Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of student produced stories looking at the 2020 census.
Many non-English speakers don’t participate in the census for a variety of reasons. Some may not understand how to participate, while others simply don’t feel the need to.
With language being a barrier, many non-English speakers feel isolated from the community. Some might even be skeptical about being questioned during the census since they are so used to being isolated.
“I don’t like to be part of that stuff because I don’t want the people and the government to know stuff about me,” said Francisco Diaz, who just moved here from Venezuela. The 20-year-old works at Pizza My Heart in San Ramon.
Diaz understands English but is still having a hard time speaking it. (In an interview, Diaz spoke in choppy English, but a few words were translated from Spanish because he is still learning the language.)
The barrier language can lead to a loss of trust from those who don’t speak English. “I can’t even talk to the cashier at the grocery store,” said Elda Arrieche, 83. “How am I supposed to participate in something like [the census]”
Arrieche also moved to San Ramon recently from Venezuela with her husband, Victor Arrieche. The couple speaks no English and were interviewed in Spanish. They are living with their daughter who is fluent in both English and Spanish.
Victor Arrieche said they came to escape the crisis Venezuela is facing under Nicolas Maduro who is serving as president but who the Arrieches regard as a dictator.
Immigrants such as the Arrieches and Diaz said their experiences in their home country contributed to them not wanting to participate in something run by the government.
“I’m more Venezuelan than I am American,” said Victor Arrieche, who has lived in the U.S. for half a year. He said he would have preferred to have stayed in Venezuela, but with crime at its peak and food shortages, he agreed to live with his daughter for the time being.
More than 40 languages are spoken in Contra Costa County, according to the county government’s web site. Around 150,000 residents do not speak English, which is more than the population of the county’s largest city, Concord: 130,000.
The most common non-English language spoken in Contra Costa is Spanish, according to county data. Around 18 percent of the county’s population are native Spanish speakers, some of whom don’t speak English at all while others are bilingual.
Reaching non-English-speaking residents is important because an accurate count determines how much federal dollars come to the community to support essential services such as road repairs and schools, said Joshua Green, a media specialist for the Census Bureau who helps citizens with questions in the Bay Area.
“It’s important to participate in the census because every community should get its fair share of federal funding,” said Green. “Also, every community deserves to be fairly represented in Congress.”
Green said for the 2020 Census there will be video language guides, print language guides, and language glossaries in 59 non-English languages, covering 99 percent of all languages spoken in Contra Costa County.
Seema Shah, who has been a U.S. citizen for 17 years, said she doesn’t find the census a problem even though English is her third language, especially if it can be translated.
“I personally don’t think the census requires too much English knowledge because the questions it asks are simple,” she said. Shah, who came from Afghanistan, grew up speaking Farsi and Pashto. She added that she was also comfortable with the census because her children help her with the translating.
To learn more about resources in this story, go to: https://contracosta.ca.gov/7527/Hard-to-Count-Maps.
Sabrina Contreras is a junior and editor of the school newspaper, The Californian.
This story originally appeared as part of a special section in “CC Spin,” a county-wide student newspaper produced by students at participating Contra Costa County high schools.