Janice Sapigao is a Filipino poet and educator living in San Jose, CA. Her chapbook, Toxic City, expanded into a full-length book of poetry called Microchips for Millions, which was released in October 2016 by the Philippine Writers and Artists Association (PAWA). In the book, Sapigao addresses working conditions in factories that produce hardware for tech companies in Silicon Valley, where Sapigao’s mother has worked for decades as a “fabrications operator.” Through her mother’s experience, Spaigao explores the personal and cultural trauma endured by the largely Filipino workforce. After pouring through her manuscript, I chatted over Skype with Sapigao from her Bay Area office to discuss the book and how writing can be a form of healing.

TOXIC LEGACY:

AN INTERVIEW WITH POET JANICE LOBO SAPIGAO ON FILIPINO FACTORY WORKERS IN SILICON VALLEY

Interview By Clay Kerrigan
Clay Kerrigan is a poet, writer, editor, and teacher living in Los Angeles. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from CalArts. He currently earns a living as freelance writer, a writing instructor at both Los Angeles City College and Glendale Community College, and as a copyeditor for Litmus Press.
Featuring Janice Lobo Sapigao
Janice Lobo Sapigao is a daughter of Filipina/o immigrants. She is the author of two books of poetry: microchips for millions (Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc., 2016) and Like a Solid to a Shadow (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2017.) She is a VONA/Voices and Kundiman Fellow, and the Associate Editor of TAYO Literary Magazine and co-founded Sunday Jump. She earned her M.F.A. in Writing from CalArts, and she has a B.A. in Ethnic Studies with Honors from UC San Diego.
Toxic Legacy: an interview with poet Janice Lobo Sapiago

Clay Kerrigan (CY): Thank you for this opportunity. In your book, you get into the physical reality of what it means to be a ‘fab operator’: getting up at 4:00 a.m., the sweat that pours down her body, the orthopedic shoes that she’s required to wear, using her fingers all day, and the exhaustion after work. So, what is a fab operator, exactly?

Janice Lobo Sapigao (JLS): It’s a nickname for a fabrications operator, which is essentially an assembly line worker. She works with other fab operators in one large room, where each person has a designated station that represents a different step in creating a microchip.

CY: In the text, your mom uses the word ‘fab operator’ as a kind of euphemism for an assembly line worker—‘fab’ nearly implying the word fabulous, as if she’s saying, “What I do is important. I’m an operator.” And then you follow it up with the line, “My mother is an assembly line worker.”

JLS: I was thinking about when things are given long names in academia or science. It takes us further away from what it actually is. Like ‘gentrification’—such a long word.

CK: Can you talk a little bit about the impetus behind this project, where it came from, and how it grew?

JLS: The book started in a class I took at CalArts called Documentary Poetics. Back then, it was just a measly, eight-page chapbook. I wanted to write about my mom’s job and the immigrant women in Silicon Valley who make microchips. Now, I feel more of a political urgency—there’s so much more at stake, especially since I moved back to the Bay Area. It’s so undeniable to see the influence and takeover of tech culture.

Excerpt from microchips for millions

CY: Many of us have this vision of Silicon Valley as a place of possibility—a bright, shining beacon of what the future could be—but in the past few years, there’s been so much exposure of the seamy underbelly. You talk about how major hardware and software manufacturing companies actively stand against unionization in a lot of these places. We hear about children digging for the precious metals that are in our phones. We often think of those children as being in Africa or third world countries that we’re exploiting, but your book brings it back here, at home.

JLS: I do sometimes wonder about contributing to the naming of—or limiting the scope of this problem, to Silicon Valley, because in many ways, this is also San Jose, or this is Palo Alto, this is Mountain View—this is not Silicon Valley. Whatever it is or whoever thinks that they’re a part of it, I’ve never heard anybody say, “I’m from Silicon Valley.”

WHEN THINGS ARE GIVEN LONG NAMES IN ACADEMIA OR SCIENCE. IT TAKES US FURTHER AWAY FROM WHAT IT ACTUALLY IS.

