A hoodie covering her head, legs swinging as she sat on the paper-strewn table, the 19-year-old half-smiled while saying it’s going to be more effective this time.
“I think it’s going to be a good year,” she said. “The census has done a good job advertising on billboards and on TV, cultivating a sort of…anticipation.”
A mere 9 the last go-around, Roselyn Ruiz said she remembered little of the process or results, but she’d watched her big sister work for the Census and thought, why not, she didn’t have a job. She’d try it this time too.
Every day for a five-hour shift since mid-March, Ruiz has manned one of the 150 Questionnaire Assistance Centers (or QACs) sprouting up around Los Angeles. The QACs exemplify some of the 2010 Census Bureau’s more aggressive efforts to include otherwise Hard to Count (HTC) communities such as Hispanics, Russians and Koreans.
Located at churches and supermarkets, outside stores and salons, the tiny centers often consist of a bureau employee and a table he or she’s filled with Census forms and 59 different language guides for them. The questionnaires themselves, abbreviated forms of the 10-question version, come in English, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Russian and Vietnamese.
Employees set up these sites to help those who are illiterate, unable to speak English or uncomfortable navigating through the written, 7th-grade level questions have their presence noted in the constitutionally-required decennial count.
The QACs form one aspect of the bureau’s efforts to ensure as widespread a participation as it can. 2010 marks the first year the Census has sent a bilingual English/Spanish questionnaire to 13 million households around the country; that it has used television, radio, billboard and print sources to advertise its campaign in 28 languages and that it has spent $340 million on that campaign.
And defying initial expectations, the Hispanic community may send in more forms than its members ever have before. As the Census has used multimedia to promote the count, recommending street-corner QACs like the one Ruiz set up in the process, many residents have said they understand how participating can secure minority-specific funding as well as seats in the House of Representatives and intend to follow through.
Census enumerators will send a sort of infantry to track down the homeless, the migrant workers or those living in RVs. Employees unable to connect with unresponsive households after three phone calls will hand residents their forms, in person.
In answering the surveys, however, some Hispanics said they find race-related Question 9 confusing. Some fear the Census is a circuitous route to the Migra and deportation. Others who are illiterate may face another challenge. Because they cannot read and are unaware of the existence of a QAC, they don’t know to call a toll-free number for assistance.
Setting up her table outside East L.A.’s 21st Street Market, Sharon Beauty Salon or a water store (depending on the day), Ruiz has been in charge of the Hooper Street QAC for a 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift. She said foot traffic in the middle of a work day’s been a bit slow, about 11 or 12 visitors a day, but folks are eager.
“People come to me to help them answer the form,” she said. “They know they have to participate. There’s this rumor that they’ll have to pay a $25 fine if they don’t send it in.”
She described how she spent most of her time easing the fears of those seeking her aid.
“A lot of people are afraid of deportation,” she said. “You can tell by their facial expressions. So I just explain that this information is confidential and protected by law and that their names will only be available in 72 years for history books.
“And I tell them, ‘you know, 72 years—that’s basically a lifetime, so don’t worry. They may need your phone number in case you’re a sloppy writer, and they want to verify your information. It’s not personal,’” she said.
But Wendy Arias, 29, sitting with her copy of the Census within Sharon Beauty Salon near Ruiz, said that reasoning doesn’t always work. “People are scared,” said the Mexico native in Spanish. “Many don’t care if this is for ill or good. If it involves releasing their records, they don’t like it.”
Ruiz also explained how respondents may find Questions 8 and 9 an obstacle towards sending in the form.
Question 8 asks whether the “person [is] of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin” and offers these options:
“No, not of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin
Yes, Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano
Yes, Puerto Rican
Yes, another Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin.”
It also asks participants to “print [that] origin, for example, Argentinean, Colombian, Dominican, Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, Spaniard, and so on.”
Question 9 asks “what is the person’s race?” and offers these options:
Black, African American or Negro
American Indian or Alaska Native
Other Asian --…for example, Hmong, Laotian, Thai, Pakistani, Cambodian, and so on.
Guamanian or Chamorro
Other Pacific Islander --…for example, Fijian, Tongan, and so on.
Some other race – Print race.
Ruiz said “a lot of people find questions 8 and 9 problematic and say they’re racist because if (respondents) are not Mexican, Puerto Rican or Cuban they have to write their nationality in. I have to tell them ‘you get a little section too.’ ”
Other bureau representatives said the Census has worded these questions that way for 40 years, and the fill-in section simply gives respondents leeway.
