Home > Blog > Riding the Wave: How Immigrants Transformed Santa Clara County into Silicon Valley

Riding the Wave: How Immigrants Transformed Santa Clara County into Silicon Valley

When most people think about Santa Clara County, the strip of land in Northern California more commonly known as Silicon Valley, they attribute its formation to boy geniuses, in the aloof, irreverent mold of the Apple founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. The prevailing historical narrative suggests that a select group of White male engineers made the area the formidable economic engine that it is today. This understanding, however, only tells a fraction of the story. Waves of immigrants, from China and Mexico, India and Northern Europe, have played a fundamental role in the creation of three profoundly different industries: first mining, then agriculture, and finally technology. Like the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley’s contemporary technology industry, these immigrants were drawn to an area they perceived to be at the nexus of risk taking and fortune building, but what many found was an unyielding power structure that only over time became more meritocratic.

By 1850, San Francisco was the most multi-ethnic place in the world; people infected with gold fever from around the globe converged on a city that was considered a springboard to the mines further north. But there was also mining activity further south, in San Jose, and it too was fueled by foreign labor. The main controlling interest in San Jose’s mining industry was Barron and Forbes, a British company that bought the rights to a mine called New Almaden from Mexican ownership following the Mexican-American War. Barron and Forbes hired Mexicans and Chileans almost exclusively as wage-workers. In fact, by 1851, all but two of the company’s seven hundred workers were Mexican or Chilean.

The mines in San Jose extracted a mineral known as cinnabar, or mercury in ore form. Unlike mining for gold, which was often done above ground and with a pan, cinnabar is contained underground and is extracted through an extensive process requiring elaborate technology. In building their own infrastructure at New Almaden, Barron and Forbes borrowed from techniques that had been developed by those in Northern Mexico. Once the complex network of caves and tunnels was built, it was likewise conceded that only the Mexican laborers had the dexterity to navigate them without risking death. As a result, in September of 1849, Barron and Forbes specifically targeted “Hispanic-Americans of good conduct” in its job listing in a local newspaper.

Aside from being preferred by the area’s employers, racial discrimination further north also contributed to the proliferation of Mexican labor in San Jose. In the spring of 1850, the California legislature enacted the Foreign Miner’s Tax, a twenty-dollar monthly fee imposed on all “aliens.” The definition of an “alien” citizen was somewhat dubious at a time when California itself had yet to be recognized as a state. Nonetheless, the law managed to expel a vast majority of the Mexicans from the gold fields, many of whom moved to San Jose to work in the cinnabar mines, where their labor was important enough that it overcame the proclivity towards racism. According to census records, the number of people with Spanish surnames living in San Jose increased by at least 150 between 1845 and 1860. Mexican migration and the thriving mining industry it built contributed to an even greater and more general population boom between 1860 and 1870. In those ten years, the population of Santa Clara County more than doubled, jumping from 11,912 residents to 25,269.

In spite of the debt California’s White settlers owed to Mexican ingenuity, they were reluctant to give them a path to social mobility. It was the belief of one White American that “you will want these hardy [Mexican] men,” only because they “will become the hewers of wood and the drawers of water to American capital and enterprise.” In San Jose in the mid-19th century, Mexicans would be relegated to the grunt labor, so that enterprising White Americans could enjoy less physically taxing work.

Like mining before it, Santa Clara’s fruit growing industry would not have reached the same level of success had it not been for the contributions of Mexican and Chinese immigrants. In the mid-19th century, Chinese farming methods transformed the wheat fields and cattle ranches of Santa Clara Valley into one of the world’s largest fruit and vegetable production sites. The Chinese were directly responsible for introducing and cultivating the area’s asparagus and strawberries, crops that were then shipped across the country thanks to a transcontinental railroad built on the backs of Chinese labor. Instead of receiving thanks for their contributions, though, these accomplishments were used against the Chinese when the government passed the Exclusion Act of 1882. The legislation imposed an unprecedented ten-year moratorium on immigration from China, as native born Americans blamed rising unemployment and declining wages on the Chinese.

With the groundwork having been laid by the Chinese, agricultural production in Santa Clara Valley accelerated tremendously at the turn of the 20th century. Mexican immigrants, many of whom were fleeing revolutionary violence in their native country, played a significant role in the industry’s growth. Where thirty-five years before, the United States government was content to overlook the contributions of Chinese agriculturalists in favor of a racist immigration policy, Mexican labor was so important by 1917 that immigration policy became conducive to its migration. That year, according to the advice of Western fruit growers, President Woodrow Wilson absolved the head tax and literacy requirement for immigrants from Mexico. Many of them settled in Santa Clara, allured by the possibility of living off of the peaches, apricots, and prunes that they would pick while there.

