Rap artist Razi performs during the Salinas Juneteenth at the Rodeo Grounds in Salinas | Claudia Meléndez Salinas
By Claudia Meléndez Salinas
Imagine being taken away from your parents and your friends, from the only place you’ve ever known as home to be shipped across the ocean and be sold as a slave. And imagine that, generations later, the grandchildren of the children of your children meet to dance under the sun, listen to drumming and poetry and rejoice about a newly created holiday that celebrates, finally, your freedom.
For Kenya Burton, the recently inaugurated Salinas Youth Poet Laureate, that’s how it felt to get together with hundreds of Blacks and African Americans in the first Juneteenth celebration in Salinas.
“I”m really happy with how it turned out and all the support from the community,” she wrote in a text message. “I’m really happy I got the chance to collaborate on this event and organize something that resonated with Salinas.”
Food vendors, general merchandise sellers and community services representatives such as the Salinas Public Library and Natividad Medical Center spread their booths around the Rodeo grounds to provide services. At a modest stage on the far end of the lawn, rap artists sang, poets performed, and awards were presented to Edd Armstrong, the first Black/African American teacher at the Salinas Union High School District, a man who arrived from Kansas in 1966 and who lived in Monterey County for more than 50 years.
Also recognized was Deloris Higgins, the first and only Black/African American to serve in the Salinas City Council, the legendary owner of Del Rey Beauty Salon and a founder of the Salinas United Business Association, and Willette Jones, an entrepreneur for more than 22 years in Salinas. The committee awarded scholarships to two rising Black/African American stars: Burton and Michael Ndubisi, a recent graduate of North Salinas High and an all-around wunderkid who’s also written for Voices of Monterey Bay and is heading to Yale University.
“We had amazing feedback, especially from long-time residents and their families,” Burton said. “We had so many community members looking forward to the next Juneteenth and loved that we were showing Salinas a part of history that isn’t always seen.”
Juneteenth just became a federal holiday on June 17, when President Joe Biden signed into law, but it’s been in the making for more than a century. The date commemorates the announcement by Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas, that African-American slaves had been freed. The date was June 19, 1865, and it was more than two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The date has been celebrated in Texas since 1866.
The Black/African American community in Monterey County has had a resurgence of activity since the murder of George Floyd last year. Several demonstrations were organized in the aftermath, even a march between Salinas and Seaside to bring together Latinos and Afro Americans. In a way, the first Salinas Juneteenth celebration is a continuation of those meetings and friendships formed.
“There were multiple hurdles we had to overcome through the process,” said Asya Guillory, co-chair of the event. “But seeing the crowds and watching the kids was truly heartwarming.”
The percentage of the population in Salinas identified as Black is 1.5 percent, according to the U.S. Census. However, 3.5 percent of the population identifies as two or more races, which could include people of Black heritage.
When the Salinas Juneteenth committee began meeting early this year, they did not know June 19 would become a federal holiday, a development that added importance to the gathering at the Rodeo.
“To me it just confirmed that we made the right decision in having our own Salinas Juneteenth celebration,” said January Brown, co-chair of the event. “We were told there’s not that many African Americans in Salinas … but there was a little something telling us to do it. The national holiday confirmed it and it was such a beautiful feeling we made the right decision.”
Standing on that humble stage, overlooking the crowd, Burton read a poem she wrote to her city for the occasion, “Salas,” an ode to the Salad Bowl of the World that intertwines her Black and Mexican heritage.
“We are a city of refugees, taking their final step into freedom.
A story spread over borders.
One that proves that no matter where we are in the world, we always find
Sometimes it takes centuries to find each other, but you eventually do. And when it happens, it’s glorious.