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2020 Census: Doing Our Part

Updated: Apr 7, 2020

April 1, 2020, was Census Day, the official beginning of the decennial count. Our nation has been conducting a census for 230 years, it was first done in1790. Every ten years, an effort is made to count every person living in the United States. If you haven’t yet completed your online form, there's still time to do so, but don't put it off. It’s more important than ever, that everyone is counted.

There are many unknowns as to how the census will be conducted in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. For all us of fortunate enough to have computers and internet access, the task is simple. Log on to the official website and complete the form for yourself and your household. Everyone should have received information by mail, providing what you need to complete your census forms. Even if you have misplaced that piece of mail or never got it, it’s easy enough. Here is one of many interesting articles with useful how-to information:

I completed the forms for our family the first week that Northern California’s six Bay Area Counties were Shelter In Place. I decided that each day I would have at least one tangible task completed. Answering the census questions is straight-forward.

Is Irma D Herrera of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish ancestry?

That’s simple enough to answer but it also got me to reflect on the names and labels adopted by and or assigned to different groups, neutral and derogatory. Think for a minute of the racial slurs you know. YES, all of them, for our own groups, and for others. There’s a scene in my play where I list all many names I've heard white people call Mexican-Americans. When I first say beaners – there’s often a few laughs, and as I add other names -- cucarachas, greasers -- the discomfort is palpable, and the audience grows very silent. I’ll spare you the full litany of names. If you saw my play you have experienced this for yourself.

If you are interested in learning more about racial slurs and their known (or likely derivation) look no further, click here for The Racial Slurs Data Base. It is extremely eye-opening to read these obnoxious and odious terms, many of which were unfamiliar to me. There is even an alphabetical listing to make it easier to look up slurs directed at particular groups. Although called “racial” many of the slurs are specific to people from countries of origin whose populations are recognized as whites in this country.

Back to the census. My friend Bill from San Antonio called last week: “I’m filling out my census form and I’m stumped. The Hispanic Origin question, that was easy. But the race question, how did you answer that?”

I tell Bill that I think it’s the first time the Census has included the word Chicano as a designation for people of Mexican origin, and since I strongly identify as Chicana, I gladly checked that option.

If I’m wrong, and Chicano has appeared before, one of you dear readers will let me know.

The Census form notes that

For this census, Hispanic origins are not races. Hispanic origin can be viewed as the heritage, nationality, lineage, or country of birth of the person or the person’s parents or ancestors before arriving in the United States. People who identify as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be ANY race (CAPS added by me).

I hear a sheepish and tentative quality in Bill’s voice: “for race, did you check white?”

“I did,” I tell him, “for the first time, usually I just put other. But this time I checked all the appropriate boxes, White, Native and Other. “

And in the area that allows further explanation for “Other,” I noted that most Chicanos are a mix of people with ancestry in the Iberian Peninsula who colonized the Americas and who mixed, usually by force, with indigenous folks whom they subjugated. As I’m typing away it feels somewhat silly, as I imagine a computer simply looking for buzz words, and here I am writing a brief discourse on colonization.

Hispanic, Hispano, Latino, Latina, Latinx, aargh, which one to use? Latinx seeks to be the all inclusive gender-neutral identifier for anyone whose ethnic background has roots in Latin America. Some embrace Latinx with great zeal, even to the point of expressing hostility to those who reject the use of the term for themselves or generally. There have been heated exchanges on social media and at universities, often as it relates to the naming or renaming of ethnic studies programs. Should Chicano Studies call itself Latinx Studies? While the use of Latinx is popular among academics and the younger well-educated, particularly in college campuses, it is not the term that most of us gravitate towards. Maybe someday it will be, pero quien sabe?

I felt that way about the term “Hispanic,” and I remember the very moment I saw it so clearly. I was at a conference and a keynote speaker, a woman about my age, made the following statement: “As my Hispanic grandmother used to say . . . “

I had never met a Hispanic grandmother. Our abuelas were Mejicanas, Puerto Riquenas, Guatemaltecas or Cubanas – they were not Hispanics.

