1990 Census Holds Promise for Latino Political Activists

Times Staff Writer

Leo Estrada recalls the pitched battles of the 1970s between a band of Latino activists and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Back then, Estrada, who was a college professor from Texas, and his Latino allies inside and outside government, had a difficult time convincing East Coast officials “that we existed,” he recalled. Estrada, a demographer, knew what was at stake, and he took it upon himself to persuade Latino leaders across the country to push for an accurate count.

The decade-long effort paid off: The 1980 census was the best count ever of Latinos. It recorded a 61% population explosion nationwide, including an even more dramatic 87% increase in California.

America discovered Latinos. The media touted “The Decade of the Hispanic.” And the phrase “numbers are on our side” became a slogan among Latino activists.


Census-based reapportionment of congressional, state and local districts is credited with a doubling of Latinos in Congress and the election of hundreds of Latino officials across the country. Because the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funds is also based on the census, cities and states with large Latino populations received additional money.

The 1990 census holds even greater promise for Latinos, according to Estrada, now a renowned UCLA demographer and chairman of the Hispanic advisory committee of the U.S. Census Bureau.

“The 1980 census gave us a visibility we never had before on a national level,” said Estrada. But today, he added, Latinos are better prepared to make the census numbers count, “to move from bragging about our growth to understanding how to use the numbers to improve conditions for ourselves.”

Already, with census day--April 1, 1990--still a year away, Latino organizations have begun gearing up for the decennial count and to monitor the reapportionment that will follow. They are also keeping a close watch on two lawsuits against the Census Bureau that pit the interests of states with large minority and immigrant populations, like California and New York, against states that have neither.


The 1990 census is expected to show an increase over the decade of more than 5 million Latinos nationwide, for a total of nearly 20 million. About 1.3 million of that increase is expected to occur in Los Angeles County, where Latinos are projected to become one-third of the population. In California, Latinos are projected to reach 7 million, or about one-fourth of the population.

Estrada said he also expects the census to show unprecedented changes in the composition and distribution of Latinos. For the first time, it will provide a complete breakdown by country of origin. In 1980, Central and South Americans were lumped into a category of “other” Latinos.

The census will also measure whether income and education levels have improved. And it will reveal a lot about the “shadow” population of 3 million illegal immigrants who applied for amnesty under the 1986 Immigration Reform Act. According to census estimates, about half the growth among Latinos is attributable to immigration.

Census officials say they are gearing up for their most intensive effort at counting hard-to-reach segments. Despite dramatic improvement in the 1980 census, the bureau estimates that it still missed 7% of Latinos, compared to 1% of the general population.

The Census Bureau is devoting “more staff, money and resources” to reaching minorities than it did in 1980, said Jose Bermea, who is coordinating the Census Bureau’s Latino promotion campaign.

A focus of the promotional campaigns, scheduled to begin in late spring, will be to encourage hard-to-reach illegal immigrants to be counted. The appeal to illegal immigrants will stress the census’ strict confidentiality, Bermea said.

Census questionnaires will be available in Spanish, upon request, as will Spanish-speaking operators and census takers for those who need assistance.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) is launching its own media campaign this spring across California, parts of the Midwest and possibly Texas. The campaign will focus on the hardest Latinos to reach--illegal immigrants, day laborers, the homeless, those living in garages or doubled up in apartments.


The challenge will be greater this time, said the campaign’s director, Arturo Vargas, because the numbers of the poor and the homeless are greater.

Concern among cities and states that stand to lose most from an under-count of minorities and poor led to the suit demanding that the Census Bureau correct the anticipated under-count with a follow-up survey. Besides Los Angeles and California, other plaintiffs include the city and state of New York, Chicago and Dade County, Fla., as well as Latino and black organizations.

The Census Bureau argued that there is not enough time to conduct the additional survey and meet its deadline of delivering the census to the President on Dec. 31, 1990.

In the other case, an anti-immigration organization, 41 congressmen and three states without sizable immigrant populations are demanding that illegal immigrants be excluded from the count for reapportionment. The organization, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), filed a similar suit 10 years ago, but without congressional backing. It lost on a legal technicality.

Plaintiffs in both cases agree that timing is crucial if either of the court rulings are to be implemented in time for the 1990 census.

Whatever the cases’ outcome, Latino organizations say they are preparing for the count and preparing early.

“Over the next two years, we’re going to be setting our political potential for the next decade in concrete,” said Andrew Hernandez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project. The organization has begun training groups in 150 communities nationwide to monitor redistricting, which begins in 1991, Hernandez said.

“The monitoring groups will ensure that redistricting plans brought forward at the local level are fair to Latino voters,” he said. Historically, he noted, political districts have been gerrymandered at the expense of Latinos. This has been particularly “atrocious” in California, he added, where the proportion of Latinos elected to office is substantially smaller than in other southwestern states.


A Justice Department lawsuit filed in September charges that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has gerrymandered supervisorial districts to prevent the election of a Latino. The board--five white men representing one of the largest Latino constituencies in the nation--has vowed to fight the discrimination suit. They have argued that redistricting should wait until 1991 when new census numbers are routinely used to redistrict anyway.

But Latino advocates counter that two supervisorial elections are scheduled before then and should be conducted with corrected district lines.

California’s Latino Population Growth The Latino population in California is projected to reach approximately seven million in the 1990 Census, one-fourth of the state’s total. The number of Latinos, which grew steadily in the early 20th Century, rose dramatically in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, with a population nearly doubling each decade.

Yr California Population Latino Population 1860 380,000 9,160a ’70 560,000 9,330a ’80 865,000 8,620a ’90 1,213,000 7,170a 1900 1,485,000 8,060a ’10 2,378,000 127,000a ’20 3,427,000 248,000a ’30 5,667,000 368,013a ’40 6,907,000 416,000b ’50 10,586,000 758,400c ’60 15,717,000 1,426,538c ’70 19,953,000 2,369,292d ’80 23,667,902 4,541,300d ’90 28,771,200 7,099,100 2000 32,852,600 9,664,800

Yr Latino % of California Total 1860 2.4% ’70 1.6% ’80 1.0% ’90 0.6% 1900 0.5% ’10 5.3% ’20 7.2% ’30 6.5% ’40 6.0% ’50 7.1% ’60 9.0% ’70 11.8% ’80 19.0% ’90 24.6% 2000 29.4%

a Mexican foreign born b Spanish spoken in home c Spanish-surname population d Spanish-origin population (self-identification)

The definitions of Latinos used by the U.S. Census has varied historically since 1860, when “Mexican foreign born” was first used.

Sources: 1880-1980 data from U.S. Census Bureau; 1990 and 2000 projections from state Department of Finance LATINOS / LOS ANGELES COUNTY

L.A. County Latino Year Total Total Latino % 1920 936,455 166,579a 17.7% 1930 2,208,492 199,165a 9.0% 1940 2,785,643 134,312a* 4.8% 1950 4,151,687 287,614b 6.9% 1960 6,038,771 576,716b 9.5% 1970 7,041,980 1,045,958c 14.8% 1980 7,477,503 2,065,503c 27.6% 1990 (proj.) 8,987,757 3,325,274d 36.9% 2000 (proj.) 9,899,898 3,993,656d 40.3%

a Spanish spoken in home b Spanish-surname population c Spanish-origin population (self-identification) d Estimates from Los Angeles County * This decrease occurred largely because of the mass expatriation and departure of Mexican nationals during the Great Depression

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau ; Los Angeles County for projections .