Connecting Mexico

Connected: How a Mexican Village Built its Own Cell Phone Network, by Roberto J. Gonzalez (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020).

Reviewed by Sara L. M. Davis, Graduate Institute, Geneva

Digitization is booming, and this is widening inequalities in access to digital technologies including cell phones and the internet. The rural-urban digital divide is especially pronounced, but the impact and experience of digitization is rarely studied at the grassroots level. Many people in low- and middle-income countries can only access the internet through their phones. As more services go online, and in a context of global migration, access to cell phones is increasingly vital as a basic part of public infrastructure – as well as crucial to enabling people to remain in contact with transnational networks of family, friends and former neighbors. What happens in remote rural regions where large cell phone companies have no interest in establishing services? And conversely, when cell phones begin to penetrate rural regions where they were not widely available before, how does this technology reshape identity, social relationships and networks? How does access to cell networks affect people’s ability to stay connected?

In Connected: How a Mexican village built its own cell phone network, Roberto J. Gonzalez sets out to explore these important questions, using the case of Talea, a pueblo in Oaxaca. In Talea, “a handful of indigenous villagers and a small international team of hackers and scholars” came together to create an autonomous cell phone network in 2013 (p. 85). The effort began after longtime efforts to petition a national wireless operator for service were frustrated. Activists working with Rhizomatica, a nonprofit, recruited hackers to successfully help the village establish its autonomous network. As they booted up the system, Gonzalez describes the shouts of laughter and celebration that rippled across the village: “I just connected to my son in Guadalajara!” (p.105).

This local triumph, celebrated in international media, quickly faltered in the face of an onslaught by a slick national cell phone company, Movistar, the second largest in Mexico. Gonzalez explores the tensions this conflict between community and capital produced among community leaders accused of profiteering, and local officials with greater ambitions for national office. He also reflects on the transformative impact of cell phone access on the village.

Cell phones, Gonzalez notes, sometimes enable villagers to challenge entrenched hierarchies by giving them access to information and platforms to express controversial opinions (p. 14). Such communications technologies and the novel opportunities they provide can shift the public image of a locality and the self-perception of residents, even as they enable global corporate profiteering from the engagement of rural farmers. It’s an odd truth about the digital transformation that nostalgia expressed on social media for deeply local foods and festivals can simultaneously, and without apparent contradiction, coexist with a fascination with foreign things that undermines local autonomy. This, he tells the reader, is sometimes called malinchismo: “the damned mentality that many people have, who think that what comes from outside is better than what we have here,” as one villager says while reflecting bitterly about the failed community cell phone network (p. 130).

While the book title presents the cell phone network as the main subject of the book, in practice it occupies only a few chapters. The rest of Connected contextualizes this moment in the life of the village through an assemblage of lively ethnographic vignettes from the author’s research over many years. He participates in village life actively as an accomplished musician, joining in festivals as a trumpet player and in All Saints’ Day ceremonies as a roving cantor. He lives with a farming family, tracing their changes and movements over the years. This deep fieldwork culminates in frank, self-reflexive musing over how migration, economic and social change, and social media have reshaped relations among villagers in diverse locations in a dislocated age. He unsparingly reflects on his own loss of contact with the village, thanks to the demands of his own professional and family life, revealing the emotional ruptures that can be created by the ethnographic method: we come, we win trust, we observe, we publish, we move on. We rarely publicly discuss the loss of relationships abandoned at the field site as Gonzalez does: “maybe lots of us [anthropologists] subconsciously scrape through these painful moments, suffering in silence”, he muses (p. 196).

Readers will appreciate the clarity, warmth and humility of the authorial voice, which makes the book a delightful read. Gonzalez paints an empathetic picture of a community at a moment of profound change. At the same time, he emphasizes that Talea’s willingness to engage with new media reflects the town’s historical openness to new ideas and practices, in ways that might challenge preconceptions about village life. Students and teachers will find this a valuable case study for reflecting on ethnographic realities in the digital age: when the book is done, the reader can’t help feeling a little more connected to Talea.