US census faces challenges counting small Latino towns
GUADALUPE, ARIZ. >> The two white-washed, mission-style churches and old, wooden homes in this town of mostly Latinos and Native Americans seem misplaced near luxury apartments in Phoenix and a suburb surrounding it.
Founded by Yaqui Indian refugees from Mexico more than a century ago, Guadalupe is named for Mexico’s patron saint, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and is fiercely proud of its history.
The town known for sacred Easter rituals featuring deer-antlered dancers also is wary of outsiders as it prepares for the 2020 census.
Town leaders hope to ease any reluctance to join the once-a-decade count, which could decide if Guadalupe gets more federal money to feed a tiny $12 million budget already pressed to fill potholes and mend sewage lines.
“Every revenue stream is important to a community as small as this one,” Town Manager Jeff Kulaga said.
Across America, small, poor communities such as Guadalupe, each with its own unique ethnic makeup, pose formidable challenges for census workers. Language barriers, poverty and a population that’s often more transient and distrustful of government can make them especially hard to count, an Associated Press analysis of nationwide data has found.
The census has already postponed sending workers to count off-campus college students amid the coronavirus pandemic. As people are asked to keep their distance from one another, counting places like Guadalupe could grow even more difficult.
Nearly a third of Guadalupe’s 6,500 residents are Native American, and about 70% of all races there identify as Hispanic. A third struggle with poverty in a community where the median annual household income is around $32,000 and the average owner-occupied home is worth less than $90,000. Just 60 percent of adults finished high school.
It’s a similar story in Immokalee, Florida, where a recent wave of immigration by indigenous Guatemalans who speak Mayan languages has created new challenges in a rural tomato-growing region that Edward R. Murrow highlighted in his 1960 documentary about migrant farmworkers, “Harvest of Shame.”
The nearest hospital is more than 30 miles away in wealthy Naples. The farming town of 25,000 people is a “food desert,” forcing families to hitchhike to supermarkets closer to the southwest
Florida coast. More than 43% are in poverty. A similar percentage did not finish ninth grade.
Such small, poor and largely Latino communities historically have been undercounted, the AP analysis shows, posing challenges for census workers in the count that aims to ensure federal dollars get to communities needing them most.
“It is an increasingly difficult and expensive job to count these hard-to-count groups,” said D’Vera Cohn, a senior writer specializing in the census for the Pew Research Center. “It may be because they distrust the government or are transients moving around or people who don’t speak English.”
The Census Bureau is spending $500 million in advertising — $50 million for ads designed to soothe fears among some Latinos, including the incorrect belief they will be asked about citizenship.
“In 2010, we had a lot of money on the table that was just lost and didn’t come to the community. It is so critically important,” Vincent Keeys, president of the
NAACP in Florida’s Collier County, recently told leaders of nonprofit and government agencies in Immokalee.
Language and cultural barriers can make communication difficult in Guadalupe, where most people speak Spanish in addition to English or older tribal members prefer communicating in the Pascua Yaqui language.
“If you look at the town, you can see it hasn’t been served by the census in the past,” said community organizer Petra Falcon, who has worked in Guadalupe for decades. “There are high teen pregnancy and suicide rates and low wages.”
Tribal officials said they are preparing group presentations and hiring Pascua Yaqui translators to explain the process to older members — including the direct connection between being counted and getting the community things it needs. Art designed by tribal youth adorns T-shirts, encouraging members in English and Yaqui to be counted: “It’s in your hands.”
“We did a lot of work around the 2010 census, and we feel people are a lot more comfortable this time,” said Letticia Baltazar, a research specialist for the tribe headquartered on its reservation southwest of Tucson.
Frank and Ester Cota pose for a photograph outside Our Lady of Guadalupe church on Friday in Guadalupe, Ariz. Guadalupe is named for Mexico’s patron saint,