Young Mexican tech hero denied visa by U.S.

Peter Costantini ~ Seattle ~ September 29, 2017

Building out WiFi on the edge of the Mexican rain forest
Building out WiFi on the edge of the Mexican rain forest

Those who fear Mexican immigrants can breathe a sigh of relief: the Donald Trump administration has thwarted a visit to the United States by yet another alleged “bad hombre”. This one appears particularly dangerous because he offers an indigenous perspective on information and communications technology.

A young Tseltal man from the southeastern state of Chiapas, Mariano Gómez, was denied a tourist visa by the U.S. Embassy to allow him to travel to the United States to accept an award from the Internet Society (ISOC), a global non-governmental organization. The story was broken by Proceso, a Mexican news magazine.

As part of its 25th anniversary celebration, ISOC singled out 25 young people around the world “who are taking action and using the Internet as a force for good.” The “25 Under 25” award ceremony took place September 18, 2017 in Los Angeles.

In a letter to ISOC, Gómez wrote that to apply for the visa, he had to travel 16 hours by truck each way and spend two days in Mexico City. The Embassy’s explanation of why he could not apply for the visa, Gómez said, was that his house has no street name or address, which is common in indigenous Mexican localities; he has no bank account; and he is a young man from a marginalized community in a region that sends many migrants to the U.S.

“It’s a reflection of a society with stereotypes that being of an indigenous people you are considered inferior,” he wrote, “in which not having a bank account and large economic resources is synonymous with worthlessness. Racism is clearly visible, society ranked by skin color, language, religion and economic status to define a world model. What’s more in these times, they want to divide us with walls.”

Gómez (who is also known by the family name Molox) was recognized for connecting his isolated community to the world by creating a wireless intranet and connecting it to the Internet. Some 600 people, about 40 percent of the indigenous village of San Martín Abasolo, on the edge of the Lacandona Jungle, now have access to cellular connectivity, e-mail, messaging, and the whole range of online information resources. The area has no telephone or radio service.

After his father, a farmer, obtained a satellite connection for their house, Gómez took on the challenge of sharing it with the community. The 23-year old had a teaching degree, but no formal technical training. With two other recent teaching graduates, Neyder Domínguez y Antonio Sántiz, he formed a collective called Ik’ta K’op, Tseltal for “the word of the wind” or “the talking that the wind carries”. They learned the requisite technologies by studying them and constructing them on their own. The human and technical details are recounted perceptively by social anthropologist María Álvarez Malvido in the Mexican journal Nexos.

The young technologists began building out a community intranet from their satellite Internet connection to serve their small hometown. They also connected it with a free educational intranet created by professors at a local teachers college. Luis Ramón Alvarado and Osmer Adolfo Alonzo were trying to teach technology classes to local students, but had no Internet link, so instead they posted resources like Wikipedia, online books, educational materials, and other resources on a local WiFi network to which anyone could connect. A year ago, they were able to replace the satellite connection with a wireless broadband connection from a nearby town with ten times greater bandwidth. The intranet, Goméz said, allows the residents of San Martín Abasolo to connect freely through WiFi “in the parks, in the streets, in the houses, anywhere in the community”.

The collective sees the network as an extension of “the process of appropriation of technology in autonomous ways that indigenous people have defended for hundreds of years, like their cosmology and their community life”, Goméz told Álvarez.

One of their daily practices is called mankomun in Tseltal, man meaning “to buy” and komun “among everyone”. For example, sometimes for a holiday, a community will buy a cow, someone will skin it, and others will butcher it and divide it up, so that everyone gets some to eat. They do that partly for economic reasons, because everyone can get more meat that way than if they had to buy it at a butcher shop. But they also do it for the sake of convivencia, literally “living together”. “While you’re preparing the cow,” he explained, “you’re also talking and there’s a relationship, a conversation between us, a more spiritual part of coexistence, something that goes beyond simply doing the tasks.”

The same thing happens with the Internet, Goméz said: “We create our own infrastructure and divide it up among the users. Someone takes charge of climbing the radio tower, someone else creates the network connections, and someone else takes care of the electrical power. We all do this together, and so this type of project has succeeded in surviving for a long time.”

“This project starts with solidarity,” added Domínguez, an elementary school teacher. “We have a common need and we have to take care of it.”

In his letter to ISOC, Gómez requested that the costs of travel and lodging that would have been spent on his trip to Los Angeles be donated to Ik’ta K’op. The collective would use the money, he said, to buy a better server computer for the intranet, and to create more repeater nodes to extend the WiFi network out to more local families.

Seemingly lost on the Trump administration is the irony that, in this case, its policies of restricting travel have barred the door against someone who is making it possible for more Mexicans to make a better living and create a better life at home. This would likely mean that they would feel less economic pressure to emigrate northwards.

Many Mexicans have traditionally migrated back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. in search of the “Mexican Dream”, hoping to save enough to return home and build a house or start a business. If the President had a clue about the realities of immigration, he would give Goméz a medal for championing what organizer and journalist David Bacon calls the “right to stay home”.

As Goméz wrote in his letter: “They wanted to bury us, but they didn’t know we are seeds.”

(Translations into English by Peter Costantini, Erin Gallagher and her collaborators.)

Passing on the signal from a radio tower
Passing on the signal from a radio tower

For more information

Rancho Electrónico. “Message for Internet Society, from the other side of the wall” Electronic Ranch, September 13, 2017.

Comunicares. “Mensaje para Internet Society, desde el otro lado del muro” Comunicares, 10 septiembre, 2017.

Mariano Gomez - Connecting an isolated community – Mexico Mariano’s father, a farmer, saw the importance of connectivity for the education of his children. In a region where there had previously been no electronic communications, Mariano’s father developed a satellite connection for his family. Motivated by his father’s achievements, Mariano wanted to share the connection with the community. With no formal technical training, he created a wireless network and linked it to the satellite connection. Some years later, Mariano and a group of colleagues founded a collective, Ikta K’op, to extend this initiative even further. Today, more than 600 people can access the network, providing them with telephony, messaging services, and Internet. Mariano has involved the whole community in working together, educating each other, and expanding the initiative.

Centro Cultural Tecnológico Ik’ta K’op San Martín Abasolo, Chiapas, México.

Proceso. “EU niega visa a indígena tzeltal que ganó premio de la Global Internet Society”. México, DF: Proceso, 12 septiembre 2017.

María Álvarez Malvido. “Internet en la selva”. México, DF: Nexos, 18 septiembre 2017.

David Bacon. “The Right to Stay Home - How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration”. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2014.

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