February 8, 2010 | Sacramento Bee | Original Article

Capital-area activists seek full census count of Franklin Boulevard's Latinos

North Franklin Boulevard – Sacramento's burgeoning Latino business district – is on the front lines of the 2010 census campaign here.

Local activists are working hard to get everyone counted: immigrants and American-born, those with papers and those without, those with homes and those on the move.

At stake are billions in federal dollars for roads, housing, schools and senior centers – about $1,700 a year for every person counted – and the shape of future political districts.

"It's about justice, power and money," said U.S. Census Information Services Specialist Linda Clark.

More than 13,000 Sacramentans weren't counted in 2000, either because they didn't want to be or because census takers missed them.

Among the uncounted was Rogelio Salazar, a landscaper who'd been in the United States for only two years.

"I didn't participate because I was living with another family," said Salazar, 30, near the carnitas counter at the Esperanza Market on Franklin. "This year, I will."

Several workers sipping steamy cups of champurrado – Mexican chocolate – raised their eyebrows suspiciously at "el censo."

"I won't fill it out because I don't have papers," said a mother of five who's been here eight years and asked not to be identified because she fears deportation.

The census promises confidentiality regardless of immigration status.

Miguel Ramirez, a cementero (concrete worker) in a beige New York cap, said he might fill out the census form if he's still here when they are mailed in March.

"I've been here nine years, but I come and go back to Chiapas for four to five months at a time," said Ramirez, 41.

About half of the estimated 210,000 Mexican immigrants in the county are undocumented, estimates Sacramento's Mexican consul general, Carlos González-Gutiérrez.

"We need to overcome the natural distrust of undocumented people to stand up and be counted," said González-Gutiérrez, whose office has distributed 5,000 census leaflets in Spanish.

"Our job is to empower these people," he said. "It's a population we have to make less invisible, and raise the volume of their voices at least through the census."

In 2000, many farm workers at rural camps were missed, González-Gutiérrez said. "It's crucial to identify them."

The U.S. Census Bureau – charged with counting everyone – doesn't ask a person's immigration status.

But old fears and government mistrust die hard, said Jose Sanchez, manager of the pink T-Mobile store at Franklin Boulevard and Fruitridge Road.

Sanchez, 27, said he was born in the United States, but his parents – who went back to Mexico when he was a baby – have never filled out census forms.

"My dad was a legal resident but my mom had a temporary visa," Sanchez said. "She was picked up at a bakery and asked for her papers. She said, 'What papers?' We stayed in Mexico for three or four years."

Now, even though his parents have legal status and his mom's a U.S. citizen, he said, "My dad won't even answer the door if he sees a guy in a suit who looks like a government official."

"Many immigrants remember Mexico as very corrupt and remain as cautious here as they were there," Sanchez said.

American-born sales clerk Dolores Cortez said she tells her undocumented relatives: "If it comes from the government, don't sign it."

In March, bilingual questionnaires will be sent to 13 million addresses in census tracts with more than 40 percent Spanish-speaking households, said census media specialist D'Anne Ousley.

All households that don't mail back their forms by April 6 will get replacements. If that still doesn't work, census takers will go to those addresses.

Only 55 percent of Sacramento city households mailed back their forms in 2000, compared with 70 percent statewide.

Along Franklin – known as "Barrio Alegre," or 'Happy 'Hood" – the census "is a double-faced card," said Maria Valenzuela, 28, who came from Jalisco in 2004.

Many established immigrants say the more Latinos who are counted, the more businesses will open here, as T-Mobile did.

Xochitl Chavez of Xochitl Beauty Salon was born in Nayarit and remembers working in the fields on both sides of the border when she was 4. "My four kids were born here, and I want to see some of my people in the White House," she said, equating a full count to political power.

The new census data will go to the governors of each state by April 2011. "Then they will redraw their congressional, legislative and local voting districts – there's a lot of power in numbers," said Clark, the census information specialist. "A concentration of a minority population can't be diluted by drawing a line through it."

While the U.S. census estimates less than 2 percent of Sacramento County went uncounted in 2000, local activists fear the number was much higher. Eight months ago, they created the 100-member Latino Complete Count Committee.

"When we have an undercount, we lose millions in federal aid," said co-founder Gustavo Arroyo, noting more than $400 billion annually is distributed nationwide based on census data.

Some of that goes to the Sacramento City Unified School District, where 78 percent of the 46,000 students – a third of them Latino – are poor enough to get free or reduced-price lunches, said Arroyo, a district board member.

The census will start hiring about 3,000 census takers for Sacramento and Elk Grove in April. Arroyo fears "they aren't going to be from the hard-to-count neighborhoods outsiders will have a tough time penetrating."

By hiring people from the hard-to-count communities, he said, "Not only do you have a higher count, but you're bringing jobs and income."

The committee, which includes the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, is reaching out to churches, nonprofits, clinics and media to get the word out.

"Our message is: 'It's time to be counted – can we count on you?' " said committee chairwoman Diana Rodriguez. "The data will help us plan for the next 10 years and beyond – what services we need, where businesses can grow, and who we are as a people."

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