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With census response lagging in Little Village, activists offer a deal: sign up, use laundromat free

“If we don’t fill it out, we lose the millions [of dollars] of funding that is necessary for our communities,” said activist Frances Velez.

Frances Velez holds a sign offering drivers free use of a laundromat during an event encouraging Little Village residents to fill out the census on Sunday Sept. 20, 2020.
Frances Velez holds a sign offering drivers free use of a laundromat during an event encouraging Little Village residents to fill out the census.
Tom Schuba/Sun-Times

Frances Velez stood on the sidewalk Sunday near a laundromat in Little Village hoisting a handwritten sign with an unusual proposal: “Fill out the census. Get a wash.”

Velez, a Pilsen resident and volunteer with the nonprofit Mujeres Latinas en Accion, said the nationwide tally taken each decade could potentially be a “game changer” for Little Village.

“If we don’t fill it out, we lose the millions [of dollars] of funding that is necessary for our communities,” said Velez, noting those resources could ultimately go toward funding things like neighborhood clinics, hospitals and day care centers.

As folks hauling bags of dirty clothes walked up to La Villa Coin Laundry, 3104 S. Pulaski Rd., Velez and other volunteers waited outside to offer information about the importance of the census — and if they filled out a census form, they got tickets that could be redeemed for two free loads of laundry. Also helping sponsor the event: Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Enlace Chicago, Erie Neighborhood House and the Xilin Association.

Meanwhile, at Apostolic Faith Church in Bronzeville, Gov. J.B. Pritzker told a mostly Black congregation Sunday afternoon that participating in the census is “one of the most important things you can engage in this year if not this decade.”

With just 10 days left to submit the questionnaire, volunteers and officials are working to ensure more people are counted in places on the South and Southwest Sides as communities of color lag far behind in census participation.

During a census-focused gospel concert, Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton on Sunday said the state is in the middle of a “count crisis” as Chicago’s response rate is considerably lower than the rest of Illinois, especially in Black and Brown communities that could be negatively impacted as a result of an undercount.

Illinois boasts a 70% self-response rate, compared to Chicago’s 60%. In some communities that have grappled with a lack of federal funding — like Little Village, Englewood and North Lawndale — the response rate is considerably less, hovering between 35 to 40%.

“I know that we can do so much better than that,” Stratton said.

Stratton said a 1% undercount is equal to $195 million loss in federal funding for the state and its residents.

“That’s money that Illinois can’t afford … and money that our communities desperately need,” she added.

Pritzker joined Stratton in stressing the importance of making sure everyone gets counted in the census as deadline looms. He acknowledged the challenging obstacles Black people have historically had to face when it comes to the census. That’s why, he said, his administration dedicated more than $12 million in targeted census outreach to Black communities.

“It’s time for you to finally get the investment and representation that you deserve,” Pritzker said.

In offering information about the census in Little Village, Velez said she’s particularly focused on assuring residents there that the census asks no questions about their citizenship status. Still, she said many undocumented immigrants have a deep-seated fear of the federal government, based on the aggressive tactics used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement under President Donald Trump.

State Rep. Edgar Gonzalez, D-Chicago, was among the public officials who showed up at a Little Village laundromat Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020 to encourage neighborhood residents to take part in the census.
State Rep. Edgar Gonzalez, D-Chicago, was among the public officials who showed up at a Little Village laundromat Sunday to encourage neighborhood residents to take part in the census.
Tom Schuba/Sun-Times

State Rep. Edgar Gonzalez, a Democrat whose district includes Little Village, specifically blamed Trump for influencing the low turnout in certain communities.

“With Trump’s rhetoric, people are scared and it’s very understandable,” Gonzalez said, standing outside La Villa. “Some people, they still don’t believe the fact that we tell them your information is completely confidential — and they have a right to be scared.”

Jose Lara, a truck driver who lives in Little Village, agreed the fear is palpable among some residents. Still, he and his wife have encouraged others to get counted. The census is important, he added — he’s filled it out every time since immigrating from Mexico in 1982.

Jose Lara begins doing free loads of laundry with his wife and daughter after filling out the census at La Villa Coin Laundry on Sunday Sept. 20, 2020.
Jose Lara begins doing free loads of laundry with his wife, Luz, and daughter Nadia after filling out the census at La Villa Coin Laundry on Sunday.
Tom Schuba/Sun-Times

After filling out his census, before moving inside to do the wash, Lara said this time around, he wants to ensure his daughter, Nadia, has a bright future and can attend well-funded schools.

Pritzker said the only way to ensure “real justice and real change” for Black and Brown communities is to make sure people participate in the census.

“Filling out the census is as important as any protest,” Pritzker said. “It’s a demand to be fully heard.”