Monday, October 31, 2005 | For years, Julio Gonzalez and his family have struggled with a slow, erratic dial-up connection in their home at Mercado, a low-income housing project in Barrio Logan. With the two oldest kids in college, the family of seven needs the Internet now more than ever.

That’s why his kids are saving to buy a laptop so they can do their homework at the park.

A new wireless network in Chicano Park, which was unveiled Sunday, will provide the Gonzalez family and other neighborhood families with new avenues to the Internet.

The Chicano Park initiative was born out of a recent series of workshops at San Diego State University, in which groups from around California explored ways to bring Internet access to underserved communities like Barrio Logan.

Local groups such as Heads on Fire, MAAC Project, the San Diego Futures Foundation and the SoCalFreeNet.Org immediately partnered to front the costs of installing wireless service in the park.

The site was chosen as an ideal wireless zone because of its long history of providing cultural and historical information to the Latino community through its murals, said Victor Ochoa, head of the Chicano Park Steering Committee.

“With the possibility for people to access and deploy information over the Internet, our youth will continue to have access to information about our history that would otherwise be lost,” said Ochoa.

At the launch celebration in the park on Sunday, locals who were not familiar with the history of Barrio Logan were able to take a virtual tour of the park’s historic murals, on laptops provided by the San Diego Futures Foundation.

Bringing the residents of low-income communities online also will give them a host of practical tools to be more competitive in school and the workplace, said Xavier Leonard,

director of Heads on Fire, an organization aimed at bringing digital technology to underserved communities.

Right now, residents of Barrio Logan are suffering a disadvantage when they can’t get online to submit a job application fast enough or get their homework done in time, said Leonard.

At Mercado, around half of the 144 units are furnished with a computer. However, those computers that are up and running are often old and have limited capabilities, according to Paul Hernandez, director of community development for MAAC project, an organization that manages Mercado and other low-income housing projects around San Diego.

A study done by the San Diego Regional Technology Alliance in 2004 found that the Mercado trend is reflected county-wide, where Latinos are getting online less frequently than any other ethnic group.

Although Latinos made up 28 percent of San Diego’s general population in 2004, they comprised 40 percent of the population without access to the Internet in the home, according to the report.

A 15-percent gap in computer ownership also was found to exist between Latinos and whites, making it the largest disparity between whites and any other ethnic group.

“They are being left out of the information and opportunities that are currently driving our world,” said Leonard.

While the launch of a wireless zone in Chicano Park may be a small step, many barriers may still exist to closing the so-called “digital divide” in San Diego.

Foremost among these is the high cost of computers with high-speed Internet capabilities, which the SDRTA report found to be a continuing barrier to the purchase of such devices in Latino households.

There may also be cultural barriers to embracing new technologies because a whole population has yet to experience their benefits, explained Hernandez.

“Once we get people connected, we still have to convince them that it’s applicable to their lives,” said Hernandez.

San Diego also may be lagging while other cities take the lead in providing digital services to their populations, according to Emy Tseng, a senior policy advisor for the Community Technology Foundation of California.

For example, San Francisco and San Jose are currently considering a variety of proposals to turn their entire cities into free wireless zones.

By comparison, San Diego has relatively few spaces where free Internet is available to the public.

Please contact Jessica L. Horton directly at

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