MICOP: The importance of getting indigenous voices heard in the census

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By Gabriela Miranda

Veronica Hernandez, who identifies as an indigenous woman, is a widowed mother of four. Through the lack of resources, representation and language barriers, Hernandez said the U.S. Census is vital to the indigenous community in Oxnard.

“When I speak to indigenous communities about why we should fill out the census, I tell them we do it for our kids,” Hernandez said. “This is for our kids.”

Veronica Hernandez Farmorker Census Outreach Worker in Oxnard.

Hernandez works as a community organizer and U.S. Census promoter for Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project. MICOP works to unify indigenous leaders and communities in Ventura County and provide outreach and support where needed. 

The majority indigenous staff at MICOP also build educational and training programs as well as health outreach and language interpretation. The organization estimates that there are at least and most likely more than 20,000 indigenous individuals in Oxnard—MICOP is asking the entire population to participate in this year’s U.S. Census.

Once, every decade, the U.S. Census data is collected and processed, the number of people in a city, including their age and demographic information is used to allocate money for that particular city. Those federal funds can used for programs like Medicaid, school lunches or education. 

The data is also used to determine the number of seats each state has in the House of Representatives and to draw congressional and state legislative districts.

“In 2010, 20,000 indigenous individuals were accounted for in Ventura County, we haven’t had an updated count since then,” Victor Espinosa, MICOP outreach director, said to Vida Newspaper. “The Census can help us gain political representation and so much more.”

Espinosa said the Census will help define the amount of funding, libraries, schools, housing and hospitals the already underserved indigenous community receives.

“We’re already underserved and kind of invisible. Many of our community are undocumented and can’t vote but we can all participate in the Census,” Espinosa said. “This will determine the future of our communities.” 

Prior to the pandemic, Espinosa and the MICOP outreach team brought coffee, food and Census information to farm workers at their worksite. Now, they’ve switched to remote outreach, via Facebook Live events or mobile questionnaires. The outreach team also travels to communities with a low response rate and educates them on how and why to fill out the Census. 

The U.S. Census is not available in several indigenous languages such as Zapotec, Mixtec or Purepecha. This poses a unique challenge for the communities—the MICOP outreach serves as interpreters and translates each part of the Census for families who don’t speak Spanish or English.

Although the Census is important to the population, it comes with risks and challenges for indigenous and undocumented individuals, Hernandez said. When communicating directly with families, Hernandez found many fear their personal information will be shared with the police or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and result in their deportation or arrest.

“There’s so much fear toward the federal government, the families want to fill out the Census and get better resources but they also are scared their information will be used to take them away from their family,” Hernandez said.  She reassures the families the information is confidential and tells them they have the option to only refer to themselves as “person 1” instead of giving their full name.

In 2019, the Trump administration attempted to add a question on the Census regarding an individual’s citizenship status. Although the effort was blocked, Espinosa said the thought and possible repercussions of this question created fear within the indigenous community.

With this fear, many in the community are accustomed to ignore a knock on their door however MICOP has attempted to train and inform families on how to identify a Census worker from an ICE worker. 

Jesus Noyola Census Outreach Worker.

Espinosa said another challenge with completing the Census is the lifestyle of farm workers since most tend to migrate from job to job and don’t obtain a stable home address. In other cases, indigenous communities don’t have access to stable internet service which limits the remote outreach MICOP can provide.

Despite the challenges posed for indigenous communities, Hernandez emphasized how important this year’s count is. In terms of basic resource and economics, she said the community is in “great need” and the Census is the start to finding solutions.

On the Census, the question is asked about Hispanic or Latino origin and about race. Here is where indigenous individuals can select or write in how they identify—Espinosa said this is key to having the indigenous voice heard.

“For ten years we’ve been preparing for this moment, for the indigenous, Latinx community to be heard, this is our time to be seen and get the resources we deserve,” Hernandez said.

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