The Devil in Silicon Valley
Northern California, Race, and Mexican Americans
Stephen J. Pitti
Princeton University Press: 298 pp., $29.95
The Silicon Valley of Dreams
Environmental Injustice, Immigrant Workers,
and the High-Tech Global Economy
David Naguib Pellow and Lisa Sun-Hee Park
New York University Press: 304 pp., $60 cloth, $18 paper
Atale is preserved in the traditions of the Ohlone tribe of Northern California’s Santa Clara Valley about the day the devil visited the Spanish mission at San Jose. He took the form of a donkey who possessed the remarkable ability to elongate his body so that he could accommodate all of the locals who wanted to ride on his back. Only when it was noticed that the donkey had three cloven feet and one rooster’s claw did they realize that the marvelous creature was, in fact, a manifestation of pure evil.
The shape-changing donkey is obliquely recalled in the title of Stephen J. Pitti’s social history of the Silicon Valley to make the point that the encounter between the races in the Santa Clara Valley has always been characterized by marvels with a dark underside. Starting with the arrival of Spanish soldiers, priests and settlers, continuing through the boom days of the Gold Rush and even during the modern era that turned Santa Clara Valley into “Silicon Valley,” newcomers have always seemed to overwhelm, exploit and sometimes even destroy the native dwellers.
"[I]deologies of race, like the Devil, took on different forms, assumed different guises, and extracted varying costs,” writes Pitti, “but the manifestations of violence, which always attend racism, were its most constant feature.”
Pitti, a history professor at Yale, is a scholar with an eye for the telling detail and a passion for social justice that turns his monograph into both a saga and a manifesto. Thus, for example, he pauses in his discussion of “phenotypical and cultural diversity” in the years of Spanish settlement to point out that the Franciscan fathers of the 18th century were so doubtful of their own converts that priests like Fray Magin Catala “conducted exorcisms to remove the evil he believed haunted neophyte communities.”
The American settlers were less pious but no less dogmatic. “No one acquainted with the indolent, mixed race of California, will ever believe that they will populate, much less, for any length of time, govern the country,” wrote one American on his arrival in what was then northern Mexico. “They must fade away.” The Manifest Destiny of America, according to a historian quoted by Pitti, was to ensure “the domination of civilization over nature, Christianity over heathenism, progress over backwardness, and, most importantly, of white Americans over the Mexican and Indian populations that stood in their path.”
“This,” Pitti points out, “was the Devil’s language.”
From the earliest years of conquest and settlement, as Pitti points out, the newcomers contrived to take land away from the native dwellers and turn them into domestics, day laborers, hard-rock miners and farm workers. But economic displacement was hardly the only evil to befall the Indians and Mexicans who were here first. “While white vigilantes shot or hanged suspected ethnic Mexican criminals in the San Jose area,” Pitti writes, “local settlers took even more extreme measures to cleanse Northern California of its profligate Indian communities, a sort of final solution to race problems in the state.”
Even when the Santa Clara Valley began to attract the high-tech industries that amounted to a second Gold Rush in the years after World War II, the Latino population was mostly left out. “While most contemporaries celebrated Valley growth, local ethnic Mexicans continued to raise different and often damning questions about the costs and consequences of San Jose’s development,” writes Pitti. Union organizers and community activists began “to mobilize political power along ethnic lines” and achieved a few victories in “beat[ing] back the devil of discrimination.”
Still, Pitti points out that the “racial logic” of the Santa Clara Valley had not changed much in the era of the technology boom, and Latinos were still mostly relegated to work as janitors, landscapers, dishwashers and day laborers on construction sites. “Often invisible to a white middle class that designed software in Valley cubicles, these Mexican men and women worked at night to clean the offices of international corporations,” he writes. “Their labor remained tough, low-paid and often dangerous.”
A certain righteous anger burns at the core of Pitti’s book: “It’s a scandalous fact that no one else has attempted an extended historical study of Latinos in Silicon Valley,” he concludes in a moment of justified self-congratulation, “a population of undeniable importance and a place roundly celebrated and reviled.” And yet, ironically, race is one of the urgent concerns of another new book on the Silicon Valley.
“Silicon Valley is ... home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States,” write David Naguib Pellow and Lisa Sun-Hee Park, both professors of ethnic studies at UC San Diego, in “The Silicon Valley of Dreams.” And yet “immigrants and people of color are currently concentrated in the most hazardous occupations and the most environmentally polluted neighborhoods of Silicon Valley.” The result, as Pellow and Park put it, is “environmental racism,” a term they use to describe “the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on marginalized communities.” Latinos are among its victims, to be sure, but they include the large population of immigrants from Asia.
The irony here is the contrast between the dream and the reality of Silicon Valley. We are encouraged to regard the region as “the model for postindustrial, post-smokestack, high-technology economic development,” the authors point out, and yet they assert that the Santa Clara Valley includes “the highest density of federally designated toxic Superfund sites anywhere in the nation.” And, because of the area’s reliance on immigrant labor, they are “front-line casualties” of what the authors call “the war on immigrants and the environment.”
Pellow and Park reprise some of the same atrocities of early California history that draw Pitti’s attention, but their focus is on the latest outrages. Thus, for example, they explain how the “clean rooms” where silicon chips are fabricated are, in fact, filled with dangerous chemicals and other hazardous materials. “The people who perform these tasks are placed at a level of risk that no individual with the means to do otherwise would willingly accept,” they insist. "[W]orkers in Silicon Valley’s electronic industry are a dying breed -- literally and figuratively.”
The authors of both of these important books share a sense of compassion for and commitment to the struggle of labor, community, civil rights and environmental activists. The methods and goals of these various movements, as we are shown in detail in both books, do not always mesh with each other, but their concerns are ultimately the same -- “the growing disparity between the wealthy and the poor,” as Pellow and Park sum up, “between corporate power and indigenous peoples, people of color, and the working class within and between nations.”