Family Cyber Café in Southwest Detroit Links Immigrants to Home

STAYING LINKED: An enterprising woman helps immigrants connect to their families back home
Luis Peña’s Family Cyber Café in Southwest Detroit serves the neighborhood in several ways.

It’s hot enough outside on this summer afternoon to cure tobacco. But inside the Family Cyber Café in Southwest Detroit, the Peña family is enjoying the air-conditioned climate. The four youngest children — all boys — play on one of the café computers. Their mother, café owner Luis Peña, sits behind a desk at the back of the homespun space.

She looks tired, and says so. She’s just met with a grass-roots organization supporting children’s welfare in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. Along with other church groups, they’re working to open a community garden.

But that’s not the only reason Luis sits so low in her chair at 3 in the afternoon. Her weekdays begin with a 6 a.m. shift at an automotive stamping plant in Livonia where she’s second-in-command of shipping and receiving. When she’s not there, she’s doing her second job — running a landscaping and housekeeping business. In between, she’s at the café, teaching computer classes and running the shop. On Saturdays, she works at a Ford stamping plant.

This grueling schedule is nothing new for the 14-year U.S. resident from Puebla, Mexico, who moved her family to Detroit from Chicago seven years ago. Since then, Luis has worked multiple jobs — mornings, days, and midnights, stealing sleep anywhere she could.

On top of her professional workload, she’s also a single mother to five children. The oldest, and the only daughter, Dulce, is helping her navigate a laptop. The two share a close bond, which is apparent when they speak.

Luis recalls arriving in Detroit on a Sunday and starting a job on Tuesday — this, following a long spell of migration and unemployment. “That’s why I love Detroit,” she says, “because I see more …”

“Great opportunities,” Dulce says, picking up the thought and completing her mother’s sentence.

Dulce, 13, was the inspiration for the Family Cyber Café. She had been struggling to complete her homework because the family, like many in the community, lacked home Internet access. (As Luis explains, Comcast is the area’s only provider, and paying for Internet alone is more than bundling three services. Either way, the bill is no less than $100 a month.)

“We were in trouble, because we didn’t know what to do with her,” Luis says. That trouble sparked the idea to establish a café of computers with Internet access, where members of the community could come to connect with their families back home, or, as in Dulce’s case, do homework and research.

The café opened in December and, at least through July, was making enough to cover expenses and pay for additional investments to the computer equipment. But it wasn’t easy. “I had to pay everything out of my own pocket,” Luis says, investing an estimated $7,000 to $10,000 to get the space up and running. Tables and chairs were bought from a former burger restaurant in Farmington Hills. Snacks, drinks, and various computer accessories were added to the inventory of wares for sale. As the business grew, customers began inquiring about the possibility of video chats with their families back home. The café added that to their roster of services, and the clientele slowly evolved with the business.

Still, the Peñas put in more financially than they take out of the venture. Luis doesn’t seem to mind. She tells the story of one regular who often visited the café to try to connect with his daughters back home in Honduras. He would spend frustrating hours there, waiting for the connection on his daughters’ end to come through. He’d see them a few scant minutes at most, Luis says, before losing the signal. After a number of such episodes, she finally helped him buy a computer of his own and showed him how to use it, rather than have him waste more time and money at the café.

If there’s one word that keeps springing up in conversation with the Peñas, it’s “community.” Luis understands this particular community’s needs because she’s an integral part of it. “Everyone knows everyone,” she says. “This is almost our home, because we always have something to do [here].”

Photographs by Erik Howard

Like a home, the café is emotion-filled because of the heartfelt messages that travel two ways along the cable connections and across miles as new immigrants use current technology to connect with their old homes. But the Peñas’ story is part of the larger web of immigrants putting their entrepreneurial skills to use in their communities, stepping up to fill the distinct needs of the newly arrived.

“The immigrant population has historically built a community in which people can live and actually get their services taken care of,” says Vittoria Katanski, marketing director of the Southwest Detroit Business Association (SDBA).

The neighborhood, particularly along the main corridor of West Vernor Highway, has benefited from being pedestrian-friendly, a factor that has contributed to the growing density surrounding it. “It’s so busy because people are shopping up and down it, they’re walking up and down it, delivering goods to other businesses,” Katanski says.

Adds SDBA President Kathleen Wendler: “There isn’t just one kind of store on Vernor, it’s a healthy commercial center that this immigrant community has created.”

It’s no wonder then, that politicians including Gov. Rick Snyder and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have publicly touted increased immigration as a strategy for revitalizing Detroit and other urban centers.

“If you’ve got the stomach and the courage to leave your home country and come to a place where everything is new and the culture is totally unknown to make a new life for yourself — it’s that immigrant courage and risk-taking that creates communities,” Wendler says. “It’s the whole basis on which this country was settled.”

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