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Video Technology Unites Immigrants, Families

BY OSCAR AVILA, Chicago Tribune

Rogelio Velazquez was in Chicago and his relatives were 1,500 miles away in León, Mexico, so a party seemed out of the question. But he found a way to celebrate his 42nd birthday with them anyway. He turned on the television. Or more precisely, a videoconferencing hookup. As Velazquez watched a wide-screen monitor here, a young niece in Mexico, squeezed on a couch with other relatives, chirped into the camera: "Uncle, we have a surprise."

To the strains of "Las Mananitas," a traditional Mexican birthday song, relatives held up an orange-flavored birthday cake to the camera. In Chicago, an employee at the videoconferencing center brought Velazquez his own piece of chocolate cake. Then, in a surreal scene, he blew out his candle while relatives in Mexico clapped wildly.

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Each month, scores of Chicagoans book these sessions at special videoconferencing centers sprouting in ethnic neighborhoods to cater to immigrants. Using technology once exclusive to corporate executives, customers all over the country pay up to $80 an hour for virtual reunions with relatives from Mexico to Argentina.

Like the Internet, satellite television and other technological breakthroughs, videoconferencing has helped transform the immigrant experience by preserving bonds that might otherwise fray with distance and time. But Velazquez wasn't interested in the sociological dimensions. He only cared that he was able to hear the ribbing of his brothers, meet his young nephews and nieces and check in with his aging, beloved mother. "That was incredible," he said after the recent session at Face to Face Video Conferences. "You can pick up the phone, but it isn't the same."

The popularity of videoconferencing in Chicago has spread slowly, often guided by the personal experience of the company founders themselves. Gabriel Biguria, for example, is a former executive with Hewlett-Packard and Procter & Gamble who earned his MBA at Northwestern University. He recalls hastily arranged corporate meetings via videoconference.

A Guatemalan immigrant, Biguria saw the possibilities for families kept apart. But it was only in recent years that the technology became affordable enough that ordinary clients could afford to book sessions, he said.

Biguria started his operations in San Francisco and, in 2003, opened Amigo Latino in the Albany Park neighborhood of Chicago. He focused on Guatemala but has now expanded to seven Latin-American nations and Spain, serving about two dozen clients a week.

Ruben Anzures can relate to that angst. He came to the United States 10 years ago, eventually relocating to Chicago as a Mexican immigrant without legal papers. He toiled as a butcher and busboy, a lonely man far from his relatives. The worst part, he said, was when his daughter had a child in Mexico and he was unable to meet his granddaughter. "The suffering is very strong," Anzures said. "All you can do is imagine them. They send you a photo, but a photo doesn't tell you anything." In desperation, Anzures bought a bare-bones videoconferencing system that he connected at home. When a friend begged him to use the camera to talk to his own relatives, Anzures had the seed for his future business venture. He founded Face to Face three months ago. Anzures, now an accountant who has gained legal immigration status, said he realizes that many undocumented immigrants cannot take the chance of returning home to visit relatives, even for weddings or funerals.

Immigration experts say U.S. border crackdowns in the 1990s and after the Sept. 11 attacks have made it more dangerous and difficult to cross illegally. Consequently, the U.S.-Mexico migrant flow has lost its "circularity," in which immigrants went back and forth, and has forced immigrants to remain in the United States illegally for years. Legal immigrants also have gravitated to videoconferencing because they often cannot afford the high cost of traveling back to their homelands. Clients typically pay between $60 and $80 an hour for videoconferencing sessions carried over the Internet or a dedicated fiber-optics line. The customers conduct sessions with televisions at least 27 inches wide and cameras that can zoom and pivot via remote control.

In Mexico and elsewhere, the other party typically gathers at an Internet cafe or some other business that does videoconferencing on the side. Here, some video booths are equipped with couches and traditional artwork, designed to make clients feel like they are chatting in their own living rooms. "This is like a little Disney World," Biguria said. "The day you make your appointment, you can disconnect yourself from your stress, from your difficulties, and enjoy what you love most: your family." And it is the family that takes center stage on camera.

A prospective groom in Mexico asked his future father-in-law for his daughter's hand in marriage. A man who came to the United States when his wife was pregnant met his young child for the first time. In Guatemala, dozens of relatives rented a bus from the hinterlands to Guatemala City for a videoconferencing session to Chicago. Anzures related the story of how a woman in Chicago recently grew serious as she told her mother in Guatemala that she just had a baby.

"But how? Why didn't you tell me?" her mother sputtered. Then she pulled the wriggling "baby" - a puppy - into the camera shot. "You can't print what her response was," Anzures said. It isn't rare for clients to exit the video booths with tears streaming down their faces after being reunited, at least virtually, with relatives they haven't seen for years.

At Amigo Latino, Gabriela Sandoval recently introduced her parents and two sisters to her 4-month-old son, Sebastian Andre Sandoval. Her parents had hoped to come to Chicago but had to postpone their trip. In Guatemala City, Grandpa reached toward the camera as if he were trying to squeeze the boy. Other relatives wiped away tears as one cooed, "Hello, my doll. Hello, my angel. Ay, you are so precious!" Afterward, Sandoval was beaming. "It's like your heart goes like this," she said, making a fist. "But it's because you are happy."

For Velazquez, the recent birthday boy, it was just as meaningful to enjoy the mundane exchanges that have gone unsaid for years.

His brothers razzed him about his shaved head ("Did you lose a bet?") and about his expanding waistline. "Too many burritos," Velazquez said, patting his stomach. Velazquez was introduced to nephews and nieces for the first time. He chatted with a 12-year-old niece who was 3 when Velazquez left Mexico. "Do you remember me?" he asked tenderly. She assured him that she did. A staff member poked his head into the video room and gently advised Velazquez that he had five minutes left on his session. A relative in Mexico suggested a blessing. With that, Velazquez's mother spoke up. She had sat stoically and silently for most of the session, leaning on her cane, as other relatives darted in and out of the camera shot. For the blessing, she raised her right hand, gave the sign of the cross and prayed. In Chicago, he made the sign of the cross, too. "Be careful, son, over there," his mother said. "I will, Mama. You know that," he replied. "You know we love you, son. Every day, I pray for you." After a few more words, the family in Mexico turned off the video connection. Their image on the screen in Chicago gave way to a close-up of Velazquez. He briefly paused to ponder his own contented face.

©2005, Chicago Tribune.

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