“These two questions allow people to self-identify,” said Census Public Affairs Specialist Earlene Dowell. “It’s up to them how they identify themselves, and their responses are later reviewed and counted.”
But while Felipe Moscoso, manager of the East Los Angeles Census Office, “definitely thinks the Census will be successful because its employees have been working very hard,” he also said questions 8 and 9 “have become an issue” as the wording confuses respondents, who often ask: “Well, I was born here, so what race am I?”
A Honduran, 41, working in L.A.’s downtown, unnamed due to her undocumented status, said she considered filling out the Census, knowing how allocating more funds to Latinos based on representation would benefit her. But she would likely withhold her name and found Question 9 unnerving.
“The two questions should be one question,” she said in Spanish.
She did not find listing her nationality in No. 8 offensive but couldn’t see why she, who thought of her race or ethnicity as Latina, should have to write in what she considered another version of the same answer in No. 9.
Some academics said counting-problems will arise from the use of ethnicity-implying words “Hispanic” and “Latino” when referring to race.
“The issue here is ‘what is race?’ ‘What is ethnicity?’” wrote Leo Strada, UCLA professor of urban planning, in an email. “The question of what is race has been discussed countless times[, and] the Census has gone over this issue many times with experts from all social science fields.”
He said while historians, anthropologists and social biologists view Latinos as an ethnic group or collection of people from different nationalities, political scientists, ethnographers and sociologists did find Latinos “semi-racial” if defined as such by public perception and the media.
“Latino non-response to the race question dates back to the 1970s,” he said. “Once Latinos identify in the Hispanic/Latino/Spanish origin item, they skip the race question since in their minds they have ‘answered the question.’”
Strada explained that because the Census has always required a race question, organizers focused more attention and funds into improving that Question 9’s non-response rate than they did for, say, the question concerning family relations.
In the 1960s, he said, the Census used surname lists to count Hispanic populations. Because the government found that method limiting, the bureau in 1970 began combining that data with the one culled from those who had identified themselves as Latino. While there was overlap in such data, Latinos who lacked Spanish-sounding surnames or were inter-marrying were skewing the numbers.
Though “the Census accepted the judgment that Latinos are not a race…adding Hispanics as a racial group would throw off data going back to 1970, so they created two separate questions,” he said.
Finding that response rate increased when the Census placed the Hispanic/Latino/Spanish question before the “race” question, the bureau continues to do so.
Not viewing themselves as “White” or “Black,” for example, Latinos would mark “Latino” or “Hispanic” in the “Other Race” space on Question 9, Strada said. So even as recently as 2000, 45 percent of those filling in the “Other Race” space were Latino.
“The Latino non-response rate remains high,” he said, “and there appears to be no simple solution.”
Leading up to the Census, media outlets and critics emphasized how difficult tracking the Hispanic population of a state like California would be, given the fact that so many of its members are migrant workers.
And Roberto Ramirez, chief of the Ethnicity and Ancestry Branch with the Census Bureau, explained that accounting for such groups encapsulates one of the main reasons the bureau hired more than 1 million temporary employees during the count.
“We call those who have not responded a few times and then show up,” he said. For the homeless, those living in the American Union Reservation, parks, boats, circuses, converted garages, RVs, a different temporary space or as migrant workers, the Census has employed an approach called the Partnership Program. Census reps “go door-to-door and recruit people from the community to help us in person,” he added. “This goes until July.”
He pointed out that Census reps would most often count respondents who had written in “mixed” for either questions 8 or 9 or both manually.
And many took no issue with either the questions’ wording, its racial or ethnic implications or those requiring a written-in response.
“I’ve filled out the Census, and I have to say I think all the commercials and ads have made it clear why we all should,” said Salvadoran-born Miguel Portillo, 18, standing behind the cash register at his family’s downtown shop, Danielle’s Bridal.
“Yeah, Question 9’s a little weird, and I hadn’t heard of QACs until now” he continued. “But 9 doesn’t bother me, and people will still fill out the form.”
When it comes to getting a count truly representative of the U.S. population, the Census—important, expensive, controversial and to some, negligible—may still face many challenges. But employees like Ruiz are optimistic the campaigns and the QACs have will help achieve the desired effect.
“It may not be completely accurate,” she said, “but I think it’s getting pretty close.”