21 for ‘21: For Juan Morales-Rocha, bridging the digital divide was personal

Juan Morales-Rocha helped lay the groundwork for a project seeking to bridge Santa Cruz County's digital divide.
Juan Morales-Rocha helped lay the groundwork for a project seeking to bridge Santa Cruz County’s digital divide.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Morales-Rocha’s advocacy is credited with helping to kick-start a countywide partnership working to bridge the stubborn “last mile” of Santa Cruz County’s digital divide and extend reliable internet to thousands of families.

The first time he tried to restore reliable internet to the farmworker housing where he was raised in Watsonville, Juan Morales-Rocha ran into a dead end.

“I was calling people, trying to connect the dots — like, who would be the right person to call?” he said. “No results, basically, because I guess it wasn’t as important, right?”

That was April 2019, a year before the COVID-19 pandemic pushed so much of school, work and life behind a computer screen. As a a video-game designer and undergraduate adviser at UC Santa Cruz, his alma mater, Morales-Rocha was very familiar with the need to be wired.

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Watching his sister struggle to access remote classes a year later, he decided to try again. This time, his push worked.

Morales-Rocha’s advocacy is now credited with helping to kick-start a countywide partnership working to bridge the stubborn “last mile” of Santa Cruz County’s digital divide and extend reliable internet to thousands of families.

“For me it was like, ‘OK, do these people know who to call or how to reach out to anyone to get supportive internet?’ I don’t think so,” he said. “So I think it’s almost a duty as a person who came from this community to be like, ‘what can I do.’”

Morales-Rocha, 26, spent most of his childhood moving between Watsonville’s Buena Vista Migrant Center and Tulare as his family followed the cycle of work in Watsonville’s strawberry fields. His family still lives in the Watsonville subsidized housing for much of the year.

Lookout's 21 for '21

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re profiling 21 individuals who made a difference in pandemic-and-wildfire-ravaged Santa Cruz County in 2020 — and how they’re looking toward recovery in 2021. Have suggestions about others we should pick? Email us at news@lookoutlocal.com

He knows better than most the kind of impact that access to technology can have.

Born in Watsonville, he spent his early childhood in Mexico before returning to the U.S. at age 5. He struggled with a language barrier before learning English with the help of a video game.

An interest in gaming bloomed into a passion for technology, and he said he spent his teenage years tinkering with computers and using the internet as a self-learning tool. “I give credit to the internet,” he said.

Celebrate the MAH’s 25th Anniversary with new exhibitions and events happening throughout Santa Cruz County in 2021.

But a national internet provider stopped serving the center around his senior year of high school, Morales-Rocha said — possibly because of issues around the seasonal cycle. Whatever the cause, he said residents have less access now than he did almost a decade earlier.

“You would just assume that with time things would get better, people would be more connected,” he said. “But no, that’s not the case. The folks that don’t have a lot of resources in the camp are getting more resources pulled away, for whatever reason.”

With degrees in game design and cognitive science under his belt — and experience working with the nearby nonprofit DigitalNEST — Morales-Rocha had set out to try to remedy the situation in 2019. That project, which he called Camp Connect, didn’t immediately pan out.

Juan Morales-Rocha
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Then schools closed their campuses in March and sent students to learn from home. Morales-Rocha found himself offering tech support to an increasingly frustrated sibling, one of about 150 students living at the Buena Vista center.

“She would be in a class for a second, and get booted off,” he said. “Then she would try to get back in and get booted off.”

So he picked up the phone again, reaching out to the local school district, advocates, internet service-providers — anyone who would listen.

This time the phone rang back, and Morales-Rocha was drawn into conversations that became a project known as Equal Access Santa Cruz County.

The project aims to build 12 wireless hubs in early 2021 that could each provide high-speed broadband connections to 150 families. It’s a partnership between local internet-provider Cruzio, Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County and a group of local school districts and organizations.

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The Buena Vista Migrant Center is a focal point. Six-figure funding was secured from berry-giant Driscoll’s and the Rotary Club of Watsonville earlier this month, and Morales-Rocha expects when his family returns to the housing this spring they’ll find high-speed internet waiting for them.

He said his focus is now shifting to ensuring smaller housing centers aren’t overlooked — and ensuring the attention paid to the issue doesn’t evaporate when the immediate pressures of the pandemic ease.

“The silver lining of the pandemic, if there is any, is it sort of showed that people need internet to be connected in this world,” Morales-Rocha said. “But we’ll see what happens after. After the pandemic, I hope the energy is still there.”