ARVIN, Calif. — Wearing a white shirt and dress slacks, Fausto Sanchez steps delicately across the rich brown soil of the San Joaquin Valley fields, a former Mixtec Indian farm worker who has returned to his roots to pursue a pressing social cause.
All around him, tight-lipped laborers peer down from towering ladders as they intently prune 20-foot orange trees that stand in neat rows that stretch as far as the eye can see.
One by one, the 30-year-old Sanchez addresses the men, squinting up into a bright morning sun. At first suspicious, the Mixtecos hear the fluent warble of their native tongue and immediately stop their work to listen to Sanchez's message.
"You must stand up and be counted for the census," he tells them. "It's our chance to tell the government that we indigenous people have a voice."
Call Sanchez a bit of insurance for California, which does not want to repeat its census missteps of the past. After nearly 1 million people went uncounted in 1990, state officials have launched an unprecedented $25-million effort to make sure that Central Valley migrant farm workers and other hard-to-locate residents don't get overlooked this time.
"Especially with the Mixtecos, a people with no written language, you have to approach them face to face," said Eva Vasquez-Camacho, manager of the Kern County office of the U.S. Census Bureau. "They're a tight-knit community and they don't trust outsiders. But they'll listen to Fausto. Because he's one of them."
In this newest human tally, census officials know they face a daunting task--not only in the big cities but also in rural agricultural areas such as Kern County.
Ten years ago, 22% of the nation's uncounted citizens lived in California, according to the Census Bureau. Nearly half of the 840,000 state residents who went missing were Latino, census officials say. Many were seasonal farm workers with no permanent address or telephone, some of whom lived in makeshift camps, hidden sheds and out-of-the-way backyard garages.
Census officials say the undercount cost the state one congressional seat and about $2.2 billion in federal funds, for everything from the construction of schools and highways to low-income housing.
During the 1990 census, Kern County's farm worker population went undercounted by 50% or more, officials say. Census workers identified only one family of Mixtecos--an indigenous people from southern Mexico.
Officials now say hundreds of Kern County Mixtecos went overlooked in 1990--not only because of lax counting efforts but because many speak neither Spanish nor English and believe that any government contact means they'll be deported.
All told, 15,447 Kern County residents were missed in the 1990 census, costing the county $3,000 in funding for every uncounted resident--a total of $46 million, officials say.
The undercount has caused headaches for local laborers.
"After last winter's citrus freeze, we applied for financial aid and the government just gave us blank stares," recalls union President Arturo Rodriguez, of the United Farm Workers of America. "They looked at their 1990 census numbers and said, 'By our count, there aren't that many people in your area who are citrus pickers.'
"We had 16,000 needy families here but they had us down for a few hundred. We don't want to have to go through that again."
Census official Camacho said the Mixtecos aren't the only elusive rural minority in her county. There are also sizable populations of Punjabis, Hindus and Filipinos.
But the Mixtecos, a shy people of closed social circles, present the biggest challenge.
"Most assume that if anyone comes around asking questions, the INS is somehow behind it," she said. "We're bombarding the community with messages that their information is confidential. It's not going to be given to the INS."
To illustrate her point, Camacho has told many groups the story of former President Harry S. Truman, who moved into a Washington neighborhood while the White House was being remodeled. As Camacho tells it, the Secret Service wanted the U.S. Census Bureau to supply information about the president's new neighbors.
"We wouldn't give it to them," she said. "That's the message we're trying to get across: that if a U.S. president can't get that census information, nobody can."
Fausto Sanchez uses a different tack to gain the confidence of the skittish Mixteco community: his status as an insider.
In 1986, Sanchez left his village of Santo Domingo near Oaxaca to enter the U.S. illegally. On three sojourns here, he lived in a riverside encampment in Arizona and in makeshift Central California migrant camps--all the while working the fields.
After he earned his green card in 1989, he and his wife settled in rural Arvin and now have three children. Recently, Sanchez has worked as a field inspector for the nonprofit California Rural Legal Assistance, lobbying for better working conditions among laborers. Now the agency has been hired by the state to help with the census count.