Graphic via Desirée Tapia for The Americano
Graphic via Desirée Tapia for The Americano

UPDATE: The Census 2020 extended its deadline until October 31, due to Coronavirus. You can fill out your form here.

Latino, Hispanic, or Other? The box you check in the upcoming 2020 Census can have a definite impact on your life and in the lives of those in Latino communities for years to come. 

With the current administration’s looming cutbacks on benefits that affect communities of color—some of which slash food and housing assistance and undermine access to education as well as protections for our voting rights—representation takes on a new significance. When it comes to the Census, it means being counted.

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“Representation is important. Right now we are seeing how it affects us with all the anti-immigrant laws taking place,” says Heriberto Sosa, Director of Unity Coalition/Coalición Unida, an organization founded in 2002 to advance equality and fairness through education, leadership, and awareness. 

“If you go to a government agency and there’s someone who speaks Spanish, or if you can fill out your applications in your own language, that’s directly because of the results of the last census. It’s very simple: when our numbers go up, our services go up. The census impacts our Latino community.”

The ongoing controversy stems from the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino”, which are meant to describe the ethnicity, not the race, of the people of Hispanic or Latino descent living in the U.S., and are usually used interchangeably.

Yet “Hispanic self-identification varies across immigrant generations,” says Pew Research Center’s “2015 National Survey of Latinos”, a report published on that organization’s Fact Tank. According to this report, nearly all foreign-born from Latin America identify as Hispanic, but by the fourth generation, only half of those with Hispanic heritage in the U.S. identify as such.

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Adding to the confusion, many Latin Americans don’t consider themselves “Hispanic,” a term they believe to be for those of European Spanish ancestry, preferring the term “Latino.” On the other hand, two-thirds of Latinos consider being Hispanic as part of their racial background, equating race with ethnicity. This has created a situation where many, not finding the box that defines them, identify as White or Other (in 2010 this amounted to about 2.5 million Americans of Latino/Hispanic origin), significantly affecting the poll results. 

“I consider myself a White Hispanic, but there isn’t that classification, so I check the box for Hispanic,” adds Sosa, who was born in the United States to exile Cuban parents. “Others think of themselves as Caribbean, Indigenous or any other classification. What is important to remember is that by defining yourself as Hispanic or Latino you are not renouncing your heritage. There is no historical reason why the government chooses these classifications, but if we want to be counted, we need to play by the rules,” says Sosa.

Among many other services, the Census data is used to establish the guidelines for federal affirmative action plans under the Federal Equal Opportunity Recruitment Program, allocate funds to school districts for bilingual services under the Bilingual Education Act and, most importantly, monitor compliance with the Voting Rights Act and enforce bilingual election requirements. This takes on a new significance this year when legislators in mostly Republican states “have introduced at least 35 bills that would make it harder to vote”, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute in New York and Washington, D.C. 

“All our services –from lunches for senior citizens to educational opportunities and healthcare– are based on the census,” says Sosa. “So if we are not counted, we are taking away from our communities.” 

The Census Bureau has been looking at alternative approaches to counting Hispanics/Latinos that combine the question about Hispanic origin and race. However, this change will not appear in the 2020 census, which begins April 1st of this year. 

Because of this, the box you check can and will have a direct impact on your life and your community—not just in the near future, but for a long time. “We must remember that the results of the 2020 Census,” says Sosa, “will affect us –Latinos and communities of color– for the next 10 or 20 years.” 

This story has been updated to add the new deadline extension the Census 2020 has confirmed.