Volunteers reach out to Latino community for 2010 Census

"For me, it has been one of the easiest sells I've ever done," said Claudia Fuentes. "The community has been overwhelmingly open to this."

Fuentes, a member of the Minnesota Latino Complete Count Committee (CCC) and policy aide to Mayor R.T. Rybak, has been working as a volunteer doing outreach for the 2010 census in the Latino community since last summer. From handing out census materials at community events to doing call-ins to Spanish language radio, Fuentes and a team of volunteers are working to ensure that everyone in the Latino community will make themselves count.

This month, every residence in the United States and Puerto Rico will receive a generic, white envelope from the U.S. government, simply addressed to "Resident."  While this envelope could be seen as common junk mail, it contains the ten-question census form that will eventually determine where $400 billion in federal funds are paid out and the number of seats the state will hold in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Members of the Minnesota Latino CCC - an organization dedicated to everything census - began doing census outreach to Latinos in January 2009.  According to Fuentes, the support from the Latino community has been outstanding. 

La Alborada, a popular restaurant and grocery store in Minneapolis, is one of the businesses that opened its doors to Fuentes and her volunteers.  Store owner Orlando Cruz, Sr. and his son, Orlando Cruz, Jr., gave Fuentes peak business hours so volunteers could station themselves to talk with as many community members as possible.

Cruz, Jr. said he has seen a lot of customers stopping and taking the time to listen and ask questions.  He believes the census is very important to the community and has been doing his own outreach to family and friends.

"I just feel that everybody should be counted," he said.

And counted they will be if they take the time to fill out the form.  However, concerns about confidentiality and anonymity, as well as language barriers, sometimes make it difficult to get people to fill out the form.  Immigrants in the community worry about whether or not this form will ask about their "status" as a resident.

 "I think they're kinda scared ... afraid of what's on the sheet and how to answer," Cruz, Jr. said.

Fuentes also said many people don't know what the census is or how it can benefit them.

"Why would you fill it out?" Fuentes said.  "Unless you knew something was in it for you." 

The census is used to gather demographic information, housing type and other data from every current U.S. resident.  Once collected, the information will help determine how billions of federal dollars will be allocated to different communities to help fund services and infrastructure such as hospitals, job training centers, schools, and senior centers, and other public works projects such as bridges, roads and tunnels.  These services are fundamental to the community, Fuentes said. 

 "You use the roads; you use the bridges; you use the public transportation," Fuentes said.  "Make yourself count...This is a civic duty and a civic act that everyone can do."

In addition to the social benefits of the census, the final report also helps determine the number of seats the state will hold in the U.S. House of Representatives.  According to Mario Vargas of the Minnesota State Demographic Center and Campaign Coordinator for the 2010 Census, Minnesota stands to lose a seat if the information collected shows a decline in population. 

"We want to keep our power in Washington, D.C.," Vargas said.

Vargas also said the outreach approach is the most effective way to talk about political and social benefits and gain the support of the Latino community.  Being present in the community allows Latinos to connect with the campaign.

"You need a broad-based, non-ideological effort to engage Latinos," Vargas said.

The focus of the volunteer efforts has been to educate the community about these benefits, convince them to participate and put to rest any worries they may have about giving personal information.

Fuentes said the way the census forms are delivered is a big issue.  The census is addressed to "Resident" rather than an actual person and could be confused with junk mail. Because the packaging is ambiguous, the form could be tossed aside and forgotten. 

Fuentes also said males ages 18-35 are the least likely to fill out the census.  According to Fuentes, the Latino immigrant population is mostly men, thus form completion could be low.

Vargas agrees and said the packaging "worried" him and is a concern for the National Census Bureau as well.

"We want to educate the public that it is not junk mail and don't treat it like junk mail," Vargas said.

Outreach efforts will continue through the month of March and possibly into the early summer, depending on form completion rates.  If forms from a residence are not completed, people from the Census Bureau will visit that residence and collect forms in person.

While no one will know if the efforts to educate the community were successful until all the data has been compiled, Fuentes believes that the openness of the Latino community throughout the process will show through when it's all over.

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Caitlin Burgess's picture
Caitlin Burgess

Caitlin Burgess (caitlinburgess [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a graduate of the University of St. Thomas with degrees in journalism and Spanish. She is currently living in Downtown St. Paul.