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E.g., 10/15/2018

A Two-Way Street: How Immigration Shapes Everyday Life in Silicon Valley

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A Two-Way Street: How Immigration Shapes Everyday Life in Silicon Valley

San Jose diner

A bustling diner in San Jose, CA. The surrounding Silicon Valley region is home to a diverse population of immigrants and more established residents. (Photo: Thomas Hawk)

There can be little doubt that immigrant newcomers—immigrants and their U.S.-born children—are reshaping life in the United States. Throughout history, these changes have precipitated fears about a lack of integration into U.S. society, the process though which groups become more similar culturally, economically, and politically. Despite these fears, research shows that over time immigrants and their children experience residential integration, occupational advancement, diversification of interpersonal networks, and intermarriage. These indicators point to a clear trend of assimilation from one generation to the next, even if there is variation in the pace of the process across immigrant groups.

But this is only a partial account of assimilation in the United States (this article uses the term assimilation, which draws from the sociological literature, as similar to integration). As newcomers reshape the communities in which they settle, established individuals—those born in the United States to U.S.-born parents—also adjust to shifting social, economic, and political contexts, for example by becoming familiar with other cultural traditions and by rethinking their own identities. That both groups undergo such changes means that assimilation is not one-way. It is relational: a give-and-take process of continual adjustment and readjustment by newcomers and established populations that, over time, results in dramatically altered notions of what it means to belong racially, ethnically, and politically.

What does this process look like in practice? The experiences of established individuals in Silicon Valley, California—a region synonymous with technological innovation, and home to a large and diverse immigrant population—shed some light on this question. Based on the author’s research for the book The Other Side of Assimilation: How Immigrants Are Changing American Life, this article explores how the region’s longtime residents change in response to interactions with newcomers, adjusting their beliefs about themselves, their communities, and what it means to be American.  

Tracing an Outline of Relational Assimilation

The immigrant share of the population in Silicon Valley is significantly higher relative to the United States overall—37 percent versus 13 percent as of 2010, the year during which the bulk of the author’s research took place. Further, a larger share of the area’s total population is unauthorized, and its ratio of high- to low-skilled immigrants is much higher. These pronounced characteristics mean the processes underpinning relational assimilation are more likely to take place here, and are thus easier to discern, thereby making Silicon Valley an advantageous research setting.

Table 1. Selected Characteristics of Communities in Silicon Valley and the United States

Notes: High-skilled immigrants have a college degree or more; low-skilled immigrants lack a high school diploma. Some data are unavailable for individual cities.
Sources: Author tabulations of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s pooled 2009-13 American Community Survey; Matthew Hall et al., The Geography of Immigrant Skills: Educational Profiles of Metropolitan Areas (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2011), available online; Migration Policy Institute (MPI), “Profile of the Unauthorized Population: Santa Clara County, CA,” accessed March 20, 2018, available online; and Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn, “Unauthorized Immigrant Population: National and State Trends, 2010” (Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center, 2011), available online.

The author and a team of research assistants obtained a glimpse of this process through semi-structured in-depth interviews with established individuals of varying socioeconomic and racial backgrounds in three Silicon Valley cities: East Palo Alto, Cupertino, and Berryessa (a neighborhood of San Jose). In East Palo Alto, a poor city with a large Latino newcomer population, researchers interviewed established African-American residents. Cupertino, an upper-middle-class city, has significant high-skilled South and East Asian newcomer populations, and researchers there interviewed primarily established White individuals, but some established Asian Americans as well. In Berryessa, a middle-class neighborhood with a large Vietnamese newcomer population alongside a sizable contingent of Latino newcomers, interviewees consisted of established middle-class African Americans, Whites, Asian Americans, and Latinos.

The 179 interviews showed how established individuals make sense of their experiences in changing neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, families, and recreational settings. Respondents also shared their opinions and attitudes about immigration policy, and how their experiences shaped their definition of American identity.

Making Adjustments of Their Own

The interviews show that the ways in which newcomers adjust to their surroundings force established individuals to make adjustments of their own. Frequent contact between established and newcomer individuals precipitates this adaptation, setting relational assimilation into motion.

Not So Strange After All

Notably, as a result of these interactions, established individuals become familiarized with the experiences of newcomers. Across the social-class and race spectrum, the people interviewed described an understanding of the common features of the immigrant experience—the feelings of alienation, struggle, gain, and loss that come with trying to make it in a new land. Established individuals spoke of hearing from newcomer friends and coworkers about conditions in their country of origin, the difficulties of the migration process, the frustration of navigating the immigration bureaucracy, and the often-Herculean effort it takes to find an economic foothold, expressing sympathy alongside this familiarity. Consider the words of an African-American teenager in East Palo Alto, who spoke about a friend facing deportation:

I was feeling bad because it’s like, dang, she don’t have no family in Mexico. Everybody came down here and they have papers. And it just makes me feel bad…. My friend doesn’t have no family to go to [in Mexico].

