Counter Culture

Photo by Myles RobinsonFor years, crusading city and county officials have targeted Latino street vendors as a public nuisance. Their crime: providing fresh fruits and vegetables to immigrant communities where grocery stores are almost nonexistent.

The battle may be drawing to a close. Now the street vendors have a new role: working with the federal officials to count hard-to-find members of the county's burgeoning Latino community.

On Sept. 10, the Santa Ana office of the U.S. Census Bureau embarked on an ambitious partnership with OC's street vendors to deliver information about the upcoming census to customers in North County. From now until April 1, 2000, Anaheim and Buena Park residents who buy groceries from a street vendor whose truck boasts the Census 2000 sticker will also receive a flier written in Spanish and English that explains the importance of the census and urges residents to participate.

About 20 vendors are involved in the program so far; officials hope to expand that number to 50 by the end of the year by bringing the program into Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Fullerton and Placentia.

The Census Bureau's partnership with street vendors is revolutionary for at least one reason: it marks the first time that a government agency in Orange County has worked alongside street vendors to carry out any sort of civic program. For years, the vendors have been cheap political targets. On Jan. 1, for example, Santa Ana banned pushcart vendors from doing business in the Fiesta Marketplace shopping area and its surrounding environs allegedly because of widespread concern over trash. That move was backed by the Downtown Santa Ana Business Association.

Five years ago, the Anaheim City Council tried to pass a stiffer ordinance that sought to drive street vendors out of the city altogether. When that effort buckled in the face of legal challenges, the city turned to low-intensity warfare, using code-enforcement trucks to trail street vendors with orders to write citations for minor traffic infractions—the commonest victims being street vendors who remain parked in the same spot for more than 10 minutes.

The idea of bringing U.S. census officials together with Orange County's beleaguered street vendors originated with Los Amigos of Orange County, a Latino community group that meets in Anaheim. Early this month, the group's chairman, Amin David, and Josie Montoya of the Anaheim community group United Neighborhoods met with city officials to ask them to support the project.

"The one thing we were hoping for was to change the attitudes of the people who were giving the vendors a lot of trouble—those people being Anaheim's code-enforcement department and the police," said Galal Kernahan, a veteran Los Amigos volunteer at the meeting. "So far, it's worked like magic, and the vendors are really excited about the prospect of helping their community."

Kernahan said Los Amigos first considered leveraging the vendors' contacts in the community to assist COPHYLA—the Consortium of Physicians from Latin America. That alliance would have distributed membership literature for the federally funded Healthy Families program, which offers medical coverage to low-income children for $27 per month or less. Los Amigos scrapped that strategy when the group determined that anyone who participated in Healthy Families would run the risk of jeopardizing his or her green-card status by becoming a so-called "public charge."

Unlike Healthy Families, the U.S. census offers its participants no such benefits—other than the promise of 72 years of confidentiality regarding any information they provide about themselves.

There's a strong financial incentive for cities to cooperate with the street-vendor outreach. Each year, the federal government distributes aid to every city and county in the U.S. for an array of social programs—everything from Medicare and Head Start funding to education subsidies. Those federal grants are based on population calculations gleaned from the most recent U.S. census. Local governments with large, difficult-to-identify immigrant and homeless populations have complained for years that their residents are not accurately counted.

According to census officials, the response rate for each national census has consistently plummeted since 1970. During the last census in 1990, officials missed 8.4 million people, with immigrants making up the least likely respondents. That year, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that it missed about 5 percent of the Latino population nationwide, meaning that about 1 of every 20 Latinos who lives in the U.S. wasn't included in the final count.

Working with Latino street vendors in Orange County is just one of the ways census officials hope to win the trust of immigrants. But thanks in large measure to a seemingly bottomless well of anti-immigration sentiment in Orange County, winning the confidence of immigrants won't be easy. Controversy has swirled around Anaheim high school board president Harald Martin, who made headlines by demanding that Mexico pay $50 million per year toward his district's educational costs. Martin admits the school district has no idea how many students are illegal, so he's also asked the school board to invite the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) into the schools to check the immigration status of every student. The INS has admirably refused.

However ridiculous, such headline grabbing goes a long way to explain why immigrant communities are increasingly loath to stand up and be counted—hence the value of having Latino street vendors help to spread the message.

"The census bureau is very pleased that the street vendors are aggressively participating in this important civic duty," said Armando Ramirez, a community partnership specialist with the U.S. Census Bureau in Santa Ana. "It's critical that we do a better job of informing the Latino population about the census so that they're more likely to cooperate. The vendors have developed a long-standing rapport with their clientele. This project is really an ideal opportunity for us to reach out to a population that we might otherwise not have the same access to."


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