Mis Ángeles: Why Filling Out That Census Form Is So Important For Angelenos — And Outreach Is Critical
She was yelling "excuse me" and "hello" from outside the gate to my driveway on one of the hottest days of the year a few weeks ago. I don't know how I knew even before I spied her lanyard and tote bag, but it was clear she was there to talk to us about the 2020 Census.
I filled out my household's census form online months ago. It was so easy, I remember thinking what's the big deal? I wondered this as I watched my mother send the young Latina census taker away.
I thought about this again this week as I spent a day emulating a census taker's gig — they call them enumerators — at Plaza Mexico in Lynwood where, under orange, ashy L.A. skies, I talked to more than a dozen Black and Brown residents from traditionally undercounted parts of Los Angeles about the 2020 Census.
A Latina in a green dress who refused to give me her name said someone came to her house weeks ago to help her fill it out. Maria Delgado from Compton told me something similar. An older Black couple from South Central, Mimi and Joe, said an enumerator helped them, too. An older gentleman from Carson said his wife filled it out online. Abraham, a young Mexican American from Huntington Park, said his sister filled it out "a long time ago."
Then there was Joaquin from Watts who said he had not filled out the census, and wasn't sure if his wife had done it for them. A young man named Marcos said maybe one of his roommates filled it out. He wasn't sure. Marian, a young Black woman, told me she didn't fill it out, and wasn't sure if any census takers had knocked on her door.
It became apparent pretty quickly that many more people than I expected had taken the census already, but that many of them would not have done so without the urging of a census taker who went to their home and helped them fill it out.
This is an important distinction as the Trump administration's recent attempt to shorten the constitutionally mandated census by about a month is being fought in federal court. The door-to-door efforts by census takers that help mitigate undercounts in marginalized communities have already been cut short by the pandemic. And until a judge intervened last weekend, some census takers in hard-to-count L.A. were already reporting being laid off.
Why are efforts to reach everyone important? Take Lynwood, where Plaza Mexico sits. So far, only 61% of residents in Lynwood have responded to the census on their own, according to the Census Bureau. Only 63% of L.A. County residents have responded themselves. The enumerators hit L.A. streets a month ago, and we still don't know how many people they have helped complete census forms since. But without that help, people will go uncounted.
Carlos from Wilmington told me he was at Plaza Mexico that day buying some stuff for work. After months of being shut down completely by the COVID-19 pandemic, the indoor shopping center was converted into an outdoor swap meet last month. There are fruit, merchandise, and clothing stands all around the plaza. And its famed food puestos have been converted into outdoor dining.
Carlos and I were standing in the middle of it all near a two-story decorative fountain.
He said he filled out a paper census form three days ago with the help of a lady who came to the door, and that it was very easy to do. "Una señora llegó a mi casa y la llenamos. Era muy sencillo," he motioned with his right hand over an imaginary piece of paper.
I asked him why he had only recently done it and he told me that he didn't know what it was, really. "I obviously know what a census is, but I guess I didn't know what it really meant or that I had anything to do with it," Carlos told me in Spanish.
If it wasn't for that enumerator, I explained to him, California could have lost about $1,000 in federal funds a year for the next 10 years due simply to Carlos not being counted. That's how much money the state stands to lose for each uncounted person. Money that goes to important public services, like Medi-Cal and public schools. California could also lose more representation in Congress than it already stands to. Carlos shrugged and noted that the government doesn't like him much anyway.
"We try to stay off their radar," he said in Spanish.
Carlos immigrated from Zacatecas more than 20 years ago. He and his wife became U.S. citizens a few years ago, he said. But he was still worried that somehow President Trump would take that away.
"No se sabe con estos Americanos," he said. You never know with these Americans, which is just another way people in my community say "white people."
I pointed at the sky, though, at the little flakes of white ash from the wildfires that were landing all over Plaza Mexico. And I asked him if he was familiar with climate change. "O, si. Es muy malo," he said.
Yeah, it's bad, I agreed. Then in my best pocho Spanish I tried to explain that we need federal funding to, among other things, fight the effects of climate change, and we need every Congressional seat possible to try and reverse or at least halt it.
"Look around," I said. "We're the ones out here working in the ash, in the smoke, in the pandemic." The census should matter to us as much or more than it does to all those "Americanos."
Because in the literal sense, we're Americanos, too.
About the Mis Ángeles column: Erick Galindo is chronicling life in Los Angeles for LAist. He took on this role after serving as our immigrant communities reporter. Erick came to us last year from LA Taco, where he was the managing editor of a James Beard award-winning staff.
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