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El Diablo en el Barrio

Stephen J. Pitti explores race, culture and politics in San Francisco's Silicon Valley.

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The Devil In Silicon Valley: Northern California, Race, and Mexican Americans, published by Princeton University Press, looks beneath California's gilded and gleaming facade, to expose its past and present from the vantage point of its indigenous inhabitants. What we find, instead of the typical cowboy and gold rush glorification, is an unflinching look at how successive waves of colonialism and nascent nationalism imposed identities and social standings on native populations. Pitti's book lays bare, not only the epic hypocrisy, but also the complex relationships that have come to define our latter day notions of "Mexicans in America." Pitti is forthright in proclaiming himself a luddite: He is far less interested in the worshipping at the altar of Silicon Valley's high-tech pre-eminence, than in exploring the areas of human history and giving voice to the struggles of those who, even now, eke out a living in the shadows of the towering edifices of modern capitalism.

The "Devil" in the title, is racism. It's a devil dreadfully familiar to folks who have historically been on the receiving end of European "civilization." I found the parallels between the experiences of proto-Latinos and Africans, on these shores, striking. Both groups' histories have left them struggling for appropriate and dignified terms of self-reference, such that, in service of accuracy, you must refer to each group by different names at different times. "Chicano," "Mexicano," "Hispanic" and "Latino" have very specific meanings and milieus, as do "black," "negro," "African American" or "Afrikan." Internalized oppression among ethnic minorities was also operative, as newly "Christianized" inhabitants of the San Jose Valley were forced to identify with either their colonizers or their kinfolk.

"Both before and after Mexico's independence from Spain in 1821, local natives who did not settle at the missions, become Christians, speak Spanish, and adopt other Spanish-Mexican cultural practices remained defined as threatening outsiders, bárbaros in the eyes of these 'people of reason' (gente de razon), acculturated persons of African, Indian, and Spanish descent" (Pitti, pg. 16).

According to Pitti, between 1786 and 1799, very few (as little as one in 70) men, who made up the settler class in "Alta California," could claim pureza de sangre, or "pure blood," from Spain. The vast majority of settlers were mestizos and mulattos, (ethnic admixtures of Indians and Spaniards or Africans), yet they adopted the Spaniard "ideal," serving the "devil" by proxy. Of course, this follows the illogic of colonized thinking--Fanon would have understood.

Referring to racism as the devil in the context of early California takes on decidedly ironic undertones when one takes into consideration that the colonial outposts were actually Catholic missions, ostensibly established to court new believers and spread the Gospel. Missionaries proselytized heavily, winning critical and strategic converts among the Ohlone people of the region, by offering baptisms and the chance to become self-supporting members of Spanish society. Conversely, one seriously doubts that Christ would have approved of the Franciscans' practices of burning the holdings of non-Christians, and administering beatings to those who did not work arduously enough in the service of the lord, as expressed through the missions' economic ventures.

The mid-1840s brought the superimposition of the Manifest Destiny and its not-so-implicit underpinnings of white superiority throughout California. The Anglo newcomers--also purportedly acting on behalf of the Christian God--wasted little time in stealing land and livestock with shameless justification as typified by the words of contemporary American writer, Thomas Jefferson Farnham:

"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. ... They must fade away," says Jefferson.

Though Pitti's writing is supported by voluminous citation, it's the careful inclusion of quotes, such as the one above, which make The Devil in Silicon Valley a fascinating and revealing read. The unintended irony is laid bare for all to see, as he trots out quote after quote of white expansionists who basically upheld, as a pretext for their land grab, that the former colonists were too lazy, and fell far short in exploiting the region's land and people.

Beyond that, the book provides a long view of issues regarding California and Mexicans. For example, during the region's first boom as a mining haven during the Gold Rush, Mexicans and Chileans were brought in in droves to toil beneath the earth; sought out for their experience in Latin American mines as well as for their cheap labor. The biggest employer, Barron and Forbes, segregated its workers, white from Hispanic, in conveniently named work camps: "Englishtown" and "Spanishtown." The latter, of course, was situated on the worst land available, which was ill-suited for agriculture, and was used as a company dumping ground--killing off even more vegetation, and undermining even the slightest chance that it could be made self-sustaining.

Californian companies and subcontractors systematically cheated Hispanic workers, who performed the most dangerous jobs, for the least pay. Even the settlers' attempts to forge a local economy within the confines of Spanishtown were thwarted by the company, which, in 1864, established a store that sold spoiled produce and rotten meat at outrageous prices, forbidding any other form of indigenous commerce. Lest the workers walk the several miles to nearby San Jose to buy provisions at non-exploitive prices, the company owners also established a toll road for those seeking to enter or leave the property. By the time the owners declared ownership of settler houses and began charging rent, the residents of Spanishtown had reached their breaking point and went on strike. The courts, of course, sided with the mines, but the company owners did allow--of necessity--concessions, on some of the more egregious affronts, to the Hispanic workers.

However, the hard won rights and dignities proved short-lived, as local whites began an anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant campaign (think of it as a precursor to Proposition 187), in which they branded Mexicans as "greasers" and "slaves," who lowered the standards of non-Mexicans in the county. If they could not fully and completely exploit them, they would simply rather not have them around.

From these less-than-humble beginnings, Pitti goes on to trace the politicization of ethnic Mexicans, detailing the way their particular histories and shared experiences influenced the way they thought about themselves and others. From the assimilationist, petit-bourgeoisie who cast aspersion on their hermanos y hermanas in the barrios--for a chance to ride the California tech wave in the early 1950s, to the fiery organizers and agitators like Cesar Chavez, to the faceless millions who toil in the shadows and fields of America, to those who are now studying the lessons of the past in order to forge ahead to a bright and beckoning future.

The Devil in Silicon Valley is required reading for anyone who has ever said or thought, "why do they have to keep coming over here?" And even more so for anyone trying to forge alliances and understanding between Native, African, Latino, Asian or Anglo Americans. Pitti has meticulously re-assembled from this country's purposefully discarded scraps, 201 missing pages that are absolutely central to our history, central to our understanding of who we are as a nation, and how we got to be this way. More importantly, as he chronicles these sweeping and repeating patterns of deprivation and exploitation, one hopes that enough of us read and heed his message--that we will see the next cycle approaching and choose a different path.

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