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Caravan drives through Santa Ana aiming to close the census count gap

Census parade
Children and adults stepped out to see the County of Orange census campaign that passed by in a 15-vehicle parade around Santa Ana on May 29.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

A group of local businesses and organizations hitched their latest census efforts onto the caravan bandwagon on May 29.

Before a wave of protests took over city streets, a parade of school buses, cars and vans decorated with banners and balloons slowly drove through Santa Ana for nearly three hours to the tunes of reggaeton, cumbias and Selena classics. Santa Ana Unified, AltaMed Senior Care, the O.C. Food Bank and Suavecito Apparel were just a few of the participants.

For the record:

12:43 PM, Jun. 05, 2020A previous version of the story referred to citizenship questions on the census. There are no citizenship questions on the census.

Saul Viramontes, Orange County’s head of Census 2020 special projects, and his team pivoted to phone banking and digital outreach once COVID-19 hit.

“After a month or so, we were thinking ‘There’s only so much social media outreach we can do,’” Viramontes said. “There’s only so much digital outreach we can do. There’s only so much phone banking that we can do. What else is out there? That’s kind of where the caravan came from.”

The County of Orange Census campaign passed by in a 15-vehicle parade around Santa Ana on May 29.
The County of Orange Census campaign passed by in a 15-vehicle parade around Santa Ana on May 29.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

He pointed out certain areas have low broadband connectivity and even the biggest investment in social media and digital advertising wouldn’t matter for those households.

With events and door-to-door canvassing out of the question, they decided to try something new in an effort to reach the hardest-to count areas like Santa Ana.

As of this week, 61.3% of the Orange County population responded to the census according to Viramontes. He listed parts of Anaheim, Irvine and unincorporated areas as falling behind in response rates.

Yesenia Hernandez, Community Action Partnership of Orange County spokesperson, saw car parades for students start to spread locally and statewide. She helped plan the event and made sure the participants were specific organizations that have built community trust in Santa Ana.

One of the participating nonprofits, Latino Health Access, was already reaching out to the neighborhood in alternative ways. The health organization equipped vans with loudspeakers and drove to food distribution centers and grocery stores to provide information about COVID-19.

Nancy Mejia, director of the nonprofit’s community engagement, drove in the caravan and said “people were very supportive and excited. I think more than anything, the kids got excited to see something different in the past months of social distancing.”

She added, “With inequities in our community around COVID-19 and civil unrest, I think we have been very intentional to make sure that our presence remains in those communities.”

The caravan moved slowly and made many stops to have conversations with onlookers about the census.

People stopped on the street to see the County of Orange Census campaign
People stopped on the street to see the County of Orange census campaign that passed by in a 15-vehicle parade around Santa Ana on May 29.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

“Many who are immigrants are still getting to know how the political systems work,” Mejia said. “So our work has been providing information and education.”

It also involves reassuring non-citizens questions included in the census are safe to answer.

Viramontes heard some say they didn’t get their mail-in census packet. Many non-English speakers didn’t know that the census could be submitted online through 2020census.gov or over the phone by using lines catering to multiple languages.

The California Legislature invested $187.2 million toward census outreach and distributed the money to counties and nonprofits statewide.

Genaro Herrera, 45 of Santa Ana
Genaro Herrera, 45 of Santa Ana, watches the County of Orange census campaign that passed by in a 15-vehicle parade around Santa Ana on May 29.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

“It’s important that the community gets counted because that is how the amount of resources coming from the federal government to cities are decided, like reduced lunch programs for kids,” Mejia said. “Public funding also means that we can demand how the police are funded, for instance. The more resources our community gets, the better.”

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