Hector Tobar,“A tough sell? Count on it: Census takers in L.A. will need persistence, charm and knowledge of the city's varied cultures,” February 2, 2010,latimes.com latimes.com/news/local/la-me-tobar2-2010feb02,0,4560935.column
Some time this spring, a temporary federal employee will arrive at an ominous-looking brick tenement on West 14th Street in the Pico-Union district and face the first of many daunting missions.

After walking under the fire escape and climbing the front steps, the worker will arrive at a locked steel security door, which he or she will need to find a way to breach. The only visible aid will be the keypad for a buzzer system, which -- it will soon become clear -- doesn't work.

"You have to know someone who will let you in," Yanete Zepeda, 25, explained in Spanish as she stood outside the 14th Street building with her three children.

Sweet-talking a way inside won't be so easy. The residents of the building's 50 or so units are, for the most part, Latin American immigrants.

Many are low-paid garment workers. And they're not especially trusting of outsiders.

The census worker who makes it through that steel door will be carrying on an American tradition that goes back to 1790, when the government sent the first counters to New England townships and Southern slave quarters and tallied 3,231,533 people in the young republic.

The 2010 census likely will find a slightly higher number of people living in the city of Los Angeles. Census "enumerators" will deploy to Westside condominiums, San Fernando Valley cul-de-sacs, the vertical landscape of the densely populated Pico-Union district. You could be one of them.

The pay is $17 an hour.

In Pico-Union, just west of downtown, many locals I talked to had no idea that the census was coming.

"You're going to get a form in the mail, with 10 questions," I explained in Spanish to Zepeda, an immigrant from Guatemala and a recently laid-off garment worker, who apparently had managed to tune out all the news about the 2010 census on Spanish-language media, given that she twisted her brow in confusion as I spoke.

The Census Bureau is taking applications for thousands of jobs in Southern California. The requirements are easily met: They include the ability to do basic math and follow a set of not-too-complicated rules about how to count people.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for anyone who wants to do some good for the community," said Sandra Alvarado, a spokeswoman for the Census Bureau's Los Angeles regional headquarters, which manages 39 offices in California and Hawaii.

You'd think that any employer offering $17 an hour in this economy would be inundated -- and, in fact, the bureau is getting plenty of resumes. But they need more, Alvarado said.

For starters there's the small problem of finding workers who speak each of the 60 or so different languages in the region the bureau has deemed most essential.

"We have the most difficult places to count in the whole country," Alvarado told me.

It's the experience of the Census Bureau, she added, that hiring enumerators with local knowledge is one of the best ways to get an accurate count. So the bureau especially needs more applicants from certain neighborhoods, including Boyle Heights, Chinatown, Echo Park, Koreatown and South-Central.

My own experience in Pico-Union tells me that being a good enumerator will require some qualities not listed on the official job descriptions: quite a bit of persistence, a lot of charm and knowledge of a few basic cultural do's and don'ts.

"Buenos días" or "buenas tardes" is the best way to start any conversation with someone born in Latin America -- if you don't, you risk sounding brusque.

In Pico-Union, learning a similar phrase in Korean would be helpful -- maybe that elderly woman with the walker wouldn't have shuffled away from me so quickly if I'd known one.

"I just want to ask about the census," I said. But my English words were useless.

But being fluent in the language of your subjects doesn't necessarily make things any easier.

Over on South Bonnie Brae Street, my march up to the front porch of an 1890s mansion converted into apartments brought a look of horror to the face of Latino man standing there.

He was preparing food on a grill and placing it inside a cart. Clearly, he was a street vendor, more than likely an unlicensed one. No amount of Spanish chatter could assuage his fear.

"No sé nada," he said, aggressively averting his eyes as if he might reveal some secret if he looked at me.

Yes, our census enumerators will have to be patient. And a friendly explanation won't hurt.

"You have to write in your own name and the names of your kids," I said in Spanish to a woman from Veracruz, Mexico, who was pushing a stroller on 14th Street.

Sounds simple enough, but in many corners of immigrant America, the people feel they're under siege. The idea of giving the government the names of their family members makes them nervous.

Worrying whether the nation's millions of Latino immigrants will run away from census takers is keeping Nancy Agosto of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund up at night

"It's undeniable that there's a lot of fear out there," said Agosto, national census director for the organization, which is coordinating several campaigns to try to build trust in immigrant communities. All try to assure people that the information provided to the census is private and won't be used against them.

The census matters because billions of dollars in federal aid for things like schools and medical care are distributed according to the final tally.

Back on 14th Street, I won over Margarito Martinez not with that argument but with friendly chatter about the Mexican state of Hidalgo, the place where he was born and raised.

Yeah, he said, after I'd explained it to him, he'd probably fill out the census form. And then he confided in me about other subjects -- things that no census worker would ask.

He told me he's an indocumentado and he's worked mostly in garment factories and demolition crews in the seven years since arriving from Mexico.

Come April, when he fills out his census form, at least one agency of the U.S. government will know he's here.

hector.tobar@latimes.com
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