Hispanics urged to support census

Rally focuses on need to get accurate count

March 04, 2000|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Gilberto Diaz lives in fear of being deported. The Salvadoran native doesn't have a green card but works 12 hours a day, six days a week at a pizzeria in a mall.

"It's scary and it's a difficult way to live," said Diaz, who fled El Salvador in 1987 because of a bloody civil war.

There's no tally of how many people like Diaz live in Maryland, yet there's no question the number is swelling.

These undocumented workers don't leave a paper trail, don't trust the government, don't speak English, don't want to be counted. But now that Census 2000 is here, the Census Bureau is trying to find them by April 1 and persuade them to send back their census forms.

To drum up support for the census, the grass-roots Baltimore Hispanic Task Force for Census 2000 is holding a "Hagase Contar" (Make Yourself Count) rally from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. today at Broadway and Bank Street in Fells Point. There will be music, face painting, prizes and lots of information about the census.

Across the country, the Census Bureau is spending more than $19.5 million to send the "hagase contar" message to Hispanics via billboards, television, radio and print.

The aim is to get a snapshot of where every person in the United States is living on April 1.

Hispanics, according to census officials and Hispanic activists, are one of the most undercounted groups in the nation -- mostly due to the large number of undocumented workers, coupled with a general distrust of government.

Angelo Solera, Hispanic liaison for Baltimore Health Care Access Inc., a bureau of the city Health Department, said the census sends Hispanics, especially undocumented ones, a mixed message.

"You're telling them, `You're undocumented, illegal, but it's OK, trust us, stand up and be counted,' " Solera said.

Information collected by the Census Bureau determines how many seats each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives and how $180 billion in federal money will be distributed.

The Census Bureau doesn't share data with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the FBI or the Internal Revenue Service.

"That is a hard message to get out," said Jennifer Marks, who heads the Census 2000 publicity office. "Why would they distinguish between one branch of government and another? To them, government is a monolith. But that's not the case with the census. Confidentiality is protected by law."

Hispanic trust of government deteriorated even further in Baltimore in 1998, when a uniformed police officer robbed three Hispanic immigrants of several hundred dollars in Fells Point. The officer was found guilty of misdemeanor theft and misconduct and sentenced to six months in jail.

"Latinos are intimidated by the government and the law. Look how they treat us,"' said Jose Sanchez, 36, a native of Puerto Rico who works in construction and is a U.S. citizen. "Many Latinos don't know their rights, and they don't know how to express themselves. They go into any government office, and they get kicked to the side if they don't speak English."

Some immigrants don't know they're supposed to participate.

"I'm a citizen," said Jose Guzman Sr., owner of El Rancho restaurant on Fleet Street. "I thought they already know I'm here. I didn't know I had to fill out the form."

Diaz said most of the people in his Baltimore social circle are undocumented and will not take part in the census.

But he says he will.

"I will answer just so the government knows I'm here and I need help," Diaz said.

In 1990, the Census Bureau says, it missed almost 8.4 million people nationwide, the majority of whom were children, the poor and minorities. The census reports missing 5 percent of all Hispanics.

In 1990, the bureau counted 7,600 Hispanics in Baltimore out of a total population of 736,014. By 1998, Baltimore's population had fallen to 645,593, while the number of Hispanics went up to 8,400.

But Solera and other activists put the number of Hispanics at closer to 40,000 or 50,000.

"They don't have a clue where the Hispanic community is," Solera said. "It's a joke."

The biggest concentration is in Fells Point, where Latin American groceries, restaurants and dance clubs dominate the area near Broadway and Eastern Avenue.

But Hispanics live all over Baltimore and Maryland. Their number includes many farm workers on the Eastern Shore.

In 1990, the census counted 125,093 Hispanics in Maryland. By 1998, the estimate jumped to 188,278.

This month, in its effort to find every person in the country, the Census Bureau will mail letters to every home saying that census forms are en route. By the middle of the month, the forms should arrive, and by late March, letters will be sent reminding people to return their forms by April 1, Census Day.

The agency plans to dispatch 860,000 temporary workers to visit people who do not return the forms. They are expected to knock on 40 million doors.

"In this community, 80 percent of Latinos ain't gonna answer," said Solera. "You can knock and knock on the door all you want. They're not going to open up."

Thus, census representatives and activists are trying to reach Hispanics through places that have established trust in the community: schools, churches, restaurants, markets.

"There's been an undercount for a long, long time," said Jose Ruiz, founder and director of Education Based Latino Outreach. "Now it's up to us, community-based organizations, to take people by the hands and say, `This is what we're going to do.' "

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