In late August, I drove to San Luis to meet up with Alexis Gomez. I was interested in learning about Census outreach in communities near the border, and he worked for City Hall driving one of San Luis’ main advertising methods: the Census truck.
I arrived at San Luis City Hall in the evening, an hour or so before sunset, and after signing a form promising I would not hold the City liable in case of a car accident, Gomez walked me to the back parking lot.
I spotted the Census Truck as soon as we exited the building, parked alongside dozens of white work trucks, the obvious outlier. In its bed, Alexis had mounted a sign that made the Census truck look twice as tall as any of the others.
It was a blue-green sign with a phone number, email address and an enthusiastic “Win these prices!” written in all caps.
When we started driving, I realized the sign and the pre-recorded audio message that played on a loop through a loudspeaker were not the only methods Gomez was using to get people’s attention.
As he drove through town, Gomez slowed the Census truck down whenever he saw someone outside, and used the loudspeaker to talk to them directly. Sometimes, he got out of the truck to continue conversations with residents who seemed particularly confused about the Census, and even gave them his card. On a couple of occasions, he had to ask residents to put on a mask.
I asked if he was scared of talking to people who didn’t wear masks, and he said he was, but sometimes he is so focused on his work that he forgets to even think about the pandemic.
As I talked to Gomez more, I realized he was taking the necessary precautions to deal with COVID-19, but that his priority was to talk to as many people as he could about the 2020 Census.
Gomez is a lifelong San Luis resident and estimates that the city’s population grows by the thousands each year. Most importantly, he said he believes driving the Census truck can actually make a difference.
“I do it because I feel something for my city,” Gomez said. “Many of the others don’t take it seriously that this could really change.”
Talking to Gomez that evening really changed the focus of my story. When I first started my research, I thought my story would be numbers driven and that I would have to go through Public Relations Officers to schedule meetings with people from the Census Bureau and San Luis.
I ended up still doing that, but shifting the focus of the story to Gomez and his truck, and just using the other voices as context, because what he was doing reminded me of similar efforts by businesses and the municipal government in my native Ciudad Juárez.
The streets of Ciudad Juárez, a city that exists in constant disarray, are filled with hundreds of cars with signs and loudspeakers, just like San Luis’ Census truck. Of course, the most memorable of those is the 80s Subaru Outback that used to drive by my grandmother’s house every Sunday selling tamales.
I knew from experience how successful these methods could be — though I had never heard of a truck doing this to promote the Census — so I set out to prove this through my reporting.
That is how I found Professor Francisco Lara-Valencia, who teaches at the School of Transborder Studies at Arizona State University, and discovered that his research corroborated my initial hunch.
In the end, San Luis City Manager Tadeo de la Hoya said 2020 Census response rates have doubled in the last few months, and because the City launched many outreach efforts, it is impossible to measure how much the Census truck helped. What we do know is that the response was well received by residents, who participated in the contest by the hundreds.