Mercury comes from the Latin Mercurius. God of merchants and shopkeepers, travelers and transporters of goods. God of thieves and tricksters, economy and extraction. God of financial gain and commercial success. Sometimes referred to as quicksilver, no other metal is liquid at room temperature. It moves almost consciously, a shimmering mirror-silver drop that cannot tarnish, corrode, or dirty. Alone it has very little value, collecting in modest places: tips of thermometers and the craggy crevices of teeth. Mercury is extracted from cinnabar. Brilliant and ruby-like, cinnabar has lived as a treasured good. An expression of political and ceremonial significance, the Ohlone used it as a marker of distinction.
Spaniards had little understanding of the meaning of cinnabar. Some sources say, in attempts to control the land and peoples, colonizer priests painted nearby mission churches with cinnabar-based pigment. This functioned as a way to literally mask Catholicism with symbols of importance and power recognizable by the Ohlone.
Mercury is also a poison. Its most deadly form is methylmercury, a potent neurotoxin that accumulates most notably in fish. Many bodies of water in California have fish-consumption advisories. This is precisely because of mercury contamination from historical mining.
But ultimately, it’s not mercury that’s bad. Plundering is bad. The colonial practice of extracting resources as part of a larger project of expansion, greed, and genocide is bad. Pollution caused by ripping up the earth in the name of capitalism is bad.
We often blame the element. It’s too much, not enough. Too hot, too hard, or too fast. But the legacy, the practices, the industries, and the ideologies are what’s truly poisonous.
Mercury Pollution and Environmental Racism
Mercury pollution and mercury poisoning are best contextualized within the framework of environmental racism. Exposure to mercury happens in two ways: fish and/or existing in close proximity to particular industries. Any group that is reliant on fishing, whether that be to fulfill dietary, cultural, economic, or spiritual needs, is more likely to be exposed to, and probably consume, mercury. These are typically communities of color. In a U.S context more specifically, these folks are often Indigenous peoples, immigrant folks from Southeast Asia, and/or Black communities in cities. The answer to this, however, is not “don’t eat the fish.” Although folks who are reliant on fishing to meet their needs may be at higher risk for adverse health effects from mercury, most actually obtain greater benefits from consuming the fish they catch. Additionally, fishing and fish are culturally and socially significant. Restricting or removing fish would disrupt communities’ food-specific cultural activities and forms of knowledge. So, it isn’t just about not fishing or not eating the fish. The responsibility is not on fishing reliant communities. Rather, mercury pollution is the responsibility of settler colonial powers and polluters.
White supremacist structures and forms of governance placed industrial sources of mercury very intentionally. During the 20th century, white lawmakers zoned many residential Black communities as “industrial” while zoning similar regions in white communities as “residential.” This allowed for capitalists, as well as local and national authorities, to force notable mercury polluters such as incinerators and coal fire power plants into Black communities. Additionally, because of anti-blackness in housing, These same structures forced Black communities to move to areas where these industries already resided. Such residential segregation and anti-blackness via zoning ordinances has caused disproportionate mercury poisoning in Black communities. Race is the single most important factor in the location of hazardous waste treatment facilities as well. Race is a stronger factor than income, education, or socioeconomic status. On the rare occasion that polluters exist white areas, industries face more and higher penalties.
Mercury History in San Jose
In San Jose, mercury pollution is a descendant of the mining practices employed in what we now refer to as Almaden Quicksilver Park. A Superfund site, Quicksilver was once the home of the New Almaden Mining District. Here, more than 74 million pounds of mercury were extracted from the New Almaden Mining District from the 1800’s to 1945. During its heyday, the mine was the second largest extractor of mercury in the world. The recorded extraction values in at around $55,000,000 in today’s dollars. Luis Chaboya is often cited as the first to attempt to capitalize on the area. He, along with Antonio Sunol, and a man named Robles, began mining cinnabar in the mid 1820’s. They erected a mill, and named the land the Chaboya mine. Chaboya is considered the first person to obtain a land patent from the Mexican government. The men eventually abandoned the mine, and over the next ten years others made mining attempts, but most were considered unsuccessful. Although it is true that the violence of Spanish colonizers, both toward Indigenous peoples and land, significantly reshaped the area, it wasn’t until Mexican control during the gold rush that mercury extraction became commonplace and lucrative. In many ways, the New Almaden Mine was the first colonial, capitalist, and chemical industry in California.
The relationship between gold and mercury is hard to explain on a chemical level. Most elements can combine with mercury to form an alloy (a mix of metals) in a process called amalgamation (another fancy word for mixing). During the gold rush (1838-1855), the New Almaden Mine became the primary extraction site for the mercury needed for gold amalgamation. At New Almaden, miners used mercury to extract the gold from ore (soil and sediments where little pieces of gold lived) in the following process: they would smash up a bunch of ore and combine it with mercury. The mercury would then leech out the gold, and after the mercury/gold amalgamation became concentrated enough, miners would burn off the mercury or use a chemical treatment (like concentrated nitric acid) to dissolve it. Both the burning and acid methods were horrible for the folks executing the process and the environment. Miners would breathe the mercury in, introducing it into their lungs and bloodstreams. The amalgamation process would introduce mercury to the surrounding air, soil, water, and food. After miners extracted mercury gold, they dumped the remaining rocks into nearby streams. Over time, the sediment leeched mercury (and eventually methylmercury) into the water. Methylmercury is what happens when mercury is eaten by bacteria and begins to make its way through the food chain. As it moves from the sediments up the water column, it begins to accumulate in phytoplankton and then gets consumed by small organisms. It moves through smaller fish, then larger fish and so on. Mercury accumulates in the system, meaning that larger fish who have been alive longer, often have more mercury in their system than smaller or younger fish. Less than a teaspoon of mercury can poison thousands of fish.
