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Claudia Melendez Salinas: Journalist Turned Author Talks About Her Debut Novel

Doug McKnight
Author Claudia Melendez Salinas stands at the foot of the Gabilan Mountains.

Journalist Claudia Melendez Salinas decided to write her first novel while covering a story for the Monterey Herald nine years ago. It was a period when the city of Salinas was having a difficult time financially and had to make some hard choices about what services to cut.

“The libraries had just been closed. But they were also having issues with the community centers,” says Melendez Salinas.

So the city held a series of public hearings to decide which of the centers to close. One slated for closure was the Bread Box Recreational Center. It serves as an alternative to the streets; a place for young people to participate in sports and make friends. It was there that Melendez Salinas witnessed something that would inspire her book.

“There was this hearing that they had with all these boys that were trying to speak up and say, 'you know, we don’t want you to close this place'. And so, I was sitting at one of those hearings and I thought 'My God' this was a book that needs to be written because there is just so much you can say in a book that you really can’t say in a newspaper article,” says Melendez Salinas.

But writing a novel is different than writing a newspaper article. There are rules for writing news.

“You have to be as accurate as possible, as reflective as what really goes on as possible, which you do not have to when you are writing a novel.  You can just make up things. And that’s what I did, and it was really fun and liberating,” says Melendez Salinas.

Melendez walks along a gravel path near the foot of the Gabilan Mountains. It’s a special place for her.  “I think it is just beautiful,” says Melendez Salinas

The mountain range forms the eastern edge of the Salinas Valley and serves as an important setting in her book “A Fighting Chance.”

“Miguel Angel, my main character loves this place.  He loves how the hills turn golden in the summer and emerald in the winter. And he gets inspired to run here,” says Melendez Salinas.

Miguel Angel is a 17- year-old who lives with his single mother, brothers and sisters in Salinas. He dreams of escaping poverty by becoming a professional boxer. But that dream is dashed when the city closes the community center where he trains.

In her book, Melendez Salinas contrasts the physical beauty of the Gabilans with the hidden beauty of the people who live in its shadow. And it is the strength of those people that she celebrates in her book.

“People when they come here they see like the streets are perhaps dirty. There’s garbage or there’s bumps. But that’s not all there is to a place, there’s other things. There’s people. There’s the culture. We are housing the people who grow the food in this country. And that is beautiful. I mean you may not be able to see it immediately with your eyes but if you think about it, see it with other ways, that itself is just a lot of richness and a lot of beauty,” says Melendez Salinas.

Like her hero Salinas Valley author, John Steinbeck, Melendez Salina’s feels a connection with the struggles of the poor. It is a connection that goes back to her childhood and an experience she had growing up in Mexico

“I remember one time when I was really little my parents took me to a park and there was this little boy, and he was selling candy on a very dark winter day with no shoes on. I remember going home and crying because I felt that was very unjust,” says Melendez Salinas. 

Her book, “A Fighting Chance” is the story of a young man and his struggle to overcome poverty. It is written for young adults and published by Arte Publico Press. It is 256 pages.

Claudia Melendez Salinas will be at a reception and book reading at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas tonight beginning at 5:30pm.  Find more details here.

Doug joined KAZU in 2004 as Development Director overseeing fundraising and grants. He was promoted to General Manager in 2009 and is currently retired and working part time in membership fundraising and news reporting at KAZU.
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