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When Ditas Katague was growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, in the 1960s, only 150,000 Filipinos lived in the United States.

About five decades later, when she began leading the U.S. Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Race, Ethnicities and Other Populations, the Filipino population in the country had risen to nearly 2 million.

Katague now is heading up her third decennial census, and nearly 4 million Filipinos live in America. Of those, more than 1.6 million call California home.

This rapidly growing ethnic group overall has significantly higher incomes compared to the country’s total foreign and native-born populations, but the Filipino voter turnout is only 46%.   It is in closing gaps like this that Katague found her calling early on in census work.

“It has been my desire to be an agent of change and guide census efforts,” said Katague, now director of the California Complete Count Census 2020 Office. “I am a proud Filipino American.”

Rites of passage to census

Katague’s father worked in the 1960s in Kansas City. When she was 10 years old, her family moved to a new subdivision in Modesto, California, where she had an experience that forever changed her perspective on the decennial count.

The father of her best friend in the neighborhood had a stroke and was taken from their house in an ambulance. But because the hospital was far from where they lived, the stroke damaged him seriously.

That terrible memory has always reminded her that if the federal government had allocated more resources to their neighborhood, there might have been a hospital nearby that could have given her friend’s father immediate care.

“I always wonder, if that ER was even 10 minutes closer, would he have suffered less damage? Would he have been able to walk on his own?” Katague said. “If we are not counted, those facilities or things that we need would be a lot farther away.”

Census participation in California

In an effort to achieve a complete count in California, and despite the difficulties of achieving that during the coronavirus pandemic, Katague continues to encourage communities across the state to participate in the census.

As of June 28, she said, California’s count rate was 68% — more than 9 million households have submitted their census questionnaires by phone, online or mail. The state’s rate is higher than the 61.8% national average.

San Mateo, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, Marin, Orange and Ventura counties lead California’s census responses.

“It is a huge achievement, considering what we are facing right now, but we still have a lot further to go,” Katague said.

Those most at-risk of going uncounted in the census include minorities, immigrants, residents in hard-to-reach or remote areas, renters and children ages 5 and under.

“[Census] brings the fair share of our representation back to our communities, and that’s why it is really important,” Katague said. “But most importantly, as Filipino Americans, it shows how we are growing and to have the data [that does] not just lump us [all] in with Asian American and Pacific Islanders.”

Challenges in the Filipino community

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Filipinos who don’t participate in the census are mostly undocumented immigrants and those who are too busy with work, especially those with multiple jobs.

“The census is safe and confidential, but I get the fear,” Katague said. “Many of our hardest-to-count populations … our TNTs (undocumented) within the Filipino community are definitely like, ‘I’m not going to answer that.’ But we need the data to understand the impact that Filipino Americans are having on a lot of different things … especially during this time of COVID-19.”

The deadline to submit the questionnaire to the U.S. Census Bureau has been extended to Oct. 31 because of the pandemic.

Katague acknowledges that many households in the Filipino community are composed of multigenerational families, which poses challenges to count.

“We have those living with lola (grandmother) or lolo (grandfather) and staying with them, or tita (aunt) is staying over, and then they’ll often see an undercount because they won’t report everyone,” Katague said. “Maybe tita’s not supposed to be living there at that time, or maybe they think they’ll get their own forms. But since the housing crisis, we have seen houses that are doubling up.”

Is Filipino Asian or Pacific Islander?

Katague is American, born and bred. She attended American public schools, and established her career mostly in American public service.

By identifying herself as Filipino, her ethnicity offers a thread, a more significant meaning for her commitment that every Filipino living in California and the United States —  young and old, documented and undocumented, biracial and multiracial — gets counted.

Katague talked about how being a Filipino American has shaped her personal and political identity, and she mused aloud about questions her own daughter grapples with.

The teenager is multiethnic — half Filipino, a quarter Italian and a quarter Irish.

According to the Census Bureau, an individual’s response to the race question is based upon self-identification. The Bureau does not tell individuals which boxes to mark or what heritage to write in. Instead, the questionnaire gives the respondent the option to self-identify with more than one race or ethnicity.

“My daughter is also trying to find her identity,” Katague said. “She’d say, ‘Mom, we are the Latinos of Asia.’ But the census gives her the opportunity to choose her identity — the way anybody wants to choose it. Now, she’d say, ‘Mom, I’d only fill out Filipino,’ because that’s what I identify with and that’s what resonates with her.”

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