Counting on us

HURON -- At the main junction of this dusty agricultural city of about 7,600 people -- in front of the city's only bank, next to Westside Family Preservation Services, and across from the Michoacán Family Restaurant -- a group of U.S. Census volunteers stood at a booth and urged residents to participate in the decennial national survey last Tuesday morning.

The volunteers handed out census tchotchkes -- hats, bags, keychains, and magnets -- to city residents who were waiting for a bus, commuting on a farm labor van, or just walking by. They then encourged the people to sit down and answer ten quick, easy, and confidential questions.

The effort, part of the 2010 Census 'Portrait of America' Road Tour, was one of many events taking place across the San Joaquín Valley, state, and country to ensure that every American is counted in this year's census.

The census, a national population count taken every 10 years, determines the number of seats a state holds in the U.S. House of Representatives. It also determines how many federal dollars are directed toward local hospitals, job training centers, schools, senior centers, public works projects, and emergency services, among others.

As the Latino population has grown, their participation in the census has become critical to the future success of the Valley and state.

The challenge, however, is convincing Latinos, a hard-to-count group, to participate.

"If you're a Hispanic parent, why are you doing it?" Jesse Rodríguez, a census partnership specialist working in Madera and Merced counties, said of the census. "They're concerned about their kids having a better future, and that's why they're participating."

"Education and expansion and growth for the future is really what the Hispanic community is seeking."

In the 98.3 percent Latino city of Huron, and in other rural Valley cities -- communities that have been undercounted in past years -- it is especially important for all residents to be counted, said Richard A. Flores, a census partnership specialist working in Fresno County.

The schools and social service agencies in these impoverished communities could be better funded if all residents participate in the census, Flores said.

Being counted could also help solve local problems, he said.

For example, he said, agriculture-dependent cities on the west side of Fresno County could maybe garner more farm water, or possibly obtain another agricultral factory or processing plant, if they could prove the communities are home to thousands more people.

"As long as they don't come out, they're considered invisible, and they just get lost," he said. "How do we get them to stand up and say, 'yes, were here?'"

But it is especially difficult to convince people from these "hard-to-count" communities to participate in the survey.

In rural communities, he said, the main challenge is assuring the large population of undocumented Latino farmworkers that census participation is safe, and all personal data obtained through the survey is confidential.

"They're always leary of any government agency," Flores said of residents of rural Valley communities. "They still have the fear that their information is going to go to INS, ICE, FBI, or any of those 'bad' acronyms."

Across the region, census officials and partner organizations are striving to encourage people to fill out the survey and return it within the next two weeks.

Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, D-San Francisco, said if Latinos participate in the census, they can help ensure children have greater educational opportunities in the future.

"If Latinos aren't counted in California, we're going to continute to be short-changed when it comes to education dollars in California," he said.

Gene Acevedo, president of the Coalition of Mexican American Organizations, a San Joaquín County-based coalition of Latino organizations, said an accurate count allows the group to determine how it can most effectively serve the community.

"At the end of the day, an accurate counts means a healthier community," Acevedo said. "Following a good snap shot as to who we have in the community not only helps us obtain revenue and funding, but it also helps us understand who it is we need to serve."

"It's important for us to know who is around for us to be strategic with the various organizations representing the coalition."

Nayamin Martínez, of the Centro Binacional para El Desarollo Indígena Oaxaqueño, said Oaxacan immigrants must fill out the census, so the organization can better advocate for interpreters who speak Mixtec, Trique, and Zapotec, as well as other services for the Valley's indigenous communities.

"We need to show that we are a community that has grown since 2000, and that we need more resources," Martínez said.

She encouraged indigenous people to disclose their specific race on their census forms, so the organization can use accurate numbers when advocating for interpreters and other services.

Flores said he is urging people to fill out a census survey and mail it back as soon as possible.

"We're telling them, 'do it anonomously, so no one is going to come knocking on your door in July,'" he said.

In Modesto, Yamilet Valladolid, who is El Concilio's director, urged everyone to take part in the process.

"It is time that we get counted in regards to services and benefits that are culturally appropriate," Valladolid said. "It will only be possible if we are counted. I want to reaffirm that the information is confidential."

Starting in early May, census workers will visit the homes of people who did not return the census, and follow-up with phone calls, with the intention of gathering the vital information.