Alabama | a la bamba
Undercounted
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Where's Pickens County?90.3 WBHM | Aliceville, Ala. -- If the official count of Aliceville is right, the entire Latino population, -- and then some -- is working or eating lunch this day at El Rodeo Mexican Restaurant, where the fajitas are served -- like a Southern summer day -- piping hot.

The owner, Victor Huerta, admits business is good for such a place -- an ethnic restaurant in a tiny community. Indeed, this town in Southwest Pickens County is typically off most radar screens.

El Rodeo's Victor Huerta"I never thought there was a town named Aliceville until I drove here and big shock, you know. Living in Tuscaloosa, been to Birmingham, and you come to such a little community. People have been very nice and have taken me very well and I appreciate that."

And according to Huerta, a lot of Latinos have been making the move into west Alabama, enough to warrant opening his restaurant. Enough to support the opening of a Mexican store down the street.


Aliceville crossroadsBut why Aliceville? Why anywhere in Alabama? Huerta says jobs are here ... and more work means mas dinero.

"If you get a dollar, that's ten times worth more than your money. So for each dollar you get, you get ten pesos, so there's a difference down there."

And that's what many Latinos send back home, good'ole American greenbacks.

A vast majority of Latinos in Alabama -- like Huerta -- are Mexican; a few are Guatemalan, Honduran, Cuban or other nationalities. It's hard to know exactly who's here and from where because many are afraid to be counted officially.

"The Census taker comes to the front door, interviews the one family while the other ten run out of the rear door."

Father Ernesto ObregonThat's the running joke says Fr. Ernesto Obregon of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. He ministers to Latinos across the northern and central part of the state.

"It is all-too-true that many of our people live together in order to save and be able to send more back to Mexico. So that often, the only person that the Census person catches is the one family who have legal custody of that apartment, the others carefully do not show up."

So it's no wonder, of the 25-hundred or so people who live in Aliceville -- according to Census 2000 -- only ten are Latino. Ten. One zero.

"The numbers are wrong. And the Census Bureau knows that the numbers are wrong."

Isabel Rubio is the executive director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, or HICA. She says the statewide numbers don't jibe either, that there aren't the 75-thousand Latinos the Census says it counted in the year 2000. Rubio says the number is three times as high... and the undercount hurts the entire population.

"It comes down to how our congressional districts are drawn, how aid is given to various state and districts, so we've got to make sure that we can educate so we can do a better job of capturing the numbers... to finding out who's here. Not in the terms of Big Brother looking out over you, but just in terms of allocating resources."

HICABut capturing the numbers is easier said than done. Rubio admits most Latinos don"t know what the Census does or how it operates. Those who do know complain there aren't enough Census workers who speak Spanish. Most of all, she says, Latinos fear that if they talk to a Census worker; the information will be shared with other federal agencies and they will be deported.

"...of course, that's why we're afraid," says one man, from Pascala, Mexico. He doesn't want to identify himself or tell me where he works for fear he, his family and his employer will get in trouble.

He says he's heard that there are about 2-thousand Latinos living in Pickens County who are mostly from Mexico and that the Immigration and Naturalization Service is about to come because the Mexicans are here.

Census 2000 mapBut officials at the Census Bureau say they can NOT share information with the INS, or any other federal agency; it is against the law.

Art Cresce is chief of the Ethnicity and Ancestry branch of the U.S. Census.

"...all of us at the Census Bureau have to sign an oath of confidentiality when we first start and every year we have to renew our commitment..."

So why the fear from the Latino community?

"The first thing they say to me is that they don't believe it."

Again, Fr. Ernesto Obregon...who says in post 9-11 America, anything can happen.

"Of course, they're going to be skiddish because Arab males went into the INS to reregister and were immediately picked up and held and interrogated and investigated. And for a Latino who does not know this government, the difference between the INS and the Census Bureau is a difference too small to explain."

"...selling the census to the population is developing a trust that we will not disclose this to anyone -- even to the INS, the FBI -- anyone ... We're not allowed to do it and don't do it."

The Census Bureau's Art Cresce says it takes the cooperation of community leaders and trust among the locals to get the message out.

The Aliceville restaurant owner, Victor Huerta, agrees.

Truck and El Rodeo Restaurant"People shouldn't be afraid of it...(so you recommend that they do it?)...oh yeah, cause then they would get more help...the community where they live would get more help for health departments or whatever...it would be a benefit for them. For us."

For now, Huerta and other Latinos are quietly becoming a part of a new political and socio-economic landscape in Alabama. But as their numbers grow -- officially and unofficially, the clout they carry will also grow. More representation, more special interest groups, more commercialization pointed at Latinos.

Over the course of the coming months, our series will highlight the changes that affect us all: how the burgeoning Latino population mixes in metaphoric song, with other newcomers -- and old-timers of different races, faiths and backgrounds.

"Alabamba ... Latinos in Alabamba ... (laughs)"

~Steve Chiotakis, September 5, 2003

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