Why I Count: Reaching Huntsville’s Hispanic/Latino community

By Lucy Berry DeButy

Editor’s note: This 2020 Census piece is the first in a four-part series exploring historically hard-to-reach populations in Huntsville.

Vanessa Leon has been part owner at Charrito’s Bar & Grill in Huntsville for a decade.

As a Honduras native and mother of three, Leon understands how quality roads, schools, clinics and services for families, older adults and children help her business and community thrive.

That’s why she’ll be filling out the 2020 Census this year and encouraging others to do so as well.

“The Census is important because we all need to be accounted for,” she said. “When we answer the Census, it’s for better schools, hospitals, jobs. The more of us that are accounted for – the better. We all benefit from it.”

What is the 2020 Census?

Every 10 years, the Census counts the population in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Island Areas. Required by law to participate, each home will receive an invitation starting in March to respond online, by phone or by mail.

The form takes just 10 minutes to fill out but will have 10 years of impact on shaping the future. Over the next decade, lawmakers, business owners and others will use the data to make critical decisions impacting local schools, roads, facilities and programs like Pell grants, food stamps and the National School Lunch Program.

It will also affect local redistricting of elected City Council and School Board offices in addition to how many seats represent the State of Alabama in the U.S. Congress.

Despite the importance of the 2020 Census, the Hispanic/Latino population has historically been a “low count” area for the City of Huntsville. Hispanic Latino Advisory Committee leader Ramon Santiago hopes to change that this year.

“Recreational centers, Head Start centers, clinics, school programs will be depending on this, so participation is critical,” the Puerto Rico native said.

 Why are they undercounted?

Those of Hispanic and Latino ethnicity account for approximately seven percent of the total Huntsville population, or 14,000 people, according to City Planner James Vandiver. The historical population center of this demographic is southwest Huntsville, but the City has seen increases in north Huntsville neighborhoods such as Edmonton Heights and Rolling Hills.

One of the big concerns some Hispanics have about filling out the Census is privacy, Santiago said.

Bound by Title 13 of the U.S. code, the Census Bureau must keep all 2020 Census answers confidential. But, many undocumented residents are still afraid to participate.

Although the Census does request the number, race, age and sex of each member of a household, it does not include any questions about citizenship. The federal agency cannot legally share any information with Immigrations Custom Enforcement (ICE), police or the FBI.

Former Census worker Rosa Toussaint said there are deep concerns about immigration status within the local Hispanic community, despite efforts to promote privacy.

“We all want the roads and housing,” said Toussaint, who is from the Dominican Republic. “We want (Huntsville) to get the money, but I understand folks and the way they feel.”

What about other roadblocks?

This year marks the first time the Census will be available online. While online access makes filling out the Census easier for most people, the Census Bureau acknowledges about 20 percent of residents still don’t have internet at home, especially in rural and remote areas.

Melanie Thornton, director of public relations for the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library, said they’re doing their part to ensure everyone who wants to fill out the Census online can.

“The Huntsville-Madison County Public Library is playing a role in making sure that everyone counts this Census by providing access to over 200 internet-connected public computers at our 12 locations,” she said. “Library officials are waiving the library card requirement if you want to take the census online at the library. This will enable more people to use our computers.”

In addition to technology concerns, Leon said some Hispanic/Latino residents have trouble grasping why the Census is important because they speak a different dialect of Spanish than what’s available.

“Sometimes it’s hard for them to understand what’s going on … and why things are done the way they’re done, so they shy away from the unknown,” she said. “Sometimes it’s even hard for us, even though we speak Spanish, to communicate with them and say, ‘We need to do this.’”

What’s next?

Census Day is April 1, 2020, but most households can begin responding to the form around mid-March. In May, Census workers will begin visiting homes that haven’t yet responded.

To assist those who want to complete the Census online, the Downtown Huntsville Library will hold open labs with one-on-one help from librarians on the following dates:

  • March 12, 19 & 25: 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
  • March 13: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
  • March 16: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Spanish speakers will be available during all open labs except for March 25, Thornton said.

The City of Huntsville’s Complete Count Committee is also seeking volunteers to help promote the Census. The ability to speak Spanish is a plus. Click here if interested.

Santiago urges all residents, even those who are not yet U.S. citizens, to complete the 2020 Census. There’s too much to lose by not participating.

“My message to them is don’t be afraid of participation because the benefits are larger than the potential risks, if any,” Santiago said.

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