On a recent Sunday, a woman sat from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in front of one of the computers at the Network Store on Mission Street, watching her daughter celebrate the rite of passage from child to young woman.
“They had a big screen [in Mexico] and people could see that the woman laughed and cried,” said Alty Leibowitz, who together with her husband Larry owns the Network Store on Mission between 23rd and 22nd streets.
The Network Store and Cybermania, also on Mission, cater to Latinos who don’t have computers, offering a connection for immigrants here in much the same way that Internet cafés abroad keep visitors from the United States in touch with their families. Except that the immigrants are often here to stay, and some Mission computer cafés have become virtual stages for important rituals such as the Mexican Quinceañera celebration.
“We are satisfying a need,” said Leibowitz, who is from the Dominican Republic.
From what she’s witnessed at their store, she said, “I can write you a book.”
Making Distances Shorter
Videophone calls, which allow callers to talk face-to-face through a webcam, and online instant messaging are both in high demand. Larry Leibowitz said that their business, which opened July 1 and charges $4 an hour to use a computer, has been “extremely successful.”
His wife said that most of her customers are Latinos, but tourists also come in to print out plane tickets and catch up with e-mail. The café also offers fax and photocopying, and sells and repairs computers.
“They buy them to send them to their families and they use the ones here to connect with them,” she said.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Felipe Ibarra from Puebla, Mexico, was at the store to download music to his iPod. He was looking for romantic songs from the Spanish singer Enrique Iglesias and from the bachata band Aventura. On other days he e-mails friends.
“The price is OK,” said the young man, who works as carpenter. “This way you can avoid paying a monthly Internet service rate.”
Internet, Popsicles and Love
A few blocks south, an Internet café called Cybermania sells traditional Mexican popsicles from La Michoacana and charges $6 an hour for its computers.
José Ortiz, owner of the two-year-old Cybermania, said that most of his customers are Central American and have only the most basic knowledge of how to operate a computer. They come to his store for all kinds of services: to communicate with their families elsewhere, to create posts on Craigslist, to look for a job.
Videophone calls, he agreed, are especially popular. “Some people haven’t seen each other in years, and when they see each other through a screen they feel very excited and sometimes they even cry.”
Some young immigrants even use the computers to look for a girlfriend, with relatives at home helping by introducing them to girls on the screen.
Alty Leibowitz estimates that more than 80 percent of the Latinos over the age of 30 who walk into her café know nothing about computing. Her job becomes a sort of community service because of the extra help her customers need, she said.
“It’s time that doesn’t get paid.”
Ortiz agreed. “There are a lot of Hispanics here, and I don’t know how many businesses like these exist in San Francisco, but there aren’t people in all of them willing to help.”
As a business, Cybermania “hasn’t reached what it wants to be,” he said. In the meantime, its purpose is “to get by and help.”
“The Internet is something positive in the life of Latinos, it can help with their development and to grow economically. This [the Internet] doesn’t have an end, it’s very big.”