Precis on Christian Zlolniski’s Janitors, Street Vendors, and Activists

Posted on May 23, 2012 by


Zlolniski, Christian (2006)  Janitors, Street Vendors, and Activists:  The Lives of Mexican Immigrants in Silicon Valley.  University of California Press 209 pages + (249 total) by Brian J. Delas Armas

Christian Zlolniski’s Janitors, Street Vendors, and Activists is a book about an ethnographic study in Silicon Valley, CA aimed at showing how global structural forces affect the lives of Mexicans immigrants and how the immigrants in turn, respond (Zlolniski 2006:  p.4).  Colored by a neo-Marxian and an actor-oriented perspective (p.74), his central argument is that the organization of production in the Silicon Valley “permeates” aspects of immigrant lives from their survival strategies to their domestic arrangements (pp. 3-4).  He also examines the concept of “immigrant agency”, focusing on their jobs, and the communal politics in which they engage,   and how this affects the Silicon Valley politico-economic structure.

The book is organized into six chapters.  The introduction is divided into seven sub-sections, describing his entrance into the field, methods, and analytical lens.  Chapter 1 provides a background of his field site, outlining a brief history of the region, using census data, and giving an impression of daily life in the barrio of Santech (p.13).  In chapters 2 and 3, he discusses the complexities of the working life, focusing in on a group of janitors, and then on other formal and informal work (p.13).  Emphasizing the importance of social networks in subsistence, he discusses the importance of families in chapter 4 and immigrant political organizing activities in chapter 5.   He concludes saying that the prosperity of the Silicon Valley largely brought the immigrants to the region, noting how ultimately the status of being undocumented can severely compromise any attempts at social mobility.

He did a majority of his fieldwork through participant-observation, which consisted of “hundreds of informal conversations”, “numerous open-ended interviews”, spending the majority of his time interacting, observing, and participating in daily routines with information from 25 immigrant households (pp.14, 18).    He conducted field work sporadically;  his most intensive time in the field was conducted in fall of 1991 to fall of 1993 starting in the east side of San Jose, eventually deciding to focus on a community called Santech, following up with work between 1994 through 1998, and again in 2004 (p.13).  He found himself in a variety of different settings ranging from clinics and government offices to family celebrations (p.16).

He gained entry to his study participants through a local government program that was seeking to address the problems of drugs, housing, and safety.  He notes that while his identity as a red-headed white man may have posed an initial barrier, his ability to speak Spanish fluently and explain that he was from Spain was largely relieved (p.16). He recruited his informants via snowball sampling, which included referrals from study participants, a technique appropriate for “vulnerable” populations (p.16).  Upon recruitment, he found that women in the neighborhood greatly facilitated access to their homes and families.  His principal tool of recording data was his notebook, using a tape recorder during interviews only after he had established rapport (p.18).  Additionally, he collected secondary data such as census information, archival records, and newspapers.

Zlolnilski’s data supports his argument that the organization of production in Silicon Valley permeates virtually all aspects of immigrant lives.  In the 2nd chapter, he uses janitors from a non-unionized firm called Bay-Clean as a case study.   Whereas janitors might be directly employed by a high-tech company and earn more money, he notes the Silicon Valley tilt towards subcontracted janitors, who were managed by an independent firm.  The sub-contracted janitors would feel the crunch as they were expected to increasingly do less with more.  They protested, won the right to be unionized, and eventually came under contract with an organization called Service International (SI).  However, despite being under a union with SI, the same logic pervaded:  doing less with more, and the same conditions continued. They resisted largely through “micro-resistance” (p.65).  Less than 20 months being under SI, over 400 janitors were laid off because they lacked work permits, which led them to scramble for other jobs at nonunionized companies (p.67).  For Zlolniski, the case illustrates how the economic trend of “subcontracting” essentially redefined custodial work from “entry-level, stable in-house occupation” to an “unstable, low-paid, low-status” occupation (p.70).  It is from this context that this that Zlolniski begins the next chapter on the challenges of informal work and how the subsistence experience remains challenging for many immigrants.

In my estimation, Zlolnilski’s work as applied to Anthropology demonstrates how multi-sited ethnography can capture lived realities and how those individuals’ realities can affect policy.  The focus on individuals’ resistance and survival strategies in the form of tactics at work or organizing strategies show the resilience, creativity, and intelligence of an invisible, marginalized population while at the same time showing how the structures of power can push back and threaten their very livelihoods.