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On a rainy day, final push for census in Central Falls

A rainy Saturday morning did not stop the Rhode Island Latino Complete Count Committee from going out, door to door, on April 17 to encourage Central Falls residents to fill out the census forms.

"It was the last chance, the last day, to fill out the census," said Marta Martinez, the Latina partnership specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau in Rhode Island who called the event "a community effort."

The organizers came from various community organizations including Progreso Latino, Fuerza Laboral and the International Institute. Students from Providence College and Brown also participated.

The "Census Marathon" took place at Jenks Park in Central Falls, one of the Census Bureau's "hard-to-count" cities. In the 2000 census, only 47 percent of the city participated, compared to Rhode Island's 79 percent return rate, according to Census Bureau data.

This year's census slogan, "¡Si no nos cuentan, no contamos!" — If they don't count us, we don't count! — expresses the opinion of many community organizers in Central Falls.

The low census return rate in 2000, said Martinez, meant that the federal government underestimated the level of need in Central Falls.

Census results determine the distribution of $400 billion in federal aid — money that funds programs for children and the elderly as well as infrastructure projects, according to census data. This is especially important for Central Falls, which is the most densely populated and the poorest city in Rhode Island.

With a population of almost 19,000, Central Falls' poverty rate is almost double that of Rhode Island. Twenty-nine percent of individuals live below the poverty line.

Volunteers met Saturday in the Progreso Latino building to gather census forms and census "swag" — hats, bags and pencils — before canvassing the one-square-mile community, wrote participant Blanca Begert '12 in an e-mail to The Herald.

Progreso Latino, a Central Falls community organization, has been aiding the Census 2010 campaign since this winter, said Mario Bueno, executive director of the organization.

The Complete Count campaign in Rhode Island, Begert wrote, "is one of hundreds or thousands of Complete Count Committees across the country." Their campaign began last April and culminated on Saturday with the Census Marathon.

"The census overall," Bueno said, "put a lot of attention to the message and got it out."
Martinez also pointed to this confusion about race as well as concerns about immigration status as the two most frequently cited reasons why residents had not filled out the forms.

"Most of the people who live in Central Falls," said Martinez, "are very recent immigrants. They're not used to being categorized by race."

Most Latinos do not identify themselves racially as either white or black, and when pressured to choose one, "most people want to be white," Martinez said.

The committee suggested that those who identify as Latino check the "some other race" box and write in their nationality, said Martinez.

"I am Mexican in origin," said Martinez explaining her support for the suggested response, "and I consider myself neither black nor white."

The primacy of nationality also caused confusion with the question of ethnicity.

"People aren't used to it … all of a sudden going from Puerto Rican, Guatemalan (or) Colombian to Hispanic," said Martinez.

Language was another area of focus for the Marathon's organizers and volunteers. This year's census was made available in six different languages.

But these efforts did not always reach the communities in need.

"Some hadn't even heard of it," Begert wrote. "One family hadn't filled out the form because the parents didn't speak English. Once we gave them the Spanish form, they could fill it out and give it back to us."

Language accessibility is especially relevant in Central Falls, where 67 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home, compared to less than 18 percent nationally, according to census data from 2000. State education data for the 2007-08 school year shows that 70 percent of students in the Central Falls school district are Latino.

Concerns surrounding immigration are another reason for low response rates, Martinez said. Although the census does not ask about immigration status, the committee focused on targeting fears about documentation during their campaign.

One of the committee's goals is to "actively oppose negative messages and campaigns that set out to frighten undocumented individuals," according to its Web site.
Martinez believes changes to the 2000 census have yielded the desired response rates.

The return rates so far, said Martinez, are 79 percent for all of Rhode Island, and 59 percent for Central Falls.

"I'm very grateful," said Martinez, "gratefully surprised."




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