SAN ANTONIO — As a young boy, Robert Santos would snatch bits of his mom's tortilla masa (dough) and use it instead of worms to fish at Woodlawn Lake, near his family's home here.
Later on, when he saw photographers shooting photos of bands at an Austin City Limits Festival concert, he found a way to get closer to the music as a part-time South by Southwest photographer.
Now Santos is the first Latino — he identifies as a Chicano and writes in mestizo on census forms — to head the U.S. Census Bureau. Having just passed the halfway point in the first year of his five-year appointment, he has set about introducing himself to America as the "face of the census."
With wire-frame glasses, silver-and-black hair pulled into a pony tail and an often gleeful smile, Santos looks more like a poet or a Chicano studies professor than a nationally renowned statistician who is setting up the bureau for the next decennial census, in 2030.
“I made a deliberate decision not to go out and get sort of the New York business suit and cut-my-hair type of thing. It was critical for me to be who I am and present myself as pure as I am,” Santos told NBC News in an interview at Diana’s Burgers, not far from where he’d use the masa to fish for catfish and perch.
His everyman persona and Latino background may be what is needed after the Trump administration was accused of trying to use the 2020 census for political gain.
The administration tried to add a citizenship question to the census, which was seen as an attempt to suppress Latino and other votes by making people afraid to respond and prevent noncitizens from being counted in redrawing of voting maps.
The Supreme Court kept the citizenship question off the census, but Trump tried other ways for the bureau to get citizenship information. He also stopped the census headcount early. Those efforts left a number of Latinos and others nervous about filling out the census and skeptical of its results.
When the Trump interference was happening, Santos was chief methodologist at the Urban Institute and president-elect of the American Statistical Association. He publicly said that he expected the 2020 census to be “one of the most flawed censuses in history” and that it was being “sabotaged.”
Santos said his criticism was rooted in his own respect for the census and for numbers. Throughout much of his lifetime, he has worked with census data and its people.
“It’s an issue of scientific integrity, transparency and independence," he said.
He also credited the Census Bureau for doing its job during that time.
"And it so happened that the career staff … actually did what they needed to do to make sure that the scientific integrity of the census was preserved," he said.
In the 2020 census, 4.99 of every 100 Hispanics were not counted, the bureau has said. There were high undercount rates for Native Americans (5.64%) and Blacks (3.3%), too. Even putting aside those not counted, Latinos are considered to have driven about 51 percent of the nation's growth in the past decade.
Santos’ 40-year career has included forming his own social science firm, NuStats, in Austin, Texas; serving as a vice president of the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago; and working as a senior study director at Temple University’s Institute for Survey Research.
Before he became president of the American Statistical Association in 2021, Santos was also president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research in 2013-14.
He had to give up the photography side gig with SXSW when he joined the administration, he said.
For just about all of his career, Santos has been marrying his statistical and data knowledge with helping underrepresented communities.
His approach to steering the census post-Trump is to cultivate relationships and do as much outreach to communities and different people as possible to move beyond the upheaval of the 2020 census.
The bureau is currently working on an economic census it plans to launch in January with all sorts of data on about 4 million businesses, from revenue to output issues, to help with supply chain assessments, he said.
Santos said he doesn't want to put a personal stamp on the bureau, but rather to be a catalyst for excellence from a staff of varying races, ethnicities and backgrounds. He wants to see them collect data and return to communities with relevant information so they can use it for their benefit.
“I know the Census Bureau, I know the culture and I know how things work," Santos said. "I also know it would be a waste of time to go in as a bull in a china shop."
It’s not that he’s not capable of being a bull, Santos said. He had to be tough when he reorganized the University of Michigan’s survey operations to begin using laptops.
But the Census Bureau's issues were not about organization, he said.
To strengthen the bureau's work, given the mistrust and historical undercounts, "we need to not just wait until a couple years before the decennial census to say, ‘OK, it’s time for everybody to start thinking about the census and let’s do it,’” he said.
“Instead, we need to have a continuous relationship where we outreach, we have dialogues, we ask, 'What are your data needs?' But more importantly, we show you in very tangible ways, we show colonias (unincorporated communities), we show people in tribal lands, the value of the data" to them.
The communities where he wants the bureau to be more visible are not unlike where Santos grew up with four siblings, including a brother killed while serving in the Army in Vietnam. René Santos, who rode on helicopters to collect soldiers and deliver supplies, was 20 when a chopper he was in had mechanical failure and crashed on takeoff in 1969.
"He's the reason I'm so adventurous and that I was able to break out of my shyness bonds," said Santos, who wrote in May on the census blog about his brother and recounting childhood pranks.
Santos' childhood neighborhood on San Antonio's west side is in one of the poorest zip codes in the city. Its mostly Mexican American residents were subjected to segregation and redlining in the past, but it became an incubator of cultural and political activism. Generations of Mexicans who fled the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s settled there, including Santos' grandparents.
His parents, born in the U.S., were civil service workers at the now-closed Kelly Air Force Base. His father was a tool mechanic who created tools for the Air Force's C-5 cargo planes. "He learned on his own, although he was a math whiz,” Santos said.
Shy in school, Santos said he never went to a counselor while attending Holy Cross High School to ask about college or careers. He was a straight A student who won a math medal in 1972, said Tony Garza, who was one of Santos’ teachers. Unfamiliar with the higher education system, he didn’t know students applied to college before their last months in high school, so he enrolled at San Antonio College, a community college.
For Santos’ parents, their measure of success for him was landing a steady job with benefits, working at Kelly like them and moving up the ladder. They were disappointed when after high school and college, he didn’t apply for jobs in civil service, he said.
But in his first semester in community college, a calculus teacher recognized his math talent and encouraged him to apply to a four-year college. He applied to Trinity University in San Antonio, and fate stepped in again.
“One of my tías (aunts), one of her neighbors was working there and somehow got me an interview with the dean of students at Trinity. I went over and had a one-hour meeting with that person, and they basically said, 'If you apply, we will take you,'” he said. “I still get emotional about that.”
Santos balanced his academics with married life and earned his math degree. He and his wife, Adella, just celebrated their 49th anniversary. He applied to several graduate schools but “only because of affirmative action” went to the University of Michigan, being awarded a fellowship for Latino students. Later he replaced it with a Ford Foundation fellowship.
At Michigan, Santos worked on the National Chicano Survey, the most comprehensive national survey of Americans of Mexican descent at the time. Along with pioneering survey methodologies, it trained a crew of Latino graduate students.
Santos said that it was at Michigan, where he earned a master’s in statistics and where other Latinos were few, that he embraced his Chicano identity. His parents had shunned the “Chicano” label.
The bureau plans to release more details next year on the 62 million people who called themselves Hispanic, including any shifts in the origins of people who make up the category.
Santos said that as he embraced his Chicano identity, he learned to look more critically at research questions and how they failed to account for different cultures, identities or social classes, he said.
He recalled a survey on ambulatory health asking people whether they get light exercise by playing golf or bowling. That question was created by someone who used their own experience to frame the question, he said.
"Once you realize that, it's very liberating," he said. "Because then you start asking yourselves, not just do we have the right data, but are we asking the right questions? Do we have the right concepts?"
That helped advance his critical thinking and "solidify my identity as a Latino, to know that that is a source of strength, of inner strength."
"We can bring a perspective that can help inform science and can help us ask critical questions, to make sure that we are providing and generating data that can really help society," Santos said, "and that is relevant to the communities from which we came."