Pushing for Census Participation at Centro Romero

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Self-help pamphlets in Spanish cover the tables dividing a row of seats leaning against the reception area wall. A payphone stands on one corner as a relic from a different time, with instructions on how to place international calls printed along its number pad.

Other than the bright red “Exit” sign above the door, English is hard to find.

A receptionist sits behind a desk, on a chair ripped apart from wear. She glances up from her clutter of paper, books and an array of colored pens, offering a welcoming smile.

“Muy buenas tardes, con qué lo puedo ayudar? Or would you rather speak English?”

Centro Romero is a non-profit organization based in Edgewater that focuses on serving the Latino and refugee communities of Edgewater, Rogers Park and Uptown. But considering its location on the northeast side of Chicago, Centro Romero has taken the mantle as the only Latino community center in the area.

Most of their efforts involve community engagement, family services, education and legal services, often acting as the middle agent between Latino residents and neighborhood institutions, including government agencies. Through their English education program for children and parents, Centro Romero has become a stepping-stone for many clients on their transition to life in the United States.

This year, however, Centro Romero is preparing for a new project: the 2020 United States Census.

Every person living in the United States this year will receive a census form to complete regardless of their race, income, gender or immigration status. Completing the ten-point questionnaire will provide the U.S. government with updated statistical information on the demographics of its population.

In an ideal world, the Census is completed every ten years with 100 percent participation. This, however, is never the case.

With each census there is a percentage of the population that is never counted. The Census Bureau describes these as hard-to-count populations, or “those for whom a real or perceived barrier exists to full and representative inclusion in the data collection process.” This group often includes non-native English speakers, refugees and undocumented migrants.

For Centro Romero, which deals largely with immigrants and refugees, most of their clients can be considered hard to count.

Making sure that members of their community complete the Census has become a main goal for the year.

“Strictly speaking, there are no ‘hard-to-count communities,’” said Cuauhtémoc Hinojosa, Census Coordinator at Centro Romero,  “only people of the Latino community, that due to their status as undocumented immigrants or a level of English illiteracy, are refraining from sharing information to Census officers, and thus were considered as ‘hard to count.’”

By completing the 2020 Census, community members have the chance to tell their public officials what their community is lacking. One of the advantages of accurately counting the Latino community is that more funds would be diverted to non-profits, like Centro Romero, to expand their social services programs.

“The importance of all of us taking part in the Census lies within the fact that all of this information taken is used, among other things, for the distribution of federal and state public resources toward the construction of schools, hospitals and parks,” Hinojosa said. “If one million people are not counted as part of the country’s population, there is a chance that funds will not be allotted to better their living conditions”

A major concern for Centro Romero stems from its geographical location. Neighborhoods in Chicago’s South Side with a more visible Latino community, such as Little Village and Pilsen, tend to receive more assistance through community centers and outreach programs.

But Centro Romero works alone to meet the needs of a growing Latino population in North Chicago—a population that has prior been overlooked.

“A lot of Latinos have been displaced from the city,” said Joseph Martens, resource developer at Centro Romero. “Lincoln Park, thirty or forty years ago, had a significant Latino population. Then urban renewal removal occurred, and so there are more and more Latino residents here in the North Side.”

Gentrification also serves as a main drive for Centro Romero to encourage filling out the Census. Younger and wealthier residents have begun moving into neighborhoods like Rogers Park, leading to the construction of condominiums and commercial developments that target previously Latino-owned housing.

Additionally, renovations to public transportation train stations along the North Side, while beneficial to neighboring communities, have also led to gentrification of traditionally Latino majority neighborhoods.

Despite these hardships, Centro Romero organizers like Susana Salgado are optimistic about their efforts to have their clients complete the Census.

“We’re well-known among the community and we’re trusted,” said Salgado, who is Centro Romero’s family service program manager. “One of the reasons why we decided to do this work is because of that. Because we have community trust. And we know that their information is going to be federally protected.”

Centro Romero workers and volunteers have been going around the Edgewater and Rogers Park neighborhoods knocking on doors, asking residents to sign a pledge confirming their participation in the Census. Volunteers wear bright vests and hats conspicuously marked with the Centro Romero logo to assure residents that they are trustworthy resources. It is this trust that Centro Romero is depending on for their success.

“A small number of people that we’ve reached out to participate in the Census are fearful that their personal information may be shared to migration offices or other government entities,” Hinojosa said. “To those people, we have reassured that this information will only be used for statistical purposes and that it is, in fact, confidential by law.”

Another reason that Salgado is confident in her efforts is that Centro Romero has successfully helped their community be counted in the past. Salgado has been working for Centro Romero since 1996, and thus has experienced two prior Censuses. According to Salgado, when Centro Romero assisted in counting their clients ten years ago, “the numbers went up,” leading Chicago’s Census director to reach out asking for Centro Romero’s help directly.

Ten years ago, Centro Romero worked exclusively with volunteers for their Census coverage. This year, a part-time paid position was created to focus exclusively on Centro Romero’s Census outreach.

Salgado added that everyone’s participation in this Census was crucial, especially because of the current presidency. Salgado says that since Donald Trump has been in office, Centro Romero has faced several racially motivated acts of vandalism and violence.

Last year, their windows were broken twice within one week. Another case involved somebody writing “go back to your country” on exterior walls, covering signs saying, “no human is illegal.”

Regardless, Salgado is optimistic that this is one of the best ways for their clients to become connected with their community. She hopes that filling out the Census is a way to foster a nascent spirit of community engagement, especially in younger generations.

“Everything counts, everything is moving towards the change,” Salgado said. “And part of our idea is, if we are going to be able to make a difference in our community, we need to participate. And by filling out the Census, you are participating.”

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