Written by Jessica Schlegelmilch, SJSU Student
Coming into Cupertino today you may wonder if you have been thrown into an alternate reality where cultures from all over the world nestle beside each other on the same street, each step bringing you into a different foreign place. Billboards are written in a plethora of different languages, banners advertise celebrations of foreign heritages and the people on the streets and in their cars change ethnicity every time you turn your head in a different direction.
Fifty years ago Cupertino had a very different image. In the 1960s the area was almost exclusively Caucasian. Today, Cupertino is over 60% Asian. The shift from white domination to melting pot is not just reflected in the billboards splashed with foreign characters across them. It is also shown in its institutions, community events and in its government. In 2009, Cupertino was the first in Northern California to have an Asian-American majority on the city council. Delving deeper into the politics of the area you can see how much Cupertino’s diversity affects the community.
Bringing cultures together is never easy and as Vice Mayor Wong puts it “integration takes time” but Cupertino illustrates the difficulties faced when a community and its people must adapt to changes in its cultural makeup.
The initial influx of Asian-Americans to the Cupertino area occurred between the 1980s and the onset of the 1990s. Census data between those decades reflects a 16% rise in the Asian-American population accompanied by a 17% drop in the Caucasian community. From the 1990s onwards the rise in the Asian-American community continues to skyrocket while the Caucasian percentile dwindles.
The most recent census data from 2010 reflects an estimated 60% Asian majority and 30% white minority in an area that 30 years prior was 91% Caucasian and only 7% Asian. The data speaks for itself.
The change in Cupertino’s demographic is indisputable. The burning question, however, is why the cultural shift happened and how it has affected this now very colorful and diverse community.
Cupertino’s public schools are nationally and internationally recognized for excellence. Cupertino’s current mayor, Orrin Mahoney as well as Vice Mayor Gilbert Wong, peg the school’s reputations as the leading, initial motive which attracted so many Asian ethnicities into Cupertino.
Mahoney points out that Asian and Indian cultures “value education” and are naturally drawn to the area. Furthermore, he sheds light on a domino effect which occurred as ethnic mixing continued and “it became more comfortable for other Chinese to be here….there were more people like them.”
Prior to the Asian influx Cupertino was “pretty low on the diversity scale” says Mahoney but as the international community grew, the natural domino effect of foreign people wanting to be with others like them caused a profound change in the look of Cupertino.
Foreign supermarkets and businesses sprang up while festivals and other community festivities adapted with a splash of international zeal. It was the direct influence coming from the Asian-American people in Cupertino which exaggerated Cupertino’s attraction far beyond the initial attraction brought on by the prestigious public school system.
In the early 1990s, at the beginning of the demographic shift, tension between the Asian and white communities were more prevalent than they are today. “There were two groups and they were pretty separate,” stated Mahoney addressing the white and Asian divide when he first ran for office in the 1990s, “when signs started going up in Chinese…long-term residents were like going ‘what is this all about?’”
Mahoney experienced racial tensions in Cupertino with Caucasian members of the community particularly resistant to the cultural change in the area during door-to-door campaigning in the late 1990s: “I got some earfuls of stuff that I didn’t particularly want to hear. There was one guy who was very racist,” he contends that in the political sphere “the world is a bell shaped curve and there are people on the ends that have extreme views.”
Within the last two decades, these tensions have cooled off. They are not, however, wiped out. Mahoney said that “as the city changed…we evolved” and that the city council is “very sensitive now.”
Issues in Cupertino are fragile and can easily become morphed into Asian versus Caucasian disputes.
In the 1990s the applicant process for a city commission became a debate which put the two cultural groups against one another.
During the same period, a Caucasian man wanted to donate money to the Cupertino Library to have it named after him which also created Caucasian-Asian strain.
In the public school system a PTA group was created by the Asian community which was separate from the “mainstream PTA.”
More recently, the lease for the city-owned Coffee Society at the Cupertino Library expired and the City Council decided to allow other businesses to place bids for the lease. The City Council debated allowing a Chinese-owned business to join the race although the former lease owner had already resigned the lease. Mahoney explained that the underlying reason for that had to do with concerns about outreach and affirmative action but that the public had a different interpretation. Some community members accused the council, which had a majority of Asian-American members at the time, of favoring the business because it was Chinese. In response Mahoney explains that, “once it started to get positioned that way out into the public we [the council] immediately just said let’s just fix this now,” and that although “it wasn’t true, it was getting spun that way and perceived that way.”
Although these problems were “still pretty small,” Mahoney points that “it wasn’t positive, it wasn’t healthy.”
Gilbert Wong, vice mayor of Cupertino and second generation Chinese-American, comments on the difficulties immigrants face at the beginning of their assimilation “in any society.” Wong says initially foreign immigrants “usually stay in their own districts, Chinatown or Polish town or Little Italy and once they start feeling more comfortable they assimilate into mainstream.”
The Neighborhood Block Leader Program in Cupertino was developed to aid this assimilation as well as “to get our neighbors to talk to each other” says Wong. The program, which helps community members organize neighborhood events and connect with each other, is one of the major developments in the community that has aided integration.
When Cupertino was predominantly white, Cupertino’s Rotary club held the annual Oktoberfest as its main event for the year. As the area diversified, the festival was changed to compensate for the international influence in the community. In the early 2000s Rotary’s Oktoberfest “evolved” into the Fall Festival which is partnered with the World Journal, a Chinese newspaper, to add a broader and more culturally diverse flare to the event.
The Lunar New Year Parade, celebrating the Chinese New Year as well as the Diwali festival, an Indian heritage celebration, are also notable international festivals in the area. Mahoney says that today in Cupertino people “could go to a Chinese or Indian event every week.”
Wong has attributed the most recent spike in the Asian community to “our friends from the south Asian community” meaning those emigrating from countries like India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Recently, some members of the Indian community wanted to build a cricket field at Library Field in Cupertino. Cricket, a sport with British roots, is extremely popular in India. Because park space is “precious” as Wong says, there were people in the council who were against the cricket project mostly because of funding woes. Wong continued to support the Indian community and the cricket field regardless. Wong saw that in return, the Indian community supported him. He believes that “if you are kind to one community, they will be kind to others” and that in Cupertino specifically “first it was the Anglos, then it was the Chinese, now it’s the Indians, who knows who will be next.”
He believes the important thing is to be very conscious of “demographic changes and if another community comes in” that citizens make an effort to make them feel welcomed. The philosophy is to create a cycle of understanding and support in the community despite differing cultural backgrounds.
Wong contends that “nobody wants to see the ugly side, nobody wants to see…that at times there are going to be bumps in the road.”
Blazing a trail
Wong believes that Santa Clara Valley’s diversity represents a glimpse of what the “the rest of the nation is going to look like” in the next 20 years. “While there are different backgrounds it really is a common set of values,” that connects people, “all of these communities value education…public safety…they are big on family and that is what Cupertino is all about.”
Wong believes in a “colorblind society” that although is not the reality today, is his dream for the future.
“Race and ethnicity can be a positive thing,” says Wong, “but it can also be a negative thing and we have to take the best part and make sure that we are one city, one community, that’s really what is important.”
As the melting pot in California and in the nation continues to coalesce and grow, the emphasis should be on not only having “one city, one community” but also having one nation united under our humanity rather than what we look like or where we are from.