March 8, 2011 | The Lufkin Daily News | Original Article

Census data, anecdotal evidence point to a significant increase in Hispanic population across Angelina County

Leaders in the local Hispanic community have said for years that the 2000 Census grossly undercounted the number of Hispanic and Latino residents in Angelina County, so a new Complete Count Committee in 2009 set out to improve the participation rate of those families.

When 2010 Census results were released a couple weeks ago, indicating the number of Hispanics in Angelina County had risen by nearly 50 percent, it raised the question: Has our Hispanic population really increased so much, or did the committee’s efforts reveal a large number of families who simply didn’t fill out the Census questionnaire in 2000?

“I think it’s a combination of both: Hispanics have a high birth rate, plus the effort that the committee did to round them up,” said Ino Reyes, who operates the Lufkin-based La Lengua newspaper and was a member of the Complete Count Committee.

The latest Census form was simple, with just 10 questions, so the data alone will not reveal the breakdown of the new Hispanics in Angelina County compared to the number who were just counted for the first time. Yet the numbers, along with interviews with local officials and Hispanic residents, reveal some truths:

■ The Hispanic population has risen by double (or triple) digits in every corner of Angelina County.

■ Local industrial layoffs have led to many Hispanic families starting their own businesses here.

■ Hundreds of people — including, in particular, the county’s educators — helped the Complete Count Committee target the Hispanic population in the days leading up to the 2010 population count.

The county recorded a 49.1 percent growth rate in its Hispanic population between 2000 and 2010, in comparison with a 10.5 percent gain in black residents and a 1.3 percent drop in the number of non-Hispanic whites. Four of the county’s 17 Census tracts showed Hispanic growth of more than 100 percent; the biggest numeric increase was in northeast Lufkin, which saw its Hispanic population go from 1,658 to 2,775 — a 67.4 percent increase.

Altogether, according to the new Census data, Angelina County in 2010 had 17,145 Hispanic residents, which was 5,660 more than were counted here in 2000.

Hispanic culture

Jesus Gomez, associate principal at Lufkin Middle School, started working for the Lufkin school district 15 years ago, when roughly 22 percent of the district’s student population was Hispanic. Now, he said, that number is 38 percent.

“What I’ve noticed the last 10 years is our number of recent arrivals have really decreased and we’re getting more of second- and third-generation kids in our schools,” said Gomez, who’s in his fifth year at the middle school. “And the educational gaps have decreased: Our Hispanics are really doing well in all areas of the TAKS test.”

Hispanic families typically are large ones, said Reyes, who is the oldest of 12 siblings. Nowadays, he said, families typically have between three and five kids, making their households much bigger than the national average of a little more than two-and-a-half people per dwelling. And while the close-knit families are a good thing, their size often discourages Hispanics from completing the Census form, Reyes said.

“If one Hispanic family buys a house and fixes it, it doesn’t mean it’s the only family living there,” he said. “There may be a large family or up to three families sharing that household. When the Census comes, the fear that the landlord is going to find out there’s more than one family living there would encourage them not to fill out the Census questionnaire.”

Every section of Angelina County has seen significant Hispanic growth in the past decade, based on the number of families who did respond to the 2010 Census, but the four areas in which the Hispanic population more than doubled were North Lufkin, Southwest Lufkin, east of Lufkin and a large area west of Huntington.

“When you drive around and see people refurbishing a property, those are areas that nobody else probably wanted to live in,” Reyes said. “It just makes sense that those areas are being repopulated with Hispanics. If you watch a lot of the crews that are working, they’re Hispanic. They can do it themselves, or have a cousin or brother-in-law or someone that can, so they’re going to buy there.

“I think, for the city, it’s good because you’re not going to have an area like the Fifth Ward in Houston that went down because nobody wanted to live there. I think Hispanics are filling in that vacuum.”

County Judge Wes Suiter said he remembers reading 15 years ago in the San Antonio Express-News that the Hispanic population in that city had topped 51 percent, and that someone in the story had questioned the point at which the minority became the majority.

“I think we’re seeing that (here),” he said. “With the issues over in Mexico, more and more people are coming here to better their lives and their families’ lives.”

And yet, he said, he was initially surprised at Angelina’s 49.1 percent Hispanic growth rate in the past decade.

“That’s a large number,” Suiter said. “Prior to the Census, I would have thought we maybe had a reduction in the Hispanics, just because of the jobs — because of the foundry and the paper mill, with all the industry that’s been cut back on. That’s just an amazing increase.”

