Down with the Count

When the census comes knocking, who will open the door and who won't?

| March-April 2000

Like Superman, Super Censo has superhuman powers. Strong, brave, and bilingual, he has a mission: to spread the word about the U.S. Census to Spanish-speaking citizens of Cook County, Illinois.

“The Super Censo character was invented by a Chicago street theater group called Teatro Callejero,” explains Ana Maria Soto, regional census director for Cook County’s Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “He’s loosely based on a Spanish-language TV character called El Chapulin Colorado. When Latino people see Super Censo, they get it. So I guess you could say we’ve taken him on the road.”

Super Censo’s message, which he began taking to neighborhood gatherings and festivals last summer, is straightforward. When census forms arrive, Latinos should fill them out. Being counted gives a community an identity. “In America,” Soto says, “identity is everything.”

A simple message, but a tough sell. While community leaders may define identity in group terms, individuals don’t always see it that way. This time around, many poor people may ignore the census out of indifference or alienation, if they get the forms at all. Others will actively avoid being counted. Their response reveals a tension between the individual and the group that lies just beneath the surface of the census—and modern identity politics in general.

In many urban communities, activists claimed that the 1990 census undercounted immigrants and minorities, leading to lawsuits and calls for census reform. In Cook County, one of the nation’s largest and most ethnically diverse counties, the population is estimated to be 5.1 million, but the census may have missed as many as 250,000. Critics blame shoddy counting methods and ignorance of cultural patterns, two reasons that people of color and the poor have been overlooked by virtually every American census. Whatever the cause, many say Chicago’s urban communities took the hit: 10 years of diluted political clout, underfunded schools, and overflowing sewers.

But the fault can’t be placed entirely on the U.S. Census Bureau. Members of undercounted communities, fearing that their participation could lead to political intrusion, tax audits, or problems with the INS, refused to fill out forms and even shunned census takers who knocked at their doors.