For most people, describing themselves on the U.S. Census form will be as easy as checking a box: White. Black. American Indian.
But it’s not so simple for indigenous immigrants–the Native Americans of Mexico and Central America. They often need more than one box because their ancestry can cover multiple Census categories, and they must also overcome a significant language barrier and a mistrust of government.
The Census Bureau wants to change that in the 2010 count as it tallies immigrant indigenous groups for the first time ever, hoping to get a more complete snapshot of a growing segment of the immigrant population.
In the 2010 Census, the bureau will tabulate handwritten entries specifying that the respondent belongs to a Central American indigenous group such Maya, Nahua, Mixtec, or Purepecha. The list of different populations that end up being counted will be made public when results are released in 2011, said Michele Lowe, spokeswoman for the Census Bureau.
An accurate count is important to the indigenous groups themselves, and to the federal government, which allocates resources to state and local government according to the results.
The U.S. Department of Labor estimates indigenous migrants make up about 17 percent of the country’s farm workers, and may represent up to 30 percent of California’s farm worker population. Florida also has a large indigenous immigrant population.
Indigenous organizations are independently working within their own communities to dispel apprehension and encourage participation in the federal survey. They speak many different languages, making a single educational campaign impossible. Some speak Spanish; some not at all.
Many have encountered discrimination in their home countries because of their indigenous origin, and in this country for their immigrant status. All this makes them less likely to volunteer sensitive personal information to a government agency.
“We want to be counted as we are–as Mixtecos, Zapotecos, Triques,” said Rufino Dominguez, executive director of the organization [Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities]. “It’s important so everyone knows we are here, and that there are many of us.”
Question 8 asks whether they consider themselves to be “of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin.” The next question asks their race. The Census recommends indigenous immigrants from Latin America choose “American Indian or Alaska Native” as their race, then write in the name of their community.