- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2002

Ricardo Villalba latched on to the Internet like a toddler to a teddy bear. The 27-year-old native of Paraguay loves talking about the latest Web site he designed, the latest e-mail he sent out or a cool new Web site he has discovered. Most importantly, he enjoys using the Internet to help people, particularly those from the Washington area's fast-growing Latino community.
Mr. Villalba, who makes his living as a graphics and Web designer, is part of a new generation of young Hispanics that is determined not to let the Internet or technology pass them by. Much has been said and written about the "digital divide," the gap between whites and minorities in access to information technology. But recent studies show that Hispanics or people of Latin American descent living in the United States are closing the divide and even surpassing other ethnic groups. That is due in large part to young persons like Mr. Villalba.
In his spare time, Mr. Villalba runs DCLatinos.com, a community Web site for area Latinos. The site has message boards and chat rooms, ads for local concerts and other events. Soon, it will post job listings, classifieds and links to local businesses.
"Personally, I think the Internet is the most powerful thing we have right now," Mr. Villalba says. "The purpose of the site is to bring the Latino community together."
There are currently more than 35 million Hispanics living in the United States, about 13 percent of the nation's population. About 20 million are from Mexico, with Puerto Ricans accounting for 3 million.
The Pew Internet and American Life Project reported last July that half of the Hispanic population over age 18 have used the Internet. By comparison, 58 percent of whites and 43 percent of blacks have been online. Between March 2000 and February 2001, Internet use by the Hispanic community rose 25 percent, Pew reports.
Those who are close to the Hispanic community say they aren't surprised by the trend.
"These are people that are coming out and saying 'we want to move up the ladder,'" says Rey Ramsey, CEO of One Economy Corp., a District-based firm dedicated to bridging the digital divide. "They're looking for opportunities more aggressively than other groups might be."

Next generation
Most observers say the rise in Internet use by Hispanics is less a product of ethnicity than of age. Statistics show that young people dominate the Hispanic community; the median age in the community is about 27. The median age of blacks is 31, the median age of whites is 39 and the median age of Asians is 32.
"Everyone my age is on the Internet," says Mr. Villalba, who targets his DCLatinos.com site to younger people.
The DCLatinos.com Web site underscores the efforts of Hispanics to use the Internet for community building. Last August, Mr. Villalba used his site to help promote the Watcha Tour, a popular Latino music circuit. Attendance for the show in the District grew from less than 500 the year before to more than 2,000. In the week leading up to the show, the site received 8,000 hits.
"It helped me make the concert happen," he says.
Mr. Villalba, who works as a DJ and event promoter in his spare time, says the Internet has helped him make contacts and get in touch with promoters in New York.
The reasons why young people are attracted to computers and the Internet cross all lines of race, ethnicity and sex, analysts say. Most schools now require papers and assignments to be typed and also ask for research using the Internet, making access to a computer an educational necessity. In addition, most school and public libraries now have computers with Internet connections. Pew reports that 30 percent of Hispanics who are online say they first started using the Internet for academic reasons.
Outside the school, community programs and centers are working to advance Internet use among minorities. Public-access programs like those sponsored by libraries and community centers help to "expand and solidify Latinos' ability to create Internet content and participate in the Digital Revolution," the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a Claremont, Calif.-based Latino think tank, reported in December. Hispanics are poised to take advantage of these community centers because of their large urban presence. In Los Angeles, for instance, Hispanics make up nearly 50 percent of the population. In New York City, they comprise 2.2 million people, or about 27 percent of the city's population.
In the District, there are only about 45,000 Hispanics, or 8 percent of the population. But the number of Hispanics migrating to the District is increasing. In 1990, they comprised just 5 percent of the city's population.
Local efforts to reach out to link the Hispanic community with information technology are ever present. The Calvary Bilingual Multicultural Learning Center, located in the diverse Columbia Heights section, offers free computers and Internet access, along with related classes for more than 200 children and their families. About 60 percent of the children who attend programs there are Hispanic.
"Technology is one of their first languages," says Jomo Graham, the center's technology director. "They just soak it up. Young people are driving technology use. From their perspective, it's just a fun tool."

