Image: Gregoria Chales Pablo, an indigenous immigrant
Manuel Valdez  /  AP
Gregoria Chales Pablo, 40, an indigenous immigrant from Guatemala at a holiday dance last month in Bremerton, Wash. Pablo is a member of the indigenous group Mam.
updated 1/4/2010 9:03:56 PM ET 2010-01-05T02:03:56

For most people, describing themselves on the U.S. Census form will be as easy as checking a box: White. Black. American Indian.

But it's not so simple for indigenous immigrants — the Native Americans of Mexico and Central America. They often need more than one box because their ancestry can cover multiple Census categories, and they must also overcome a significant language barrier and a mistrust of government.

The Census Bureau wants to change that in the 2010 count as it tallies immigrant indigenous groups for the first time ever, hoping to get a more complete snapshot of a growing segment of the immigrant population.

In the 2010 Census, the bureau will tabulate handwritten entries specifying that the respondent belongs to a Central American indigenous group such Maya, Nahua, Mixtec, or Purepecha. The list of different populations that end up being counted will be made public when results are released in 2011, said Michele Lowe, spokeswoman for the Census Bureau.

"We're always striving to present an accurate portrait of the American people, and this is part of that effort," said Lowe.

An accurate count is important to the indigenous groups themselves, and to the federal government, which allocates resources to state and local government according to the results.

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates indigenous migrants make up about 17 percent of the country's farm workers, and may represent up to 30 percent of California's farm worker population. Florida also has a large indigenous immigrant population.

Participation encouraged
Indigenous organizations are independently working within their own communities to dispel apprehension and encourage participation in the federal survey. They speak many different languages, making a single educational campaign impossible. Some speak Spanish; some not at all.

Many have encountered discrimination in their home countries because of their indigenous origin, and in this country for their immigrant status. All this makes them less likely to volunteer sensitive personal information to a government agency.

"In the past, many people wouldn't want to say they were indigenous," said Santos Miguel Tzunum Vasquez, from the Asociacion Esperanza Maya Quiche in Florida. "Even I hid it sometimes."

Vasquez's organization was founded to help the survivors of a 1997 massacre in a village in Guatemala called La Esperanza. Guatemala's 36-year civil war left tens of thousands of civilians dead, many of them indigenous civilians who were suspected of helping insurgents.

Vasquez feels safer in the United States — enough to look forward to telling the government of his indigenous background.

'I am Maya'
"I'm proud of what I am. I am indigenous, I am Maya," he said. "That is what I will say."

Political awareness and organizing within indigenous groups, particularly in California and Florida, has helped, said Jonathan Fox, a professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

"More indigenous migrants are willing to come out in public and claim their ethnic identity," Fox said. But that progress hasn't happened equally around the country, he said.

The Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities in Fresno represents indigenous immigrants from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The organization has recently launched a campaign promoting participation in the Census through workshops, public forums, flyers and radio broadcasts.

"We want to be counted as we are — as Mixtecos, Zapotecos, Triques," said Rufino Dominguez, executive director of the organization. "It's important so everyone knows we are here, and that there are many of us."

Oralia Maceda, a Mixtec community organizer with the Binational Center, told a recent gathering of indigenous women in the rural Central Valley town of Madera, Calif., that the tally can have implications for their everyday lives. Census data will help determine how more than $300 billion in federal funds are distributed to state and local governments each year.

The women had been debating how to get a community clinic — the only one they can access — to provide interpreters in their language. Knowing how many indigenous live in the county, and which languages they speak, will help, Maceda told them.

Clarifying questions
Hundreds of miles north, in the naval town of Bremerton, Wash., a community of 350 Mam speakers from Guatemala discussed the 10-question form. Hoisting a giant printout of the Census questionnaire, lawyer Andrea Schmitt spoke in Spanish to the group. Mariano Mendoza, a group leader, interpreted in Mam, a tonal Mayan language that about 50,000 people in the world speak.

Schmitt pointed out two questions that will be important for indigenous immigrants: race and ethnicity.

Question 8 asks whether they consider themselves to be "of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin." The next question asks their race. The Census recommends indigenous immigrants from Latin America choose "American Indian or Alaska Native" as their race, then write in the name of their community.

"If everyone agrees to put down Maya, the government will have an idea that in Bremerton there's a group that is Maya that speaks a language that is not Spanish," she said.

Her remarks cause some confusion. A man in the crowd says that he put down Latino in other government paperwork. "Is it lying?" he asks.

Schmitt clarifies that it isn't, and makes an important point. The Census Bureau cannot share information — any information, including immigration status — with other branches of the federal government.

"They're really torn. They're afraid there will be a backlash," said Lourdes Villanueva of the Redlands Christian Migrant Association in Florida. "But there is a lot of excitement, too. They want to be counted, and to be counted as indigenous."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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