As the lives of newcomer and established individuals become more intertwined, aspects of life typically associated with immigrants enter the experiences of the native born. For instance, one Berryessa resident described living with his niece, an unauthorized immigrant from Mexico. Much of the interview centered on the various ways that he and his wife tried to regularize her status. Others spoke of indirect participation in experiences that typify life for the children of immigrants, noting that the newcomer status of friends or romantic partners had implications for these relationships.

Research has documented the conflicts that arise because immigrant parents are guided by rules that their U.S.-born children see as too strict or outdated relative to prevailing U.S. norms. Young established individuals discussed how this conflict shapes relationships between established and newcomer individuals. With a hint of frustration, a White teenager in Berryessa, who was dating the daughter of Chinese immigrants, reported:

[Chinese families] have really early curfews. My girlfriend’s curfew is sometimes nine o’clock. She’s 17 and a half. And that’s not even on a school night—on the weekends. It’s just like the principle—they don’t want them out. And a lot of them couldn’t sleep over for a long time, they had to study.

Despite this potential for tension, the significant contact between established and newcomer individuals means the proverbial strangers are not so strange after all.

Learning a Changing Culture

The familiarity that established individuals gain through contact with newcomers is also cultural—relating to the symbols and practices of immigrant ethnic groups. Newcomers to the United States attempt to forge a cultural home in the form of religious institutions, ethnic festivals, civic organizations, and athletic teams. Immigration-driven demographic change, combined with the institutionalization of diversity as a core value, meant established individuals in Silicon Valley, especially young people, were familiar with and even regarded as normal the cultural elements that immigrants brought—such as holidays, languages, religious practices, cuisine, music, and art. But this familiarity did not lead to adoption of practices on the part of established individuals, who generally only had first-hand experiences of newcomer culture during public celebrations or in the homes of friends, neighbors, and family members (through intermarriage).

Still, the prominence of ethnic culture generated reflections among established individuals about their own identity and heritage. For interviewees whose European origins were a distant family history, ethnicity was a mostly diluted part of their overall identity, making them feel as though they did not fully fit in a context defined by ethnic vibrancy. Particularly for young, White, established individuals, the thinness of their own ethnic identity, compared to that of their newcomer peers, produced a longing for stronger cultural attachment. In the words of a White female teacher in her early 20s who grew up in Cupertino and now teaches in the city:

I remember being so jealous of the rich culture that [Indian immigrants] had and how connected they were to that…. And if you asked me things about Germany, it’s a long time ago and it’s my grandpa’s culture. And I still know a little bit but it’s not right there with me and it’s not something that I live in my everyday life. And that’s what I admired [about immigrants].

Established Black individuals in East Palo Alto—formerly the African-American capital of Silicon Valley—expressed similar sentiments about the decline of collective celebration of their identity. Once-prominent festivities, such as Juneteenth or the Collard Green Festival, had become overshadowed by Mexican celebrations including Cinco de Mayo and El 16 de Septiembre (Mexican Independence Day). This change frustrated Black individuals, who viewed it as motivation for African Americans to more firmly assert their identity through collective public displays.

Further, for the established Latino and Asian Americans, this prominence of newcomer ethnic identity heightened expectations from newcomers of the same ethnic origin about their own displays of strong ethnic attachment. As these established respondents were several generations removed from their immigrant origins, they expressed a degree of irritation at now being expected by others to speak the language, observe the traditions, and have knowledge of their ancestral land.

Flipping Racial Categories on Their Head

Relational assimilation also involves adjusting to shifting meanings of racial categories, and how they operate in everyday life. It is well established that newcomers in the United States navigate a thicket of racial categories. They take on and reshape these labels as they “become” White, Black, Asian, or Latino. But, as immigrants and their children make that adjustment, established individuals can be forced to rethink their own racial identity.

That part of relational assimilation renders clearly among the White and Black respondents in Silicon Valley. For White respondents, and particularly those in the high-skilled immigrant destination of Cupertino, White racial identity regarding education has been flipped on its head. Stereotypes about Asians as smart, hard-working, and academically capable prevail in Cupertino, much as they do elsewhere. But here, these categories have reversed the meaning of Whiteness, which has come to represent academic mediocrity and a lackadaisical approach to school. In interview after interview, respondents emphasized that Whites belonged to a less-than category when it came to academic achievement. A White male electrical engineer in Cupertino contrasted his daughter’s experience in Cupertino to that in the Central Valley, where they had lived several years earlier:

[I]t was hard for our daughter because she went from the Hispanic community, where the White kids were the smart ones, because we do think highly of education. So she was considered an overachiever—got As and Bs in everything down there. When we moved here, then she became the dumb kid, and it was just a really inverse situation for her.

The stereotypes were so strong that students used racial categories to describe their approach to school, where “acting White” meant slacking off on homework and avoiding Advanced Placement (AP) classes, while “acting Asian” stood for the opposite. Teachers echoed this view, noting that White students were rarely enrolled in their AP classes and that they might have lower expectations for White students compared to Asian students. The intense focus on education might be found in any upper-middle-class suburban community. But in Cupertino, home to a large high-skilled Asian newcomer population, established residents saw this attitude through a racial lens. In discussing these dynamics, White respondents implicitly asserted a sense of superiority, often referring to the “Asian” approach to academic achievement as weird, out of balance, and overly intense. Still, these critiques amounted to mere rhetorical backlash, and interviewees readily acknowledged that newcomers, not the established population, defined standards of achievement.

