US Census Officials Face Tests in Small, Poor Latino Towns

23 March 2020

The people of Guadalupe, Arizona are very proud of their history.

The town's name comes from Our Lady of Guadalupe. It is linked to the reported sightings of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, in Mexico during the 1500s.

Yaqui Indian refugees from Mexico established Guadalupe in the southwestern United States over 100 years ago.

Today the town is known for religious ceremonies connected to the Christian holiday of Easter. But people there are a little worried about outsiders as they prepare for the 2020 census. The U.S. Bureau of the Census plans to gather information about the country's population and their communities next month.

In this, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020 photo, Vincent Keeys, standing, president of the NAACP in Collier County, talks to a group of nonprofit leaders and government agencies about the Census undercount in 2010, in Immokalee, Florida.
In this, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020 photo, Vincent Keeys, standing, president of the NAACP in Collier County, talks to a group of nonprofit leaders and government agencies about the Census undercount in 2010, in Immokalee, Florida.

Town leaders hope to ease any unwillingness to join the population count, which takes place once every 10 years. That is because the census could decide if Guadalupe gets more federal money. The local government has a budget of $12 million. The town uses the money to repair roads and the local waste water treatment system.

"Every revenue stream is important to a community as small as this one," Town Manager Jeff Kulaga told the Associated Press (AP).

Across the country, small, poor towns such as Guadalupe present problems for census workers. These communities are often home to one or more ethnic groups. Language barriers and poverty can be a problem. It can be very difficult to count people who move from place to place to find employment. Such individuals can be distrustful of the government.

The U.S. government has already delayed sending workers to count college students during the coronavirus pandemic. As people are asked to keep their distance from one another, counts in places like Guadalupe could grow even more difficult.

Native Americans make up almost one-third of the 6,500 people living in Guadalupe. About 70 percent of all people there identify as Hispanic. A third struggle with poverty in the community where the average yearly 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.

The town of Immokalee, Florida

It is a similar story in Immokalee, Florida. A recent wave of immigration by indigenous Guatemalans who speak Mayan languages has created challenges for the local government.

The nearest hospital is nearly 50 kilometers away, in the wealthy community of Naples. Immokalee is a farming town and home to 25,000 people. It has been called a "food desert" – meaning it has few food stores. More than 43 percent of the population is in poverty. A similar percentage have not finished the first year of high school.

An AP study shows that such small, poor and largely Latino communities historically have been under-counted in earlier censuses.

D'Vera Cohn writes about the census for the Pew Research Center. She said it is an increasingly difficult and costly job to count these hard-to-count groups.

"It may be because they distrust the government or are ... moving around or people who don't speak English," said Cohn.

The Census Bureau is spending $500 million in advertising — $50 million for ads designed to ease the fears among some Latinos. This includes trying to ease their concerns that they will be asked about citizenship, which is incorrect.

Language and cultural barriers can make communication difficult in Guadalupe. Most people there speak Spanish in addition to English. Older tribal members often choose to communicate in the Pascua Yaqui language.

Tribal officials said they are preparing group presentations and employing speakers of Pascua Yaqui and English to explain the census to older members. This includes explaining the direct connection between being counted and getting the community things it needs.

"We did a lot of work around the 2010 census, and we feel people are a lot more comfortable this time," said Letticia Baltazar. She is a research specialist for the tribe.

The Pascua Yaqui have up to 20,000 members nationwide, including several thousand in Guadalupe.

In Immokalee, the challenges lie in the English language and educational limitations of the community. More than 72 percent of town residents are Latino, with large numbers of immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala. Between 2009 and 2016, the number of native Guatemalans there rose 200 percent. And it is expected to keep rising, with more Central American families arriving in Florida over the past two years.

I'm Pete Musto.

Anita Snow, Adriana Gomez Licon, and Angeliki Kastanis reported on this story for the Associated Press. Pete Musto adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

proudadj. very happy and pleased because of something you have done, something you own, or someone you know or are related to

revenue streamn. a way of earning money

pandemicn. an occurrence in which a disease spreads very quickly and affects a large number of people over a wide area or throughout the world

incomen. money that is earned from work, investments, or business

owner-occupiedadj. lived in by the owner

indigenousadj. produced, living, or existing naturally in a particular region or environment

challenge(s) – n. a difficult task or problem

comfortableadj. causing no worries, difficulty, or uncertainty