Newly-opened Census Assistance Centers help non-English speakers

Mercer 1892

Debbie Stokol/

Wendy Arias, 29, left sits with her copy of the Census at Sharon Beauty Salon, one of 150 Questionnaire Assistance Centers sprouting up around Los Angeles.

Every day for five hours since mid-March, Roselyn Ruiz has manned one of the 150 Questionnaire Assistance Centers sprouting up around Los Angeles. At her table outside East L.A.’s 21st Street Market, Ruiz has been in charge of the Hooper Street center from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. These centers are part of the 2010 Census Bureau’s effort to get people counted in communities that have historically been hard to count.

“People come to me to help them answer the form,” she said. “They know they have to participate. There’s this rumor that they’ll have to pay a $25 fine if they don’t send it in.”

Ruiz said foot traffic in the middle of the work day has been a bit slow - about 11 or 12 visitors - but folks are eager.

Ruiz spends most of her time easing fears.

“A lot of people are afraid of deportation,” she said. “You can tell by their facial expressions. So I just explain that this information is confidential and protected by law and that their names will only be available in 72 years for history books."

Located at churches and supermarkets, outside stores and salons, the makeshift centers consist of a bureau employee and a table. The questionnaires - abbreviated forms of the 10-question version - come in English, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Russian and Vietnamese.

Employees set up these sites to help those who are illiterate, unable to speak English or are uncomfortable navigating through the written forms, officials said.

Ruiz helps people navigate what some say can be a confusing form -- especially questions eight and nine, which ask about Hispanic heritage.

“A lot of people find questions eight and nine problematic and say they’re racist because if (respondents) are not Mexican, Puerto Rican or Cuban they have to write their nationality in," Ruiz said. "I have to tell them ‘you get a little section too.’”

Census officials say they've written the form that way to offer the most leeway.

“It’s up to them how they identify themselves," said Earlene Dowell, a spokesman for the Census. "Their responses are later reviewed and counted.”

Wendy Arias, 29, said that despite the publicity encouraging people to fill out the form, some are still afraid.

“Many don’t care if this is for ill or good," said the Mexico native. "If it involves releasing their records, they don’t like it.”

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