Surf studying
Increasingly, the members of the Hispanic community are taking advantage of the Internet's usefulness. At Calvary, teen-agers like Gaby Rubio, 15, use the Internet to write reports and surf for things that interest them.
Gaby just finished a report on Puerto Rico aided by research on the Internet; using the Internet, she says, is easier than using a library.
"At the library you need to be looking and looking," she says. "Here, we can just type it in and it comes up."
While the efforts of schools and community centers like Calvary have helped advance Internet use in the Hispanic community, it appears that many Hispanic people understand the further advantage of owning a computer.
Despite an average household income of about $40,000, Forrester, a leading independent research firm that analyzes technology and its effect, reports that 86 percent of Hispanics who access the Internet regularly do so from their own homes.
Observers say part of this comes from the belief among Hispanics that computers are now a necessity, similar to a refrigerator or other appliance. And with the bulk of the nation's brand-name computers now available for under $1,000, the purchase is not as financially daunting as it once was. Efforts from centers like Calvary help the cause.
The Calvary Center recently spearheaded an effort to donate 100 computers to families whose children frequent the center. About half went to Hispanic families.
"I find most people have a computer now," Mr. Villalba says. "I know people who hardly speak English who have a computer."
But statistics show there is still a gap in computer ownership. It is a gap that troubles some people who work with and observe the Hispanic community. Only 54 percent of Hispanics actually own a computer, compared to 67 percent of non-Hispanics, Forrester reports.
Tony Wilhelm, author of "Democracy in the Digital Age" and a program director of communications policy for the Benton Foundation, says reports indicating a rise in Internet use by Hispanics are encouraging, but the reports' authors need to make clear there are still gaps to be bridged.
"While helpful, these studies sort of cover over some of the disparities out there," says Mr. Wilhelm, who adds that the location of Internet access is an important factor in determining the value of a person's online experience.
But the authors of the Pew Report defended their findings.
"A lot of people say 'we'd feel better if they had the Internet and a computer in the house,'" says Tom Spooner, a research analyst with Pew and the author of the group's July report.
"Our stance is we don't care. If you get on the Internet down the street or at the library, it doesn't matter."

Further advancement
Hispanics may be gradually closing the digital divide, but there are several factors that may limit their progress, economics being the most significant.
Home PCs still remain out of the price range of some Hispanics, and many in the community have blue-collar jobs that may not give them access to the high-speed connections found at an office.
The advancement of the Internet in Latin and South America may also be a controlling factor.
Many Hispanic-Americans say they would like to use the Internet to keep in touch with relatives back home, because it would be much cheaper than making long-distance phone calls. But the slow development of the Internet in Latin America has made doing so very difficult. America Online is the one U.S. company with a large Latin American arm, but analysts say it has been hobbled by a lack of economic resources in many countries. What's more, Internet access in many countries is often easily available only to the urban rich.
"[Internet] penetration is so low I wouldn't think there's a link," Mr. Wilhelm says. "The telephone is still going to be the number one thing in terms of keeping in touch. We're still a ways away."
Another factor limiting Internet use by Hispanics is content. While niche Web sites targeted to Spanish-speaking audiences are out there, those in the Hispanic community say they are more inclined to surf English-speaking sites because they are generally more comprehensive and easier to find. Mr. Villalba, for instance, recently used the Internet to find medical information when his mother fell ill. He found the information he needed on an English site; only after a long search was he able to find the same information in Spanish.
But progress on this front is visible. MiGente.com is a wildly popular site geared toward Hispanics, with more than 400,000 members. And Univision, the popular Spanish television station offered by nearly all cable and satellite television providers, touts its own Web site, Univision.com, as a portal for Hispanics. The company also offers Internet service.

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