Graciela Carrillo has lived in the U.S. for nine years and shares a common feeling with many immigrants from western Guatemala about living in their adopted homeland. “We are invisible,” she said. Carrillo identifies as Mam, an indigenous ethnic group that would be hard to count in the federal census even during optimal times. They’re even harder to count during a pandemic.
This week, the Trump administration conceded that America’s crucial once-in-a-decade population count has been thrown for a loop by the coronavirus, and asked Congress for a 120-day extension to complete the tally. Population groups that don’t have deep local roots, like the thousands of Guatemalan highlanders who have moved to the Bay Area in recent years, have become especially tough to track now that most face-to-face contact is impossible.
Carrillo is one of an estimated 10,000 Mam who live in and around Oakland. Another 5,000 are spread across the Bay Area. Few speak English, many don’t speak Spanish and most are noncitizens. Instead, they speak Mam, one of the many indigenous Mayan languages in Guatemala.
If they remain invisible to census takers, then cities, counties and school districts will be shortchanged when it comes to getting money to support a community whose members form the backbone of the Bay Area service economy. Federal aid to local governments depends in part on the size of an area’s population.
Many Mam serve meals in restaurants, work on construction crews and toil in well-to-do neighborhoods as landscapers and house cleaners. Oakland Unified School District officials estimate that 1,300 Mam students attend city schools.
“If they don’t get counted, they are likely to miss out on important resources,” said Casey Farmer, executive director of the Alameda County Complete Count Committee.