Labor Conditions at the New Almaden Mine
The labor conditions at the mine reflect the settler colonial conditions in which it existed. By 1848 around 30 men worked at the New Almaden Mine. While some sources claim that there were only anglos and Mexicans working, other sources argue that there were folks from all over the globe. By 1851 the total number of workers increased to 200, and by the 1860s (when Quicksilver Mining Company took over) there were around 2,000. In the late 1840s, Baron and Forbes (the first corporate employer in CA who ran the mines) made the move to replace all local indigenous peoples who were workers for the mine. However, although mining records show that there were no longer any local Indigenous peoples employed at the mine after 1847, other records show that they did continue to live in the area. There were some attempts during this time to privilege Mexican workers. This was done primarily through efforts to exclusively hire Mexican workers, however, this privilege was distributed unevenly and unsuccessfully. After fleeing mining districts in their own homelands, immigrants from Cornwall formed the New Almaden community known as Englishtown. They were considered anglos, along with others who came from Devonshire, York, London, other parts of England, or folks from Scotland or Ireland. Very few U.S born anglo men worked at New Almaden, and those who did tended to be managers.
Those who had access to whiteness (anglos and some Californios) worked above ground, and all other workers worked below. Below ground jobs were the most dangerous and deadly. Most workers incurred some sort of injury (if not death) during their employment with the mine. Even workers who managed to avoid injury on the job, eventually succumbed to late-onset work-caused diseases later in life. There was a stark life expectancy difference between anglo workers at Englishtown and workers of color at Spanishtown. Despite living in close proximity to one another, Spanishtown residents had less access to quality medical care, food, and clean water than their anglo, Englishtown neighbors. Additionally, racism also influenced the life expectancy rate of workers of color. Historical documents discuss the overt discrimination experienced by workers of color, and the many deaths that happened around “suspicious circumstances” (the same suspicious circumstances of the later Chinatown arsons in San Jose, I’m sure).
The Mine Closes
Between 1864 and 1870 the mine yielded so much quicksilver that not only supplied the entirety of the U.S, but China, Mexico, and parts of South America as well. However, by 1870 production had dropped. By 1883 ore became increasingly scarce, profits dropped, and miners started to leave in droves as their wages fell. By the end of the 19th century, New Almaden no longer produced a profit and the mine closed. The mine reopened briefly to meet the WW1 demand for mercury, but it didn’t stay open for long. In the 1930’s the ruins of the mine became a favorable picnic spot for bay area residents who traveled from San Francisco to the country (south bay) on the weekends. There are still remnants of the mining era at what’s now called Almaden Quicksilver County Park. There is a mining museum, 37 miles of hiking trails, 30 miles of equestrian trails, and 16 miles of biking trails. There is also a warning on the park’s website. In all caps in bright red writing it reads, “CATCH AND RELEASE…PLEASE DON’T EAT THE FISH.”
On Legacy and Innovation
The term innovation is defined as novelty, the introduction of a new idea, method, or device. It comes from the Latin innovates, meaning to bring in new things, to alter established practices. Silicon Valley is often touted as a hotbed of innovation. The boot-strap epicenter teeming with earth shattering, never-before-uttered ideas (plus the hedge fund billionaires and state-of-the art exploitation to make those ideas a reality). But the foundation of Silicon Valley is not new, novel, or innovative. While the dominant narratives of the area positions it as a place with its eyes (and data) on the future, the foundation of Silicon Valley has mined directly from the past. The New Almaden Mine marks the beginning of the Silicon Valley legacy that continues today: extraction for profit, pollution and plundering marketed as productivity, and labor practices organized around exploitation, poisoning, and systemic racism.
Leventhal, Alan Field, Les Field, Hank Alvarez, & Rosemary Cambra. (1994). The Ohlone: Back From Extinction.
Coomes, Mary Laura (1999). From Pooyi to the New Almaden Mercury Mine: Cinnabar, Economics, and Culture in California to 1920.
Dellinger John, Matthew Dellinger, and Jennifer S. Yauck (2012): Mercury Exposure in Vulnerable Populations: Guidelines for Fish Consumption.
Nriagu Jerome, Niladri Basu, and Simone Charles (2012): Chapter 15 Environmental Justice: The Mercury Connection from Mercury in the Environment: Pattern and Process.
Edgar Herbert Bailey & Donald Lough Everhart (1964): Geology and quicksilver deposits of the New Almaden District, Santa Clara County, CA.
Pitti, Stephen (2004): The Devil in Silicon Valley: Northern California, Race, and Mexican Americans.
Henry M. Leicester (1943): The New Almaden Mine: The First Chemical Industry in California
OCTOBER MONTOYA is a mixed, queer and trans media artist from East San Jose.