Instead, Reyes said, Hispanic families with no place else to go have begun doing work on their own, as roofers or construction workers or as small business owners.

“They didn’t necessarily leave when they got laid off by industry,” he said. “They just had to find another way of making a living.”

Maria Escalera is one Lufkin resident who has gone out on her own. Last year she opened Arely’s Cakes & Arrangements on Chestnut Street, near the Lufkin Lanes bowling alley. The shop offers custom cakes with intricate designs, along with frosted cookies and other treats. Escalera believes it is the only Hispanic-owned cake business in town.

“That was something I wanted to do — like a dream,” she said.

Escalera came from Mexico to Los Angeles in 1990 and has been in Lufkin since 1993. She has three kids, lives inside the city limits and has her green card. She said Lufkin offers a lot of employment opportunities — in its restaurants on the south loop, for example — to Hispanics.

“I see Lufkin as a great opportunity for everybody — especially for Hispanic people,” she said.

Complete effort

Trent Ashby, co-chair of Angelina County’s Complete Count Committee, said the group relied heavily on its Latino members to develop a campaign to encourage Hispanic residents’ participation in the 2010 Census.

“One of the first things placed on the committee was the extreme importance the Hispanic culture places on family,” he said, “so accordingly the recommendation was that we should target our school children and educate them on the history of the Census, and why it is important to both them and their family.”

History and social studies teachers incorporated the Census into their lesson plans, and campuses had Census quiz contests.

“The main thing, though, was that literature was sent home with these kids to their parents,” Ashby said. “In many cases, these children were the advocates for completing this questionnaire. The school districts played an essential role in engaging all our children, but especially the Hispanic children.”

A second strategy, he said, was getting the county’s Hispanic leaders themselves to pound the pavement. There were 25 members of the Complete Count Committee and hundreds more who served on sub-committees, he said. Many of them are Spanish-speaking, and the committee sent that group out to do public service announcements on television and Spanish-speaking radio stations, and to write encouraging words in the La Lengua newspaper.

“As we all know, when you hear from someone that you know or trust about an issue, it brings a whole new perspective to it,” Ashby said.

Gomez, who said he was in the retail business before a desire to work with kids and get into education led him to the Lufkin school district, was one of the ones who got out and campaigned for the Census. He said he visited Hispanic businesses up and down North Raguet Street — including La Unica, a Mexican restaurant that has been in operation in Lufkin for decades.

His message, he said, was how important the Census is to the community, and that those who are in the country illegally would not have to fear repercussions from immigration officials because of their participation.

Gomez, for one, believes the effort had a lot to do with the Census results that show Angelina County’s Hispanic population rising so quickly.

“I think we did a good job with getting the word out and the forms turned back in,” he said.

What happens next

Suiter says he believes Angelina County will become home to even more people who flee Mexico. Reyes said those who have already come, but weren’t counted because of their fear of being deported, will remain in the shadows until the national climate changes.

“The future is going to depend on immigration reform,” he said. “Is (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) going to get tougher with deportations, or is there going to be some sort of legalization opportunity?”

As it is now, he said, states like Arizona are taking the law into their own hands.

“I don’t blame the government. I don’t blame Obama,” Reyes said. “It’s a politician’s playfield. It’s Democrats and Republicans not looking at it the same way. There’s two different philosophies, and that’s why immigration is not happening. They’re just throwing the ball back and forth, and not really helping each other.”

Exactly how many illegal immigrants live in Lufkin and Angelina County remains a mystery.

“That’s the million-dollar question, because the Census doesn’t care,” Reyes said. “In my opinion, that’s why we had more results, because we hammered that fact to them: ‘Look, the Census doesn’t care. You just need to be counted as a race, legal or illegal.’”

Based solely on the 2010 Census results, Lufkin’s population is now 24.1 percent Hispanic, up from 17.6 percent in 2000. Based on that trend, the city should reasonably expect to see more Latinos involved in politics. By and large, that hasn’t happened yet.

“We’ve been encouraging people to get involved in boards and city councils and all that, but I don’t think they’re ready,” Reyes said. “Most politicians are going to have a way of making a living, where they can take care of their household and participate in politics, but Hispanics don’t. They have to work all the time to make a living.”

Reyes did say he believes it’s necessary for Hispanics to have more representation in areas where they make up a significant percentage of the population. Suiter agreed.

“It’s a different culture. People say, ‘When you move here, you need to adapt to our way of life.’ That’s not necessarily ever going to happen,” he said. “I do see a need there. They deserve representation.”