Talking Cultural Diversity

a discussion board for cultural and diversity issues by Thomas Kochman and Jean Mavrelis

U.S. Census in Mexican American Border Towns

By Andrea-Teresa "Tess" Arenas - 04.09.2010

Latinos, are the fastest growing ethnic group in the US. For the past 5 decades the Latino population has nearly doubled every census. Many of them live in colonias, which are small to medium sized, quasi urban, Mexican American communities found predominately along the US-Mexico Border.

Counter to common belief, 95% of the colonia residents are US citizens. Homes are often “self help” housing, which means the owners build the home room by room, as funding allows. Some homes are in perpetual expansion with half incomplete rooms sprouting on the second floors of concrete block structures.

These home owners are hard working, very low income people, who using their self taught construction skills, carve out a new home in a development or in vacant areas. Many of these colonias lack running water and sewer systems. Some connect their electricity from lines running overhead.

Relationships in the colonias are also built person by person, much like the concrete blocks of homes. Each person is added to the family circle through repeated positive interactions, connections through other family members, attending local churches, and “supermercados” (large local grocery stores.)

Extended family members are actually long standing commadres and compadres (best friends), god parents, favorite teachers, who have been added to the family circle as valued, trustworthy, and reliable members of the clan.

Border town colonia residents in the US are in danger of not being appropriately counted in the 2010 Census, according to local census contractors in Brownsville, Texas.

This past week, the US Census Bureau clarified that residents of colonials will be canvassed door to door rather than mailing census forms to the residents. This process was used in the 2000 Census.

Local activists had been conducting outreach to build momentum to complete mailed US Census forms.

After weeks of work by locally recognized and respected colonia community members, these dedicated people were told that their outreach message of completing the mailed form must change to “watch for a door to door visit.”

However, the staffers who will be going door to door are not community members.

One consequence of this is to put the known community members (who have been conducting colonia outreach to prepare for completing the mailed forms) in a vulnerable position; their authenticity and credibility is now in question.

Another consequence of using staffers unknown to the community will be its effect on the census itself.

Strangers approaching homes unannounced is a cultural formula slated for disaster.

The favorite form of security in colonias is a metal fence and a large loud dog. Census workers are being advised to use their own judgment about entering a yard. You can imagine the number of homes that will not be approached.

This cultural mistake of using outsiders to conduct the door-to-door census, especially when trusted community insiders are ready and available, may well lead to fewer elected official positions, less fiscal resources, and reduced community services because of an under count of the U.S. colonia population.

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