Overlooked: Indigenous Mexican Immigrants and the 2010 Census

Census workers recruit Bushwick residents to work in the count - Photo: Alex Vros/EDLP

Census workers recruit Bushwick residents to work in the count. (Photo: Alex Vros/EDLP)

As part of this year’s outreach effort, the Census Bureau launched an enormous bilingual campaign to reach the Mexican community, one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in New York City. But the Bureau, and local organizations it relied on, overlooked Mexican immigrants who don’t speak English or Spanish – indigenous groups like the Maya, Zapotec, and Mixotec.

“A lot of people don’t understand the census, since the majority only speak a little Spanish”, said Rogelio González, a Mixotec man who has lived on Staten Island for 12 years.

“Even those of us who speak Spanish don’t understand the questions on the census that well. They should have sent a translator,” he said.

In the Staten Island census tract where González lives there’s a community of  about 300 Mixtecos who immigrated from San Marcos de Natividad, Oaxaca.  But as of Tuesday, only 38 percent of households in that tract had sent back their census forms, compared with the city-wide average of 54 percent and the nationwide average of 67 percent.

The Census Bureau printed instructional materials in some 60 languages this year, but Mixotec, Mayan, Zapotec or any other indigenous Mexican language were not among them.

In 2008, the total number of Mexicans in New York was about 295,000, according to the American Community Survey. Because indigenous Mexicans often identify as Mexican, there’s no official tally for them, but community organizers say they number in the thousands.

Igor Alvez, a spokesman for the New York office of the Census Bureau said, “we’re relying on the partner organizations to do some of the very specific community outreach. We have a quarter million organizations who are partnered with us.”

One of them is the Mexican Consulate in New York, which undertook a large outreach campaign – but did not directly target indigenous Mexicans. An official spokesperson could not be reached for comment, but a representative of the consulate not authorized to give his name assured that many indigenous Mexicans speak Spanish and so they’re integrated into the wider Mexican population.

But Louis Nevaer, a writer based in New York who studies the Hispanic community and its economic trends, disagrees that indigenous Mexicans can be treated as part of the wider, Spanish-speaking community.

Nevaer led a group that surveyed indigenous people in New York City, Long Island, and northern New Jersey this year and found that only 17 percent of indigenous Mexicans in the New York region were willing to participate in the census.

“They are very reluctant and very suspicious”, says Nevaer, “They don’t speak the language, they’re undocumented, and they’re here without the village elder that says, ‘it’s okay to cooperate.”

Related Article: Census Count Going Poorly in New York

The Feet in Two Worlds project on the Census is made possible thanks to the generous support of the 2010 Census Outreach Initiative Fund at The New York Community Trust and the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund.

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