By Cindy Gomez-Schempp
Que Paso columnist
(Originally published in the High Plains Reader October 20, 2009 by Cindy Shawcross*)
Census workers will soon be taking to the streets to gather information about America’s demographics. This information is crucial to state and local governments for funding purposes; important to identifying needs for services, trends and business practices. But for Latinos, the census has historically been greeted with skepticism and fear. And rightly so: history has shown that information gathered in the census about minority populations has led to misuse in the form of disenfranchisement of voters, targeted character assassination of ethnic groups, internment camps, mass deportations and more.
However, the consequence of undercounting and lack of representation of the true make-up of communities is underfunding. Lack of funding has already hit hard in our FM region and the six-figure loss in funding usually hits already underfunded communities, where it hurts most. Lack of funding goes hand in hand with a decrease in accessibility to a myriad of social services, underrepresentation of minority groups, and creates a cloak of invisibility for already disenfranchised groups.
Clearly, the approach of fear of the census is not the answer. Some minority groups are even calling for boycotts of the census – again anticipating the worst. But having disenfranchised and under-counted minority groups like Latinos doesn’t just hide them from unwanted government intrusion and abuse; it just continues to deprive them.
As a Latina, this concerns me because it deprives Latinos and organizations who serve them from knowing the numbers of their potential clients. It deprives Latinos of the knowledge of each other, perhaps even isolating communities of color, and preventing them from networking and gaining access to services.
Not knowing the numbers of their own population, Latinos are depriving themselves of community and support. Latinos are also depriving themselves of equal representation in local and national government, school boards, jobs, business practices, legal assistance and – perhaps most importantly – policy making.
I remember when the census worker came to my house when I was a little girl. I translated for my parents what the census worker said for us to do. I could feel the fear my parents had about giving this complete stranger private and confidential information about the most intimate details of their life and livelihood. For many of the questions that my parents couldn’t comprehend the reasoning for, or the wording of, the census worker did not leave it to our interpretation, instead telling us what we should answer according to the worker’s own perception. This is a crucial point, because in the process of being “counted” and identified, we were also being told, not asked, who we were.
Self identification is essential to a “free” person and even the current census form does not clearly identify Latinos as a “race.” Instead, anyone of Mexican-American descent is counted as “Caucasian” of “Mexican American ethnicity.” So, what is the harm in that? Well, if you ask a Latino whether they consider themselves Caucasian, most will immediately say “NO.”
However, through a treaty, all Latinos are “Caucasian” and unless you relinquish your right to self-identify as some other race, your only option is to mark that you are a Pacific Islander, Native American, or African-American. Many who cannot stomach the options will write in “Mexican-American” in the “other” category. However, this doesn’t matter, because technically, Mexican-American is not your race, but your ethnicity. So again, you are back to being Caucasian, whether or not you identify as one or enjoy the benefits and access to services of those who recognizably “look” Caucasian.
The fact is, there are many issues that Latinos need to be involved in if they want change. A wise friend of mine once said to me when I was at a crossroads in my career, “Well, you can be one of the people complaining about the institutional problem, or you can be part of the institution and work at changing it from the inside.”
So far, fearing the Census, however merited, has not served Latinos well, or any minority group for that matter. Furthermore, the apathy and paranoia over Census participation has hurt the communities which we live in. Although most Latinos steer clear of seeking assistance from community agencies for a variety of reasons (ranging from being stereotyped and cultural conditioning to seeking support from church or family; or fear of government intrusion) the communities in which we live thrive or suffer based on the funding they receive from the private and public sector.
And the quality of life we help to create in our communities extends beyond working, paying taxes and caring for our families. It requires us to be responsible and responsive to improving the communities where we live so that the education, services, roads and governments that represent us and serve us are top notch; not just for us, but for our children, our neighbors, our extended families, our community services and the generations who follow us.
Having said all that, people do need to arm themselves with complete information and have the opportunity to ask questions and receive reassurance about their concerns, find out how to apply for jobs within the census, and find out how the census will affect their community and agencies serving them. That opportunity is here!
Education, discussion and reforming the census process for future generations are all essential to an effective census count. However, for many communities, the local news or for-pay newspaper is not their main source of information; it is word of mouth. Information meetings that will address concerns for traditionally undercounted and underrepresented communities will be held so that people can ask city leaders, census workers and other key minority leaders for answers and change. Attending these information meetings is crucial to addressing the issues with the census.
The Fargo-Moorhead 2010 Census Public Education Training and Conference will be held on October 24 from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. at the Fargo Public Library (102 North 3rd St). People Escaping Poverty Project (PEPP) is taking the lead to form a regional Census Coalition that will work together to coordinate Census outreach activities and involve organizations and communities in one of the most significant and historic civic engagement efforts of the new millennium: Census 2010!
Community members, organizational representatives, government representatives and the media are encouraged to join us at the October 24th Leadership Training that will be supported by the D.C.-based Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund and the Main Street Project of Minneapolis.
The Conference is free. Please RSVP to email@example.com or call PEPP at 218-236-5434 for more information. For organizational information please contact:
Steven Renderos (952-594-9263) / firstname.lastname@example.org, Duke Schempp (218-236-5434) / email@example.com, Yoke-Sim Gunaratne (701-526-3000) / firstname.lastname@example.org, or Erica Swanson (202-263-2859) / email@example.com.
The Raul and Zach radio show on 1100 AM (Friday from 8-9 p.m.) will feature a panel ready to answer questions and dialogue about the upcoming census count. Be sure to tune in and call in with your concerns. Panelists will include Cindy Shawcross, PEPP Board Co-Chair; Hannah Garcia, Minneapolis Complete Count Committee; Duke Schempp, Executive Director of PEPP; Steven Renderos, Media Justice Organizer, Main Street Project; and Cathy Montoya, Senior Program Manager, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund (LCCREF).
What: Census Public Education Training and Conference
Where: Fargo Public Library, 102 3rd St N
When: 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
How much: Free of charge
[Author’s Note: Conference occurred in the past. Some contact information for for individuals may have changed.]
**Questions and comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
*Original publication in HPR under the author’s former last name Shawcross and email. Updates to HPR’s website have inaccurately changed the name of the post publisher and date. Original post date listed above.
**Current contact email updated.