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No Counting on the Identity of 300 Millionth Resident

October 18, 2006|Hector Becerra and David Pierson | Times Staff Writers

Early Tuesday at White Memorial Medical Center in Boyle Heights, Gloria Mejia reminded her 18-year-old daughter, Catalina Meza, that she had a chance to make history.

If Meza could just push a little harder, her mother told her, the little girl she was about to give birth to had a shot at being the 300 millionth U.S. resident.

"Come on, hurry up," Mejia said excitedly in Spanish. "Your baby could be the one!"

Anareli Meza entered the world at 5:10 a.m. -- 24 minutes after the moment the Census Bureau had estimated the United States population would reach 300 million.

"We won!" patients and nurses at White Memorial shouted.

Not exactly.

Employing a complex and highly subjective set of calculations, the Census Bureau had set Oct. 17 at 4:46 a.m. as the moment the country would cross the milestone.

But census officials stressed Tuesday that the date and time were just guesses. Some demographers believe the United States hit the number months ago, more likely from someone crossing the border than from a birth in a maternity ward.

The Census Bureau office in Washington, D.C., marked the moment in a low-key manner with cake and punch.

In 1967, Life magazine spent months determining who was the United States' 200 millionth person before settling on Robert Ken Woo Jr., who was born in an Atlanta hospital.

This time, the Census Bureau said it had no plans to designate a 300 millionth American -- a figure that includes both legal and illegal residents -- and seemed to go out of its way to dampen speculation.

But that didn't stop folks at White Memorial and beyond from celebrating.

In New York City, officials at Queens' Elmhurst Hospital proclaimed Emmanuel Plata number 300,000,000 -- saying she was born precisely at 7:46 a.m. Eastern Time by Caesarean section. Beforehand, the hospital had T-shirts and blankets made for the baby and mother with "300 millionth American Baby" printed on them.

"We were anticipating this," said Chris Constantino, the executive director of Elmhurst. "It's not like a census official came and put a sticker on the baby. We just took the opportunity. We stake our claim to it, but anyone else can too. This is not staged."

A few hours after the New York media descended on the Queens medical center, New York Presbyterian Hospital announced that its doctors had delivered a baby girl at exactly 7:46 a.m.

But Elmhurst -- which won a New York commendation for birthing the first baby on New Year's Day four of the last seven years -- wasn't backing down.

"What better place than New York City?" Constantino said.

The folks at White Memorial would have an answer to that.

The medical staff has followed the news coverage about the 300 millionth resident for several days. Because they serve a neighborhood with a large population from Mexico, they were particularly intrigued by speculation from demographers that the person would be an immigrant.

The estimated time of arrival was determined by the rate of U.S. population growth. According to the Census Bureau, there is one birth every seven seconds and one death every 13 seconds. The population grows by one international immigrant every 31 seconds. Under bureau calculations, the population grows by one person every 11 seconds.

The U.S. population hit 100 million in 1915. It took 52 years to hit 200 million and another 39 more to hit 300 million. Demographers say that trend seems to have slowed, so the 400 millionth resident may not arrive until around 2050.

President Bush marked the occasion with a statement saying it's "further proof that the American Dream remains as bright and hopeful as ever."

At 1:16 a.m. Tuesday, the first of three babies delivered in the early morning was born to Alicia Pastrana Virrueta at White Memorial. But Isai Pastrana's birth came more than three hours earlier than the Census Bureau's estimated time.

"We thought it was possible our baby would be it," said Isai's father, Nicolas Pastrana, 33, a painter who emigrated from Mexico City. "It would have been nice, but we weren't disappointed. Tomorrow's my birthday, so this is like a gift to me."

Nurse Mary Morales, 51, said she and other nurses had left the hospital thinking the Pastranas' baby could be the one. When they returned to White Memorial later in the morning, they thought another hospital might have claimed the distinction.

"We thought we missed it," said nurse Ronda McCracken, 49.

Then they heard about the birth of Anareli Meza.

Catalina Meza and her husband, Alvaro, 21, did not give the number much thought when they stopped at a clinic across from the hospital Monday afternoon.

Catalina said she expected to go home after a checkup, only to find out that she was four centimeters dilated. She checked into White Memorial Medical Center.

Her mother, excited about the news coverage, urged her to press on and deliver her baby.

But Meza said that in the moments after her baby was born -- with a touch of bronchitis -- she didn't think much about any number.

"My mother told me to hurry. But the truth is, it didn't really matter to me," Meza said as she nuzzled her baby against her cheek. "I just wanted my baby to be born healthy. And now I'm happy because my daughter is well."

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hector.becerra@latimes.com

david.pierson@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Michael Muskal contributed to this report.

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