While immigration flipped Whiteness on its head in Cupertino, it had the effect of bolstering notions of Black racial identity in East Palo Alto, according to respondents. Established individuals there said that settlement of Latino newcomers drowned out the collective sense of Black identity that once characterized the city. With a tone more analytical than resentful, African Americans expressed their belief that the demographic dominance of Latinos, combined with their spending power, drove the rise of Latino identity and a parallel process of Black invisibility. Still, African Americans did not blame Latinos for the shift, rather arguing that Black individuals in the city needed to do more, collectively, to ensure greater cultural representation.

Seeing Differences within Racial Groups

Racial categories do not necessarily dominate relational assimilation. In Silicon Valley, established individuals navigate contexts that are diverse along multiple dimensions, including race, ethnicity, legal status, language, social class, and generation since immigration. This diversity becomes more kaleidoscopic as newcomers assimilate, leading established individuals to recognize diversity within racial groups and to define belonging in nonracial terms.

When describing intergroup relations in general, established individuals from across the race and class spectrum identified race as an important marker of belonging. But when describing interpersonal relationships, the same individuals noted how easily they made connections, including friendships and romantic partnerships, with newcomers who have two important insider markers: speaking English well and lengthy residence in the neighborhood. Consider the observations of an elderly White woman from Berryessa about her relationship with neighbors from Vietnam and the Philippines:

If they’re not home, we watch their house. Still, between [Van, my neighbor from Vietnam] and I, if we need something we borrow back and forth. I tutored her kids for a while…. [Maria, my neighbor from the Philippines] has been here a long time too.…that’s like the relationship with these people who have been here a long time, so that we’re closer than say the families that moved [in more recently].

Speaking English and having a long neighborhood tenure were equally important aspects of belonging for adults in all three cities studied. Race mattered, to be sure. But it was hardly the only way that established individuals defined unity and division.

American Identity in Everyday Life

National identity—encompassing notions of political belonging and cultural symbols related to the national character—was another prism through which established individuals made sense of immigrant-driven change around them. While patriotic events, such as Independence Day, are the most obvious demonstrations of Americanness, national identity in Silicon Valley was forged in everyday life as established and newcomer individuals interacted with each other. Those encounters reinforced certain pre-existing notions of national identity, while challenging others.

Among the established respondents, legal status was central to conceptions of Americanness. While some emphasized a perceived fiscal cost of illegal immigration and others felt it violated the rule of law, respondents generally saw legality as a bright line separating those who belong from those who do not. And yet their significant contact with individuals facing the challenges of being unauthorized softened the edges of that line, resulting in overall ambivalent views. While they saw illegal immigration as undesirable, they expressed sympathy for the plight of unauthorized immigrants, believing that those who contribute socially and economically have earned a chance to become citizens. The comments of a middle-aged, Black food service worker from East Palo Alto highlight this tension between beliefs about the rule of law and first-hand knowledge of the unauthorized experience:

So it’s that catch-22 type thing—being a human, being an American. And it’s just hard…. I can understand why somebody want to run to America …, especially when you getting paid. My buddy, [Ronaldo], he’s [getting deported] back to Mexico. All he wanted to do is work here for four months and he can live for a whole year in Mexico and live good.

Contact with newcomers also challenged established individuals’ views of American national culture. There was a resounding chorus across the interview sample that the English language was the cultural nucleus of American identity. While no respondent believed that immigrants should shed their mother tongue, all described speaking English as the behavioral essence of Americanness. And yet they also had difficulty pointing to American cultural displays, aside from speaking English. As a White, male college student from Berryessa reported:

Our [American] culture is the absence of culture. They have a distinct culture and every other country has a very distinct culture except us, because we’re a blend of all the cultures…. It definitely helps if [immigrants] speak fluent English with as little accent as possible.

Thus, established individuals articulated a relatively minimalist notion of American culture, while asserting legal status and English as unbendable elements of Americanness.

Relational Assimilation: The Big Picture

Immigrants adding to the mainstream culture is not the only way in which immigration remakes the United States. Rather, through the process of relational assimilation, interactions with newcomers reshape the beliefs, identities, and attitudes of the country’s most established residents.

As suggested by the experiences of Silicon Valley residents, these adjustments may not be symmetrical. Factors such as a group’s socioeconomic status, relative size, and how institutions recognize the group legally and culturally all shape its ability to influence the process. Further, as immigrants settle across the United States and more intergroup contact ensues, multiple versions of the relational assimilation process unfolding in Silicon Valley are likely playing out in other regions at the same time.

Across the country, many newcomers and established individuals likely feel a sense of loss for life in the old country (for newcomers) or for life prior to the arrival of newcomers (for the established). But if the comments of those interviewed in Silicon Valley are any indication, they also feel a sense of appreciation for the new opportunities and vibrant cultural admixture that emerge from these changes. Over time, and across generations, these shifts will give way to a sense of normal that, in hindsight, will have changed dramatically.

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