Growing up, many of my classmates in my catechism classes also had parents who worked at various microchip companies. My mom would always say, “Oh, this person’s mom works at Solyndra,” which no longer exists, or “This person’s mom works at Intel.” You can’t have all of these software companies without the places that create the hardware. And the hardware companies are not as popular or well-known, but they employ a lot of people.

I’ve met the poet laureate of Santa Clara County, Arlene Biala, who’s also Filipino, and in one of her books, she has a couple of poems about her mom who did the same work. There’s a poem here and a poem there by various writers, but there’s never been a whole collection.

CY: One thing that strikes me in the opening pages is your mention of Native Americans: “Any history of the present day Silicon Valley region of California must begin with a consideration of First Nations.” What does this statement mean to you?

JLS: A lot of the topics I’m exploring are about this land and what is done on this land, and I had really gone back to figure out who the marginalized peoples were who have been affected here. One of the guiding texts that I used as I was researching and writing the book was The Silicon Valley of Dreams. The book got me thinking: “There’s a problem with where I’m from. There’s a problem with the work that has supported my livelihood and my family’s livelihood.” The book begins with a discussion of Ohlone land and how, historically, when Americans were conquering the land, they also imparted submissive roles onto Ohlone women. That subjugation of women is a legacy of Silicon Valley.

CY: And it’s a continuing legacy of exploitation. Your text opens with a moment of silence. You say, “Let the poetry of this page serve as a moment of recognition for the native peoples, the Muwekma Ohlone tribe whose lands we inhabit,” and then there’s a page of binary code—something you frequently do throughout the text. Sometimes there’s binary code in place of words, sometimes above words, mirroring words. Does this code translate as anything?

JLS: When translated, the binary text states the history that I found on the Muwekma Ohlone website. I cited the text that I used in the book, which tells their exact history, and I filtered it through binary translation software.

Excerpt from microchips for millions

CY: The visual aspect of your text is so strong. You also change colors and color tones—microchip colors are the brightest greens, blues, oranges, and reds, which is inviting. But those are also the colors of toxic, poisonous things. You write, “The industrial garden is abundant and fecund in infinity.” And I thought, “So is a rainforest, beautiful and deadly.” The focus of your book is the effect of these factories and products on the labor force of Filipinos in Silicon Valley. Can you talk about that a little bit?

JLS: I wanted to highlight or make visible ways that Filipino families are tied to this industry, much like when I think of Cambodian immigrants and doughnut shops, or Vietnamese families and nail salons. And in all of the Asian American history classes I’ve ever taken, there’s always a war with invisibility, or being forgotten. That forgetting made me want to write.

CY: I found a report of the U.S. Department of Labor on an electronics manufacturer who imported Filipino workers and paid them the same wages in the U.S. that they were making in the Philippines—$1.66 an hour with no overtime pay for 57 hours a week. They were ordered to pay $80,000 in back pay to these workers, which, to an electronics company, is toilet paper.

You give us this quote: “By the early 1980’s Filipinos are one of the largest ethnic groups among Asian workers at National Semiconductor Corporation in San Jose, California.” You take the reader from an explanation of poor labor practices to the invisible exploitation of an entire race, guiding an understanding that metastasizes. It’s like a tumor that starts to grow.

JLS: I borrowed another quote that explains the practice of hiring entire families, which is just another way to control everybody. A lot of my friends work in tech and love it. They’re given things like a lot of snacks, and there are theme parks on campus and slides. And all of these things are, to me, ways to keep people quiet. “Let me construct fun for you, and then you won’t see that your shuttle bus driver lives in the bus.” These are just different ways to cover up injustices.

CY: The culture of fun that exists in these startup offices versus the culture of fear that you talk about in your book is horrifying—that they encourage hiring families because it keeps troublemakers in control. To them, trouble makers would be voices of dissent, people that would talk back to authority.

JLS: Yes, it was definitely very strategic as to why they picked Filipinos for these roles. A lot of these immigrants came to the U.S. during a period of martial law in the Philippines, and they were accustomed to a culture of fear and obedience. In the late 1970s, former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos was the dictator of the Philippines. He was responsible for governmental nepotism. He made women the number one export while he was in office. Talking back to authority in the Philippines could mean life or death, your family’s or your wife’s, your son’s—it could be anybody’s.

