Earlier this year, Oswaldo Alvarez was meeting with residents in Hanover Park, a village between Cook and DuPage counties about 25 miles west of Chicago. They were pushing for more COVID-19 testing sites in their community, and Alvarez wanted to help. He asked everyone a question that they weren’t expecting.
“Why should Hanover Park get a COVID testing center if only 25 people live here?”
His question was met with silence and lots of confused faces. As of the 2010 census, approximately 38,000 people reside in Hanover Park. There are tons of people living here, they responded. But Alvarez said that couldn’t be correct—at least, not according to Hanover Park’s 2020 census responses, which are how residents are formally counted. Meanwhile, Hanover Park’s neighbors to the northeast were filling out their census forms at a higher rate. “Maybe we should put that testing site in Schaumburg,” he said. “Lots of people live there!”
His message was received. Hanover Park finished with a 77.9 percent self-response rate. That was well above average for the state of Illinois, which finished at a 71.4 percent self-response rate, sixth in the nation.
Alvarez serves as the Census Director for the State of Illinois. He was appointed to the position after over a decade of experience in nonprofit program implementation. Much of that was at the Grand Victoria Foundation, where he worked to reimagine philanthropy by giving more voice to the public on grant-related decisions. Alvarez built his statewide census campaign on the same principle: putting more power into the hands of citizens.
At another community meeting in Waukegan (Lake County), a Chicago suburb where Latinos are under-represented in public office despite comprising over 50 percent of its population, Alvarez asked everyone what they call themselves: “Waukegeños, Waukeganos, or Waukeguenses?” That time, his question was met with laughter, but it made the same point.
“You are from here, so claim your space,” he told the residents. “Because if you don’t claim it, someone else will claim it for you.”
“It was about giving them a sense of identity,” Alvarez says about his rhetorical approach. “[Many Latinos and immigrants] are constantly reminded that they are not from here. Part of what I was trying to tell them was, this is the one way to really claim that you are from here. I think that gave people a sense of power. One thing that I realized is how many people don’t have that sense of power.”
Anybody living in Illinois who saw a billboard, commercial, or flyer about the importance of responding to the 2020 census probably saw a similar message. This was a once-in-a-decade opportunity for Illinoisans to claim their identity: The census produces data that determine the distribution of more than $34 billion for Illinois communities where resources are most needed, and Illinois would lose $1,400 per person per year for everyone who did not fill theirs out. There’s a reason why “Hágase contar” was one of the common mottos of the 2020 census.
It was an especially huge opportunity for Latinos, who comprise about 17 percent of the Illinois population at over 2.2 million. Yet the 2010 census missed about 1.5 percent of them—roughly 32,600. That added up to about $457 million dollars that could have gone to communities with high Latino populations, such as Hanover Park and Waukegan.
Latinos were projected to be among the hardest to count in Illinois for several reasons. For one, there was the language barrier—without reliable information in Spanish, many Latinos were vulnerable to misinformation or disinformation. That was an especially major challenge this year, when the presidential administration was attempting to force people to reveal their citizenship status on their census forms. That attempt was unsuccessful, of course, but the controversy itself had the potential to scare off undocumented people, or those living with undocumented people.
Other common areas of confusion for Latinos were whether the census is confidential (yes, not even the president has access to individual census responses) and whether all children should be included on the form (yes, even if they are newborns who are still in the hospital.) The net undercount rate for young Latino children in 2010 was 7.1 percent, compared to 4.3 percent for non-Latinos. Approximately one in four Illinois children under the age of five are Latino.
That’s a big deal, in part because census data determine funds for English learners: children who enter kindergarten not yet speaking English, the vast majority of whom are Spanish-speaking Latinos. Additionally, four federal assistance programs—Head Start; the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children; the Child Care and Development Block Grant; and the Maternal and Child Health Services Block Grant—distribute $20 billion annually to states based in part on census counts of the population under the age of five.
On top of all that, there was also the barrier of the digital divide. 2020 was the first year that the census was primarily conducted online, in addition to the traditional methods of mail, phone, or by non-response follow-up via enumerators who knock on doors. Latinos in Illinois are less likely to have home internet access.
Alvarez provided guidance for nonprofits all across the state to overcome these hurdles, reach their communities, and effectively boost their census response rates. His background served him well in this role, both as a Latino and as someone so experienced in the nonprofit sector. Before Alvarez was involved in nonprofit, though, his area of expertise was economics.
“One thing that I knew is that culture sells. It’s a money maker,” he says. “And the moment that you can get the private industry to sell it—and people to buy it—you end up actually creating a movement.”
He presents one of the decade’s defining movements as an example. “If you think about the LGBT community, the moment that the movement became widespread and that everyone began asking, ‘why is there even a question about gay marriage?’ was when you had Calvin Klein, Levi, and Budweiser waving the Pride flag. And now it’s sexy, if you will.”
At the Latino Policy Forum, a public-policy advocacy and analysis nonprofit based in Chicago, a census team developed a website full of outreach materials that grassroots organizations and communities could use to spread the word, all of which were available in English and Spanish versions. They included fact sheets, virtual presentations, a social media toolkit, and, most popularly, a census-themed Lotería set available to download, print, and play virtually through a randomized PowerPoint.