The vast majority of Hispanos, Latinos, Latinx people typically have a strong identification with their family’s country of origin, no matter how far removed we have been from nuestros paises. I don’t love the term, Latinx, but I do find myself using it, as a shortcut to refer all mi gente, nuestra Raza, you know who you are. Yes, those of us who checked the box that asked if you or Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish ancestry.

Once, a group of us were having lunch together in the conference room in our office when our co-worker, an African American colleague asked, “what do you people want to be called?” I know the “you people” sounds jarring, but in the context of our lunchtime conversation, it was not. Several of us were of Latinx origin (although the word Latinx was not yet in use). I suggested we answer her question by going around the room and letting everyone say how they identified. One said Colombiana, another Latina, one Mejicana, and I said Chicana. All of us were United States citizens and only one, the Colombian, was actually born in her country of origin and had become a naturalized United States citizen.

Plenty of folks, particularly those in urban areas in California, NY, Illinois, Florida, Texas have parents with roots in different Latin American countries. I have friends with one parent who is Guatemalan and another Salvadoreño. A native-born Chicana marries a Puerto Rican or Ecuadoran or a Cuban. So the “what are you?” question (which you really shouldn’t ask) may not yield an easy answer.

I am often told by friends who aren’t of the Hispanic persuasion that they feel insecure about which term to use when referring to my group and that they don’t want to offend. What term should they use? I feel for them. I find that many Texas family and friends are likelier to use Hispanic and that Californians prefer the term Latino. Not surprising given that so many people fled the civil wars in Central and Latin America in the Seventies and Eighties and gravitated to urban areas in California. Tejas and California are the two states with which I have closest ties.

I’d be interested in hearing from Raza who live elsewhere, East Coast, Mid-West, the South? as to the term you prefer and wish that others would use when referring to our communities.

The only guidance I can offer to those of you who aren't sure which term to use: Latino, Hispanic, Latinx, is to be open to the possibility that someone will tell you they prefer a different term. One of the reasons I love the term Raza which simply means our people rather than the literal “race” is that many of us immediately feel the warmth and kinship upon hearing that word. Raza encompasses all people who have roots in Spanish speaking countries and cultures.

Latinos are from all racial groups and we are often of mixed racial ancestry We are blond and blue-eyed, indigenous and Asian in appearance. And some of us are Afro Latinos. We come in every shade and hue and our physical characteristics resemble the world. There are two paintings in our home, on opposite walls in our living room. The two girls piece we bought in Antigua, Guatemala, and the older woman is a painting we purchased in Chongqing, China. I think of the older Chinese woman as their abuelita, they look like family, yet they were painted by local artists from totally different parts of the world.

Bill and I ended our Census 2020 conversation by comparing notes about our DNA results from the likes of 23 and Me and Our findings were quite similar. Mine was 42% Spain, 40% Indigenous American from Northern Mexico and South Texas, 3% European Jewish and 1-2% from places as diverse as Senegal, Turkey, Northern Europe, Ireland, Scotland, and Nigeria.

The interesting thing about genetic testing and what I see in the two paintings in my home is that the history of migration and globalization is tens of thousands of years old. People have been coming and going as a result of famine and floods, wars and political upheaval, religious persecution and a desire to seek new fortunes. No matter that borders change and walls are built and torn down, globalization will continue.

The Covid-19 pandemic is teaching us the importance of hard data. It is critical for us to know the number of people who live in our cities and counties, and in our state. Who are these folks, how old are they, what type of housing do they live in? Who is unsheltered, how many people are living in our jails, prisons and detention centers. The answers to these and other questions in the Census. And the Census determines the resources allocated for all types of services: schools, free lunch programs, fire and police, hospitals, community clinics. The Census data on race, reveals the racial disparities and access to services and outcomes.

We are now seeing through this pandemic that these are matters of life and death. The filling out a form may seem unimportant at this moment, given the major disruptions and extreme hardships so many are facing. But our answers determine how electoral districts are drawn, how and if our voting rights are protected, and who gets elected and appoints federal judges and so much more. I am counting on YOU to complete your form. Please, everybody, let's all do our part.

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