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New Mexico Cuts Census Barriers for Native Language Speakers

The New Mexico Complete Count Commission, a coalition of state and community leaders, is producing audio recordings explaining how to fill out census forms in the languages of New Mexico's Native American tribes.

by Dillon Mullan, The Santa Fe New Mexican / January 14, 2020
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(TNS) — To prevent millions of federal dollars from getting lost in translation, the New Mexico state and local governments, and nonprofits are aiming to knock down 2020 census barriers for residents who speak languages other than English.

Online and over the phone, U.S. census forms and interviews will be available in 13 languages, none of which are Native American. Census instructions are available in 59 languages, but Navajo, also known as Diné, is the only Native language to make that list.

In response, the New Mexico Complete Count Commission, a coalition of state and community leaders, is producing audio recordings explaining how to fill out census forms in the languages of New Mexico's tribes — Navajo, Tiwa, Tewa, Towa, Eastern and Western Keres, Zuni, Jicarilla Apache and Mescalero Apache.

Hundreds of billions of federal dollars are given to states each year based on the nation's 10-year count, including nearly $8 billion for poverty-stricken New Mexico, which heavily relies on the federal funding. More people included in the count means more funds for the state. But most vulnerable to an undercount, many advocates say, are those who live in rural and remote Native communities.

According to New Mexico Counts, a coalition of 11 statewide philanthropic organizations promoting the census, about 2 percent of New Mexico's population wasn't counted in the 2010 census. A similar undercount this year could cost the state nearly $1.5 billion in funding for food assistance, Medicaid, education, transportation and other programs over the next 10 years.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham set aside $3.5 million from the state budget to help support local governments' 2020 census efforts, ranging from nearly $600,000 for Bernalillo County to $10,000 for Mora and Los Alamos counties.

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs is receiving $400,000 for tribal outreach efforts.

But some advocates say the funds are not enough. Last week, U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., criticized what she called a lack of federal government support for ensuring an accurate count in Native communities.

“It’s becoming more clear that a failure to count Indian Country in the 2020 census is a failure for the federal government to live up to its trust responsibility to Native nations," Haaland said Thursday, following a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing.

County and Pueblo officials in New Mexico say most of their census funds will go toward local media campaigns to encourage people to participate in the count and to work as an enumerator. These federal government employees go door to door, asking residents to fill out census forms after other efforts fail, such as mailing paper forms and invitations to participate in the census online.

Before turning to resources such as audio recordings, available on a smartphone app, census organizers say the most effective strategy to ensure everyone in a community is counted is finding enumerators who speak the residents' language.

"When cases arise with a language that is not listed, we rely on state and local partners," said Sergio Martínez, U.S. Census Bureau partnership coordinator for New Mexico and Utah. "This is why it's important for us to be able to hire locals and ensure the census is counted by New Mexicans."

Keegan King, Policy and Legislation Bureau chief for the New Mexico Department of Indian Affairs, which is carrying out the audio recording project, said the agency is still fine-tuning the recordings for details, such as the different dialects of Tiwa spoken in the Taos and Isleta pueblos.

Written instructions, such as the ones the federal government is providing in Navajo, can be useless, King added.

"A lot of the census language is highly technical," King said. "It's not the same colloquial version of the language people are used to and can be difficult to translate and understand. In Pueblo communities, even those that have a written alphabet, most of it is an oral language, so we're really focused on working to identify enumerators so that people in the community that are bilingual can be doing that work."

Beyond Native languages, Anni Leming, civic engagement coordinator at the New Mexico Asian Family Center, said there are other minority groups in New Mexico marginalized by the census.

"The tricultural myth that pervades here in New Mexico is that our residents are either Native American, Hispanic or Anglo," Leming said. "That gets rid of existence of African Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and many other communities in New Mexico.

"We really want to move away from that myth," she said. "I think the census is a good opportunity to recognize the diversity in our state."

©2020 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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