A social service colleague of mine called a few weeks ago, asking for help in identifying migrant campsites for the 1990 census. She explained that there would be a one-day count of the migrants, and I laughed at her. One day? Ten years ago, I had spent four months in northern San Diego County counting migrants for the census. And that was not enough. In two days, or three, if they go back out this week, it is not possible to make a complete count--even with 70 enumerators.
In 1980, 15 of us--all fluent in Spanish and English--worked together from April to August, in the fields with the migrants, in their campgrounds, at their gathering places, in the hooches and "spider holes" they called home.
The count was well-organized. Our supervisor used maps and aerial photographs to identify land under cultivation. Where there were doubts, she would drive through the area, annotating her Thomas Brothers map. At times we would follow catering trucks to find the backcountry camps.
If a grower wouldn't allow us on his land to talk to his employees, we would call our supervisor to report and go on to the next field. Usually, by the next day, our supervisor would have cleared up the problem with the grower and the missed field workers would be counted. We worked through the pages of the map book methodically so that people in one area would not be counted twice.
This was before amnesty, so most of the people we were counting were in the country illegally. But, by and large, they were cooperative and even eager.
The Latinos knew the importance of what we were doing because of the censuses in their native countries. For example, in Mexico, it's a federal offense to deny information to a census official.
Those who were hesitant were usually persuaded to answer our questions when we told them that an amnesty bill was under consideration and that being enumerated would give them a chance to prove their residency and self-sufficiency. But, more often than not, the migrants said they were glad that the government cared enough to send us to count them. They thought no one knew of their existence, except their bosses, the U.S. Border Patrol and their families back home. Some cried from the emotion, and none refused us information. We cried too with the data given us by a 14-year-old refugee from El Salvador whose father had been murdered in the war and who had not heard from his mother for more than six months.
Four of us could enumerate a field with 500 workers in a couple of hours. We all ruined shoes and clothes in the fields, but we didn't care. We could go home after a long, hot day to shower and change and to watch TV. The people we counted would wrap up in their dirty blankets under cardboard or plastic tarps or in tiny caves after cooking on a open fire and sitting in the dirt to eat.
We learned to detour on our way to the fields when the light green-and-white \o7 "migra" \f7 vans followed us to make a bust of undocumented workers. One of the teams, four Mexican-Americans, was busted by the Border Patrol and had to do some fast talking to save themselves from deportation.
In four months in North County, we enumerated 18,000 homeless migrant workers. When we were told we had four more days to finish the count, we cried again. Four months hadn't been enough time. We had worked hard, sometimes from before dawn until after dark in the fields, then back at the office for hours collating the information. We knew that we had missed fields, campsites, people. We were devastated to think that the thousands we had missed wouldn't be counted because of the "short" time we had been given.
Yet in 1990, census workers tried to cover the area in a day.
Saturday, I went to the fields, to a campsite where I have friends. The day before, they said, two people--census takers--had walked in from the road. One spoke a little Spanish. All they asked for was a head count. And then they walked out again.
My friends were afraid of them, saying that they thought census takers had to ask names and ages and other questions.
What could the census takers learn about them in such a short time? they asked. Could they really be from the census? And what about the campsites farther up the stream bed? Why hadn't the census takers gone there?
A one-day count of the fields and a one or two-day recount? Four months of hard work by extensively trained bilingual personnel wasn't enough time to obtain an accurate count 10 years ago. How many of my friends were missed this time?