CY: That goes back to what we mentioned before about prior trauma being exploited. Your writing about a person as a contaminant in these factories really highlights the opinion that the powers that be have of their labor force: “A clean environment is designed to reduce the contamination of processes and materials. This is accomplished by removing or reducing contamination sources.” You list the contamination sources and the largest one, by a huge margin, is “people” at 75 percent.

JLS: Yes, factory management knows that people are the contaminants and therefore are putting them in these toxic situations anyway.

CY: You write: “Machines subject silicon wafers to incredibly intense vacuums, caustic chemical baths, high energy plasmas, intense ultraviolet light, and more, taking the wafers to the hundreds of discrete manufacturing steps required to turn them into CPUs, memory chips, and graphics processors.” The unspoken thing there is that there’s a person there for every one of these moments. Toxicity and contamination go both ways.

You go on to a page devoted to the health risks, “Maybe arthritis, maybe gout, maybe lymphoma, maybe brain cancer, maybe a tumor, high blood pressure, maybe death.” Do you know of people that have endured these conditions after working in these factories?

JLS: Arthritis for sure, yes. That’s something my mom has. The other ones are from articles I’ve read in local Bay Area news outlets. My mom had cancer scares, and several of her coworkers have had cancer scares.

CY: What was it like talking to your mother about these experiences?

JLS: She thought that I was making fun of her. She said, “I don’t want you to do this. Why is everybody laughing at me?” And I was like, “Nobody’s laughing.” I don’t think it was until the chapbook came out that she was actually excited and proud, and she kept asking for more copies to give to her co-workers.

CY: Does she think of these factories as places of trauma?

JLS: I think she sees it as painful, but I don’t think she sees the work as wrong. She can feel the pain; she has arthritis, she can’t walk for long periods of time. When we go to the mall, we can’t even walk around for too long. These things that we can and can’t do for each other anymore are, to me, a direct result of the very physical work she does.

She doesn’t think things are wrong until I affirm that they are. There was a massive layoff, and she said, “I think I’m next. What do you think I should do?” I told her, “I think you guys should fight for your jobs.” And she asked, “Oh, are you sure? Are you sure?”

CY: Is putting this kind of work into the world a form of healing from these kinds of traumas, physical and emotional and cultural?

JLS: The making of this text has helped me to heal from memories that I had from when I was younger when my mom would go to work in the middle of the night. I understand now—or at least the adult speaker in the text understands—why that was so necessary.

CY: There’s also a future healing that happens. Knowledge is power. Putting this kind of work into the world empowers the next person who’s like you or someone who works under these conditions, especially when it is being printed by a Filipino press. It’s much more likely to get into the hands of a worker, someone who might not have thought about the conditions of their workplace. And future labor forces might make use of something like this. You are changing the legacy of trauma, helping to form a legacy of healing, as I see it.

JLS: Thank you. I think the parts that I have been able to heal from this text are those memories that I had from when I was younger… I feel like the speaker grows up, you know? I think those memories are always very traumatic and sad. My mom would go to work in the middle of the night, right when we were cuddling. I understand now, or at least the adult speaker in the text, I think, understands why that was so necessary.

THE MAKING OF THIS TEXT HAS HELPED ME TO HEAL FROM MEMORIES THAT I HAD FROM WHEN I WAS YOUNGER

The publisher who published the chapbook version of the book, Toxic City, is based in Wisconsin, and for me, it was really important to take that opportunity to have it published there. Wisconsin has a labor history that I think is seminal, though problematic. I think they’ve made a lot of strides with justice. I wanted someone from the Midwest, who happened to be Filipino, to also blurb the book. I’m trying to be very intentional.

CY: By the end of the book, you reveal that your mother is eventually laid off. What is she doing now?

JLS: Working as a fab operator, in a different place other than where she was working when I was writing. But she has worked for this company before.

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