A Mexican elementary school teacher who won an award for his efforts to connect an isolated indigenous village to the internet has been barred from traveling to the US to collect the prize.
Mariano Gómez, 23, was to have been honoured by the Internet Society (Isoc) at a ceremony in Los Angeles on 18 September for his working installing a wireless internet network in the remote community of San Martín Abasolo, which has no telephone or radio service.
But when Gómez travelled 16 hours from his home in Chiapas state for a visa appointment at the US embassy in Mexico City, he was told that he could not apply.
Gómez, a member of the Tseltal indigenous community, said was told his application was rejected because he was unable to provide a street address and because he does not have a bank account. Rural Mexican villages often have no street names, while 70% of the population of Chiapas live in poverty.
Another factor for the rejection was that he comes from a “marginalized community in a region that’s considered to be one of the places most migrants travel from to go to the United States illegally”, Gómez wrote in an open letter published online.
“It’s an example of the reality of thousands of indigenous and non-indigenous brothers, who go through the same experience,” he said. “What’s more, in these times, they want to divide us with walls.”
Isoc said in a statement that three awardees would not attend the ceremony because they were not granted visas.
Questions sent to the US embassy in Mexico City were still unanswered at press time.
Communication networks in rural Mexico are often patchy, where telecoms monopolies have kept prices high and rates of mobile and internet penetration low. The rugged geography in mountainous areas like Chiapas also complicates matters.
Some communities have constructed small cellular networks, which operate in areas overlooked by companies like Telcel – the behemoth owned by billionaire Carlos Slim.
Gómez started his project seven years ago, when he set up a repeater to provide friends with a signal from his family’s satellite connection. It slowly spread and Gómez and a collective of self-taught colleagues known as Ik’ Ta K’op have connected 800 homes in five communities to a wireless network. They also established an intranet in the local high school stocked with educational and some audio and video files.
“This is more about communications than entertainment,” Gómez said in a Skype interview. “People used to go to a phone booth and pay 50 pesos ($2.80) for a five-minute call to talk to family in the US. Now they go online.”
“It’s a social model,” Gómez said, explaining that people can pay 200 pesos ($11.33) per month or host a repeater in their homes or volunteer services.