SUITLAND – U.S. residents with roots in indigenous Latin American tribes don’t know which race and ethnicity to identify with in census surveys, said Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery, during a meeting of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Hispanic Advisory Committee Thursday.
Gutierrez is one of nine members of the committee, which combined with other minority advisory committees to release recommendations about census questionnaire content to the Census Bureau.
Gutierrez repeatedly addressed the issue of Latin American natives during the meeting, leading the committee to recommend that the Census Bureau educate that population on how to fill out survey race and origin questions.
That might be effective, Gutierrez said, if the bureau knew what to tell them. The Office of Management and Budget, which oversees federal race and ethnicity data, has recommended that they be classified as American Indian, but tribes in the United States have protested that classification.
To be classified as Native American, your tribe has to be enrolled,” Gutierrez said. “Well, for them, being enrolled is a foreign concept. No one’s enrolled in Oaxaca.”
Roberto Ramirez, the Census Bureau official in charge of ethnicity and ancestry statistics, didn’t have an answer either.
“It’s a sensitive issue,” he said. “No one knows.”
Committee members had differing stances on the issue as well.
“It’s not feasible that we identify every little ethnicity,” said Mr. D.V. “Sonny” Flores of Houston. “In the end, people need to learn to make choices.”
In response to Gutierrez’s question about a hypothetical native from Mexico, committee Vice Chairman Jacinto Pablo Juarez of Laredo, Texas, said, “I’m trying to figure out how people cannot identify themselves with a race . . . They’re Mexicans first, Indians second. Even (former Mexican president) Benito Juarez identified himself as a Mexican, even though he was an Indian.”
The confusion over whether Aztecs and Mayans should identify themselves as Native Americans often leads them to forgo the race and origin question altogether, resulting in an undercount of that population, Gutierrez said.
That’s a problem for leaders like Gutierrez, she said later in an interview.
“To what extent do we get that information elsewhere?” she said. “It’s only when you know the characteristics of a growing community that you can understand their needs.”
Gutierrez proposed another recommendation that went through, asking the Census Bureau to ensure its English-language questions translate accurately into other languages.
As for the issue of Latin American natives, Gutierrez said she would like the Office of Management and Budget to approve a new category for them. Until then, the committee can only continue debating, she said.
“We’re caught in this Catch-22,” she said. “We keep going round in circles on this thing.”
The main recommendation the committee made was the endorsement of an alternative, tested in 2005, to the race and ethnicity questions. The new series of questions for the Hispanic origin responses would be formatted more simply and a statement was added saying: “For this census, Hispanic origins are not races.”