While in a public library this week, I saw a representative of the US Census Bureau manning a desk set up as a questionnaire assistance center to make sure everyone had received and returned the census form and to answer any questions. The neighborhood was one with a very racially and ethnically mixed population. I noticed that while many people who passed the Census Bureau representative nodded or otherwise acknowledged her, the Hispanic adults seemed to give her wide berth. I only began to notice this after my tablemate, a white man, commented that some Hispanic families with undocumented members are so frightened of the government that when the census form arrrived in the mail, they moved.
I watched the Hispanic families come in with their children, droppping off and picking up books, and going out of their way not to be counted. I hate to think that a census form would so frighten a family that they would flee their home.
Then I recalled several books I’ve read in recent years about the experience of Hispanics in the US.
Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America by Helen Thorpe offered some real insights into the lives of families with undocumented members, their fear of even attempting to participate fully in American culture and politics. Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do by Gabriel Thompson also offered a look at the shadowy lives so many Hispanics live.
And When a Heart Turns Rock Solid: The Lives of Three Puerto Rican Brothers on and off the Streets by Timothy Black offered a long view, over an 18-year period. Though the families Black covered were Puerto Rican, and so American citizens, they too faced a prejudice born of the notion that Americans with Hispanic surnames or Spanish accents are somehow less than American.
Of course, this was the same week that the healthcare reform law was finally passed and immigration reform was pushing its way to the front of the line. Without some kind of reform, some of the families I saw in the library will continue to go out of their way to avoid being officially counted and even though I know that not everybody feels the same, I think that will ultimately hurt all of us.