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Computer Lab, Store Clicks With Latinos makes technology accessible, grows into a community center of sorts in Santa Ana.


Come in. Busquelo aqui. Look for it here.

Want to buy a computer and software? Busquelo aqui.

Want to learn to use your computer or surf the Internet or navigate Windows? Busquelo aqui.

Want to practice in Spanish or English or both? Busquelo aqui.

Here, inside this unique store in downtown Santa Ana--the one that moonlights as an after-school lab for children and a meeting place for computer-hungry immigrants--Latinos are gathering by the hundreds., the name of the storefront and its companion Web site, which is temporarily down, opened in October in this pedestrian-friendly section of Santa Ana. Originally a retail store only, has grown into a Latino community center of sorts, one that aims to eliminate the digital divide between Latinos and other groups.

At least 200 members use the store's computers every day (500 on weekends) to check e-mails, complete homework assignments, learn English, surf the Web, and even run small businesses. Passersby stop for directions, help with their tax returns or assistance with online travel arrangements. Parents follow their children's lead, signing up for classes that hone their English skills as well as their computer knowledge.

"The first time I walked in here, I didn't even know what the Internet was," said Jose Maria Buchanas, 25, of Santa Ana. "In just three or four months, I've learned so much. I've improved my English, learned to use the Internet and have taken graphic-design classes. What is special is that you can come in here and on the other side of the screen is your family member, whether they live in Mexico or El Salvador or Cuba. It's very emotional and impressive how technology can influence and change our lives."

The brainchild of co-founders Ben Rodriguez Jr. and Mark Nichols, seeks to put computer novices at ease, whether their primary language is English or Spanish, and whether they are proficient with computer software or have never touched a keyboard. The underlying motive may be to sell--computers, software and related books--but the overarching idea is to provide a friendly, comfortable laboratory that entices children and adults to spend time embracing technology, instead of being intimidated by it.

Rodriguez, 27, and Nichols, 32, say they selected the storefront in a densely populated Latino area because computer use among Latinos lags behind other groups--and Rodriguez wanted to motivate his own community.

According to a U.S. Commerce Department survey released late last year, 46% of whites have Web access at home or at work, compared with 56.8% of Asian Americans, 23.5% of blacks, and 23.6% of Latinos. But Latino and African American households increased their rate of access from about 10% to 25% since the previous survey in 1998, while white households online grew from about 30% to nearly 50%.

For those without computers, access has long been available in cyber cafes, libraries and businesses like Kinko's, but it's the instruction and personal attention provides that makes it stand out.

"This is a way to get people from one point to another," Rodriguez said. "I didn't have access to a computer until I was in college. When I see a 9- or 10-year-old come in here to use the computer and see how much information they can access, there's a lot of satisfaction in knowing that I helped them from that standpoint. But it's not just for kids. We tell the parents that now is the time to learn these skills and get a better job. This is a way to connect people."

On a recent afternoon, the center quickly filled up with amateurs and veterans needing computer terminals to conduct business and pleasure. On one screen was Rosa Ofelia Verdin, 26, chatting with a friend in Grand Rapids, Mich. Across the room, construction worker Jonas Padilla, 24, practiced using Microsoft Word, Excel and Power Point. He hopes to someday own his own construction company and figures he needs to be computer savvy.

Near him, Gilberto Gonzalez, 18, downloaded Napster and checked his e-mails. One local artist dropped in, downloaded a chess match on Yahoo, made his power move and left.

"I've never used a computer," said Patricia Navarro, 25, of Bolivia, who was trying out her first tutorial. "I want to learn how to use one so I can be a part of the cyber world. Even my mother is more advanced than me. She calls me from Bolivia on her computer. She already knows what buttons to push."

Members can use the center's computers for as long as they need for $24.95 a month. Classes on a variety of topics--including surfing the Internet, Web design and Windows--are $45.95 for one five-hour session.

"I'm learning stuff I've never learned before, like Power Point and Microsoft Word and Excel," said 13-year-old Gladys Rodriguez, who takes a class on Friday afternoon with her 11-year-old sister, Yadira. "In school, we have a computer class, but it's very limited. This helps me a lot in school."

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