Taking The Census: Honored To Be Counted

         A part-time summer job as a Census Enumerator in 2000 turned out to be a memorable life experience.
          After training, I received my list of addresses from which no one had responded to the census questionnaire by mail. I set off to my assigned neighborhood on a hot afternoon in late May.
          Small 1940s era homes in various states of disrepair lined the street. Only two cars were in sight; it was a neighborhood of working people. Except for two elderly women who had come to their homes as newlyweds, the residents were immigrants. Some were undocumented. I was welcomed graciously at every door and no one hesitated to answer my questions, even when we communicated with a translation card.
          One particular family stands out in my memory. I had to return on Saturday to find anyone at home in the neat little house with the white picket fence where red balloons bobbed on the gate. I usually asked my questions while standing at the front door but this was one of the few homes on my list designated for the long questionnaire. I accepted the invitation to come inside.
          The whole family gathered in a circle around me—father, mother, and five daughters. The parents spoke limited English. It was the second daughter who served as family spokesperson. The balloons on the gate celebrated her high school graduation.
          When the father understood the purpose of my visit, he said a few words in Spanish and rushed to the telephone.
          “He is calling my uncle, his brother,” the second daughter said. “He wants them to come and share this event.”
          The mother served cold drinks and cookies while we waited. I learned that they were all legal immigrants from Mexico. The father held a maintenance job with the city; the mother and eldest daughter worked in a fruit processing plant. The second daughter had graduated with honors. She had a part-time job in the accounting department of the fruit processing plant and a college scholarship. The family spoke no English when they immigrated to join the father just four years earlier.
          The father’s brother, wife and two small children arrived and pulled their chairs into the circle. I asked the questions and the second daughter consulted her parents before answering. Throughout the process, four children under the age of ten watched and listened without squirming or saying a word.
          I looked around the circle of attentive faces and knew I was witnessing a moment that each member of this family would remember forever.          
          It seems such a routine task—irritating to some—when every ten years we are asked to answer a few questions on a post card and drop it in the mail. Being a census taker gave me a new perspective.
          I wish I could have captured more than names and dates that day. I wish that when grandchildren and great grandchildren of that family find those entries in census records—available in the year 2072 or later—they could feel the sense of honor, of belonging, that filled the room on the day the census taker came.

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Published in: on April 5, 2010 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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