Once again, Mexican laborers were the preferred choice of the Santa Clara Valley’s industry leaders. This was because the American born laborers who belonged to unions like the International Workers of the World (IWW) often engaged in behavior that undermined production. As a result, more than any other ethnic group, it was the diligence of Mexican immigrants that gave Santa Clara Valley the means to expand its fruit production. In 1890, 10 percent of Santa Clara’s land was devoted to fruit trees; by 1930, the percentage was a staggering 65 percent. Although they earned slightly higher wages than their counterparts in other parts of the state, ethnic Mexicans still had few opportunities for social mobility. In 1920, a time when the Santa Clara area was being referred to as the “Valley of Heart’s Delight,” over 80 percent of the ethnic Mexicans living there were working in unskilled and seasonal occupations. A lack of access to professional opportunity would persist over the next twenty-five years. In 1947, of Santa Clara Valley’s one thousand county employees, only nine of them were Mexican.

To the social justice advocate Caesar Chavez, who operated out of San Jose, the problem was exacerbated by the Bracero Program. Initiated in August of 1942, the Bracero Program granted temporary work visas to farmworkers from Mexico, but their limbo status perpetuated the mistreatment of Mexican farmworkers. It took a series of strikes, most notably a nationwide boycott of grapes, to raise the wages and living standards of the area’s fruit growers. The Chinese similarly dealt with a strong anti-Asian sentiment, in light of World War II and Japanese internment, and quotas that continued to restrict their migration. Thus, even though the Chinese and Mexican populations played a significant role in the Santa Clara Valley’s economic sustenance in the years leading up to the invention of the microchip, they were largely denied the fruits of their labor.

After World War II, Santa Clara Valley would be transformed once again, this time into the technological powerhouse that it is known as today. Stanford University, military spending, and the Western entrepreneurial spirit have all received credit for the transformation of Santa Clara County into Silicon Valley, but it is undeniable (and at this point unsurprising) that immigration also played an important role. In 1965, the government repealed the Immigration Act of 1924, which had established quotas that regulated the number of people who could immigrate from each country. Under the new and more open policy, immigrants from Asia and Latin America rushed into the United States.

In the 1970s, an influx of Indian engineers from the prestigious India Institute of Technology in Mumbai changed the landscape of the American technology industry. Between 1973 and 1977, over 60 percent of the school’s top quartile of electrical engineering graduates moved to the United States, with an overwhelming number of those graduates taking jobs in Santa Clara County. Engineers from Northern Europe also descended on the area, enticed to Silicon Valley by, according to Phillip Hoefler’s monthly Microelectronic News journal, “the opportunity to ascend from one socio-economic stratum to a superior one.” Unlike before, the tech industry promised a real opportunity for social mobility. The area’s more meritocratic bent was the result of the natural shortage of people with the intellectual capacity to build and staff a tech company; venture capitalists, by and large, are eager to finance anyone with the talent to build products that will make a return on their investment.

While the Santa Clara Valley’s mining and agricultural industries were successful, the world has never seen an economic engine quite like the area’s modern technology industry. Maximizing human capital, through empowering immigrants to realize their full potential, is the main reason why. Since the 1970s, the years following the invention of the microchip and the repeal of the 1924 Immigration Act, people born outside of the United States have founded 40 percent of the tech companies financed by venture capital that eventually went to IPO. In 2012, these companies, which include eBay, Yahoo, and Google, all based in Santa Clara County, were directly responsible for 560,000 jobs and over $63 billion in revenue. In what is more than just a simple correlation, the trajectory of Santa Clara Valley can be traced according to the involvement of its immigrant community; the more they have been incorporated into the area’s fabric, the more prosperous the area has become.

Photo Credit: Department of the Interior


Robert Galliani

About Rob Galliani

Rob Galliani, a junior from Menlo Park, CA, took over as NBR's Editor-in-Chief last Spring. He's still trying to figure out how the Internet is possible.

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1 Response

  1. J. Powers

    You neglected to include Japanese immigrants who in the late 1800s and early 1900s transformed semi-arid California areas into fertile agricultural land. During WWII, the Japanese immigrants and their U.S. citizen descendents were forcibly removed from their
    land and interned at concentration camps inland freeing up their land for land hungry migrants from the dustbowl.

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