The Forum found success with its Lotería set. Many used it to host census Lotería nights with their own organizations and communities—in person before the pandemic hit, and later virtually. In February, about 100 partners played the game at the Forum’s census campaign kickoff event at a bar in downtown Chicago. Thousands of sets were mailed out to partners who requested them, and hundreds more downloaded it, but Alvarez believes that this had less to do with winning prizes and more to do with what Lotería represents.
“Latinos love to buy back our culture, our nostalgia,” he says. “I pushed organizations to think about that. With the Lotería game, what worked was those images. It wasn’t about playing the Lotería game—it was about wearing it.”
The Forum was just one of many nonprofits that worked to build the Census response in Illinois. Rincon Family Services, a Chicago nonprofit providing counseling and addiction prevention and treatment services to the west side of Chicago, helped to contract artists to paint street murals with a theme of “Latino Power.” The art from the murals was then printed onto T-shirts and face masks, which were free for anyone—just fill out your census and take a shirt.
Another collaborative effort by multiple nonprofit stakeholders involved a census van parking in low-response zones in the final days of census response, with tacos and raffle tickets for an “Ultimate Quinceañera.” Local businesses donated a prize package for a full-service quinceañera party, from the dress to the catering. Participating was easy—just fill out your census and enter the raffle.
Even if some ideas didn’t pan out, Alvarez aimed high. One ambitious reward that he tried to arrange for Little Village if they reached an 80-percent response rate was a promise from Congressman Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia to shave off his moustache. The idea was rejected, but not for lack of effort.
Taking this cultural, iconic approach worked, Alvarez believes, because it resonated with a hidden hard-to-count demographic: young, independent millennials working in the gig economy. In fact, these people were even harder to reach than the older, non-English-speaking Latinos who were originally such a targeted focus.
“Every time I would talk to las señoras, I started to see that they were like, ‘Yeah, I already filled it out!’ The more I kept going, the more I realized that many people who weren’t filling it out were people who were born and raised in the US, living in Chicago, and who don’t participate in the same kind of economy as we do. They don’t have a nine-to-five job with health insurance. They probably work as a gig worker: electricians, beauticians, Instagrammers.”
“They’ve been able to get through without having to participate in civic engagement. If anything, they’re afraid that if they participate, they’ll have to pay more taxes. So they think, the more under the radar I am, the better.”
Alvarez points out that Latinos in this modern ‘gig’ industry actually followed a similar path as their parents. Both generations found ways to make good money without a college education and join the middle class by flying under the radar. The only difference is that one generation sold tamales, and the other drives Uber.
“They have been able to get by without the government. And census is government,” Alvarez says. He knew right then how he needed to craft the message. It shouldn’t be based on schools, potholes, and congressional representation, but on concerts and Instagram. “At that point, I realized I needed to make the Census sexy.”
Again, Alvarez aimed high, even trying to arrange a Millennium Park concert from the Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny if Humboldt Park reached an 80-percent response rate. Like the Congressman’s moustache, that idea didn’t work out either, but the message was clear: Illinois is pushing as hard as any state to get everyone counted.
“About 40 percent of the population of Back of the Yards is millennial. Same thing with Little Village,” Alvarez notes. “Some of the nonprofits that work with this population, they work from a lens of advocacy. I’m telling you, a lot of young people do not care about advocacy. They’re trying to buy Gucci. This is a whole population that we’re not honing into, and I needed it.”
With the help of partner organizations, Alvarez launched social-media efforts for census response based on a theme of identity: “Soy Latino de Chicago,” for example. Forefront, a statewide association that issued grants to nonprofits to do census outreach work, also coordinated social media “thunderclaps”: coordinated efforts where many organizations post the same content at the same hour, sparking viral engagement. Hashtags like “#MakeILCount” started trending.
Since it did not require face-to-face outreach, social-media engagement was perhaps the only thing that the COVID-19 pandemic did not disrupt. When the pandemic first caused Illinois to go into lockdown in mid-March, census outreach plans were suddenly turned upside-down. Timelines were pushed back. People wanted to avoid an enumerator knocking on their door even more than they already did. So many recommended outreach efforts were now off the table: hosting community meetings, posting information in schools and public spaces, providing assistance at local libraries. Social media went from important to absolutely critical.
The pandemic also made the public-health benefits at stake in the census even more pronounced, especially since many zip codes with high Latino populations had low census response rates while being among the most affected by COVID.
Illinois did not get the 100-percent response rate that messengers like Alvarez and all the participating nonprofits sought—but sixth in the nation is not bad. Illinois’ final response rate was higher than it was in 2010, and of the top ten states with the most responses, Illinois was the only one with a city of over two million people. Along the way, Illinoisans contemplated their identity.
“A lot of these conversations and questions about the census were happening in academic circles—like the race question,” Alvarez says. “I started to hear people saying, ‘Hold on, how do I identify? I’m Latino, but what is my race?’”
“I was happy to see those questions come up.”
*Steven Arroyo is the communications manager for the Latino Policy Forum, a nonprofit that works for equity, justice, and economic prosperity on behalf of Latinos in Chicago and Illinois through advocacy and analysis on issues including education, housing, and immigration.
The production and dissemination of this story has been possible thanks to a grant from the Field Foundation of Illinois through its Media and Storytelling program. La Raza appreciates its support.