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1990 Census Holds Promise for Latino Political Activists

March 23, 1989|MARITA HERNANDEZ | Times Staff Writer

Leo Estrada recalls the pitched battles of the 1970s between a band of Latino activists and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Back then, Estrada, who was a college professor from Texas, and his Latino allies inside and outside government, had a difficult time convincing East Coast officials "that we existed," he recalled. Estrada, a demographer, knew what was at stake, and he took it upon himself to persuade Latino leaders across the country to push for an accurate count.

The decade-long effort paid off: The 1980 census was the best count ever of Latinos. It recorded a 61% population explosion nationwide, including an even more dramatic 87% increase in California.

America discovered Latinos. The media touted "The Decade of the Hispanic." And the phrase "numbers are on our side" became a slogan among Latino activists.

Census-based reapportionment of congressional, state and local districts is credited with a doubling of Latinos in Congress and the election of hundreds of Latino officials across the country. Because the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funds is also based on the census, cities and states with large Latino populations received additional money.

The 1990 census holds even greater promise for Latinos, according to Estrada, now a renowned UCLA demographer and chairman of the Hispanic advisory committee of the U.S. Census Bureau.

"The 1980 census gave us a visibility we never had before on a national level," said Estrada. But today, he added, Latinos are better prepared to make the census numbers count, "to move from bragging about our growth to understanding how to use the numbers to improve conditions for ourselves."

Already, with census day--April 1, 1990--still a year away, Latino organizations have begun gearing up for the decennial count and to monitor the reapportionment that will follow. They are also keeping a close watch on two lawsuits against the Census Bureau that pit the interests of states with large minority and immigrant populations, like California and New York, against states that have neither.

The 1990 census is expected to show an increase over the decade of more than 5 million Latinos nationwide, for a total of nearly 20 million. About 1.3 million of that increase is expected to occur in Los Angeles County, where Latinos are projected to become one-third of the population. In California, Latinos are projected to reach 7 million, or about one-fourth of the population.

Estrada said he also expects the census to show unprecedented changes in the composition and distribution of Latinos. For the first time, it will provide a complete breakdown by country of origin. In 1980, Central and South Americans were lumped into a category of "other" Latinos.

The census will also measure whether income and education levels have improved. And it will reveal a lot about the "shadow" population of 3 million illegal immigrants who applied for amnesty under the 1986 Immigration Reform Act. According to census estimates, about half the growth among Latinos is attributable to immigration.

Census officials say they are gearing up for their most intensive effort at counting hard-to-reach segments. Despite dramatic improvement in the 1980 census, the bureau estimates that it still missed 7% of Latinos, compared to 1% of the general population.

The Census Bureau is devoting "more staff, money and resources" to reaching minorities than it did in 1980, said Jose Bermea, who is coordinating the Census Bureau's Latino promotion campaign.

A focus of the promotional campaigns, scheduled to begin in late spring, will be to encourage hard-to-reach illegal immigrants to be counted. The appeal to illegal immigrants will stress the census' strict confidentiality, Bermea said.

Census questionnaires will be available in Spanish, upon request, as will Spanish-speaking operators and census takers for those who need assistance.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) is launching its own media campaign this spring across California, parts of the Midwest and possibly Texas. The campaign will focus on the hardest Latinos to reach--illegal immigrants, day laborers, the homeless, those living in garages or doubled up in apartments.

The challenge will be greater this time, said the campaign's director, Arturo Vargas, because the numbers of the poor and the homeless are greater.

Concern among cities and states that stand to lose most from an under-count of minorities and poor led to the suit demanding that the Census Bureau correct the anticipated under-count with a follow-up survey. Besides Los Angeles and California, other plaintiffs include the city and state of New York, Chicago and Dade County, Fla., as well as Latino and black organizations.

The Census Bureau argued that there is not enough time to conduct the additional survey and meet its deadline of delivering the census to the President on Dec. 31, 1990.

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