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Census Official Counters Fear With Facts

March 22, 2000|STEVE CHAWKINS

Count people one by one, door to door?

You would think that by now the government would have come up with a sexier method of enumeration. Laser beams, maybe. Infrared sensors scanning America from satellites. A formula involving cell phones, valentines, bottled water and the speed of light.

But no. The census is still charmingly low-tech. People are counted as in biblical times--nose by nose, begat by begat--a tedious reckoning of gladdening, maddening, frustrating humanity.

Ah, the humanity.

Rosa Martinez-Sotelo has seen plenty of it. A census official for Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, she has come across more than her share of people who are nervous about being counted, resentful of government intrusion and just plain confused.

There was the man who listened to her pitch at a meeting, and asked: "Well, what if a person is a homosexual . . . or transsexual . . . or transgender . . . ?"

The room was silent, and the man went on, framing his question in strained, quasi-hypothetical, maybe-there's-this-friend-of-mine terms. At last, he blurted: "What if I were a cross-dresser? How would I fill out the census form then?"

Martinez-Sotelo, an equal employment opportunity specialist for two decades, didn't miss a beat.

"Whatever you consider yourself on the first of April is fine by me," she said.

The crowd burst into applause.

But not all of her encounters with the yet-to-be-counted have ended so benignly.

A political group--Martinez-Sotelo wouldn't say which one--had invited her to deliver her routine come-to-your-census speech.

As at many such gatherings, someone asked why the government needs to know about race and ethnic origins.

"It was an older, white gentleman up front," Martinez-Sotelo said. "He was very, very upset. He used every expletive-deleted word you can imagine, and every derogatory term for a person of color--specifically Hispanics.

"I just stood there looking at him, and he was saying these things that made my skin crawl."

They just come here to have their babies, he declaimed. One baby after the next. Why do we count them in the first place? They're not even citizens. Now take me, for instance, I'm a citizen. I fought in the war . . .

And on, and on.

From time to time, the man punctuated his rant with: "You know what I mean, don't you? You know what I mean?"

Martinez-Sotelo, the daughter of a packinghouse worker in El Rio, knew just what he meant.

But, staring hard at him, she had to inquire.

"Just what is it that you mean?" she asked.

The man's friends tried to shut him up, but couldn't. Finally, Martinez-Sotelo heard an urgent, hoarse whisper in the crowd: "Can't you see she's one of them?' "

"The man looked at me and said, 'No, she's not. She's Italian.' "

Except, of course, he didn't say Italian, instead using the standard slur.

"No, I'm not," she said.

As the man turned deep red, she delivered a basic civics lesson.

The census is mandated by no less an American document than the Constitution, she said. Courts have ruled that all residents--citizens or not--will be included. The census is used to divvy up government money for roads, water, emergency rooms, schools--and, at this point--noncitizens have the same access to them as anyone.

"If you're a human being and alive on the first of April, you should be counted," she told the man. "Regarding all of your stereotypical blabber, I'll discount it. Let's just leave it at that."

"I hope I didn't hurt your feelings," he said.

"You can't hurt my feelings," she responded.

It would be naive of me to think he knew what she meant.


Steve Chawkins can be reached at 653-7561 or by e-mail at

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