapes of Wrath. He began his career in the Mann packinghouse.

The wall of donors outside the museum lists the biggest vegetable producer/shippers in the world. That’s ironic because when Steinbeck published Grapes of Wrath he was castigated by agribusiness. Salinas has come to embrace its rich historical past — all of it -- like few other California farming communities.

Response has been positive to the new wing, said Bocanegra. If there has been criticism, she said people would like to see it larger to tell more stories. That may be in the future.

The National Steinbeck Center is a crowning achievement for Salinas and California’s central coast. The ag tribute is a big diamond in that crown and a must visit for everyone.

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