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Making census of us (and U.S.)

1 July 2010

“We should do away with the picturesque jargon of black, mulatto, mestizo… and etc., and instead view ourselves geographically, calling ourselves Americans for where we are from, as do the English, and the French and that other European country that is oppressing us, and the Asian in Asia and the African in his part of the world.”

José Maria Morelos y Pavon (1814)

Erwin, at The Latin Americanist, writes on the problems the United States — which might have saved itself some grief had it listened to what Morelos was saying — is having with their decennial national body-count:

An interesting conundrum appeared for numerous Latinos who tried to fill the census papers: how to accurately answer the questions pertaining to race and ethnicity. If one is of a mixed racial background such as mestizo, for instance, then how should one classify his/her race for the Census? What about the person … who claimed that “I would consider myself Hispanic or Mexican-American, but definitely not White”?

A report from the U.S. Commerce Department Office of the Inspector General found that some Census workers have ignored similar troubles during their door-to-door visits. Rather than clarify concerns some of the workers in the study made things worse:

Upon their visits, census workers are supposed to read aloud the 10 census questions, including those on race and ethnicity. Yet, according to the report, 71 workers incorrectly communicated the race and Hispanic-origin question to respondents. Some census workers made assumptions about individuals’ race and filled in boxes without asking the respondent the ethnic background questions, while others failed to ask their respondents if they wanted the questions read aloud.

The “picturesque jargon” of the United States is even more complicated than Morelos’ world’s “Peninsulare, Criollo, Mestizo, Mulatto, Negro, Indio, Zambo, etc”.   The U.S. census form specifies that one defines oneself as:

Hispanic, Latino or Spanish Origin — divided into sub-categories of:

  • Mexican, Mexican-American or Chicano
  • Puerto Rican
  • Cuban
  • Another Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin


Black, African-American or Negro
American Indian or Alaskan Native (with the form asking for the specific “tribe”)
Asian Indian
Native Hawaiian
Guamanian or Chamorro
Other Asian (with the form asking to “print race, for example Hmong, Laotian, Pakistani, Thai and so on”)
Other Pacific Islander (with the form asking to “print race, for example Fijian, Tongan and so on”)

Mexico also has their census in years ending in “0”, and it took about three minutes to  answer the census workers´questions. I was asked how many people lived in my house (one). My name and age.  Whether either of my parents spoke an indigenous language (which they didn’t, so I wasn’t asked which languages), whether I had running water and electricity (yes), whether I had an indoor toilet, refrigerator, stove, blender, or washing machine (yes to all), if I knew the roofing material on my house (concrete, I think), my level of education (maestería), my trade (if any) — and — being a resident alien, the country where I was born.

The controversial question here  asked my religion.  The Roman Catholic Church hierarchy worried that quasi-Catholics, like those who follow the Santa Muerte religion would be counted among the faithful.  Cardinal Norberto Rivera briefly considered calling on the faithful to boycott the census.

I think the real concern was that the long-time estimate that 85 percent of Mexicans are Roman Catholics is probably way over-stated… with ninguna preferencia probably being the true majority religion, even among those (like myself) that are “technically” Catholics. Of course, I was tempted to indulge in a bit of picturesque jargon and answer “Iglesia de San Cuah“, but came to my … er… census before I spoke.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. humberto permalink
    1 July 2010 8:50 am

    yes, i found the questionnarie lacking (in the US).
    I did not mailed it. When the census person came she asked, and i responded none of the above, her reply was “so are you white?”
    My response was I’m not white. I’m mestizo. Which I do not know if she wrote down.

  2. Mary O'Grady permalink
    1 July 2010 3:50 pm

    So, in Mexico, were the followers of Santa Muerte listed as Catholics or not?

    • 1 July 2010 4:00 pm

      I guess you’re a Catholic if you say you are. A lot of Santa Muertes (and others, like the Church of Mexico, which is Orthodox) consider themselves Roman Catholics — which would boost the RC’s claim to represent mainstream thinking and demand some say in legal and educational matters. But, given a choice, if people aren’t claiming to be Catholics…

      I could understand it if the RC church was worried about spending resources on serving congregations not their own, but I think it just comes down to not wanting to know.

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