Three perspectives from Big Sky locals

Exploring race and ethnicity and the census

The census only happens once every ten years and the data received from the count goes towards funding communities, shaping political districts and defining demographics. Thus, obtaining an accurate count is crucial. This article, third in a three-part series, presents three perspectives on race and ethnicity.

A person’s background is not obvious at first glance. Just like their stories and histories, the race, ethnicity and ancestry of a person are found beneath the surface.

Karla Long studied business administration in Chile and came to Big Sky through a work and travel program. The second time she traveled to work in Big Sky through this program, she met Dustin and the two eventually married.

The Longs settled in Big Sky despite it being far from Karla’s family in Chile and Dustin’s in Alabama. “But it was a place that we both love and where we fell in love,” Long said.

Similar to Long, Sabah Zouein participated in a work and travel program while studying hotel management in Ecuador. She worked in Big Sky for three winter seasons through this program, earning volunteer hours needed for her degree. She met her now-husband, eventually started her own business, and the two started a construction business together.

Zouein’s parents are from Lebanon and she lived there between the ages of four and six. Her parents left the country twice, once before Zouein was born and once taking her with them. When they left the final time, Lebanon was at war with Israel and Syria. Zouein described living in a war zone for two years as horrendous. “It just didn’t work out in Lebanon, unfortunately,” she said.

Long’s great-grandparents were from Germany and Spain and her parents were born in Chile. “It’s so weird how I feel. I’d rather put Hispanic American than just Latino,” Long said about filing out race or ethnicity questions on official documents. She recalled seeing the Hispanic American option at doctors’ offices 15 years ago or so and identified with that label. “I don’t like the Latino word. I think about Latinos more like Central American,” Long said. “You have to kind of feel it out.”

When Zouein was in school, she learned about Spain’s invasion of Ecuador and the different mixtures of people that resulted. In Latin America, those from solely Spanish descent were defined as Criollo, and Mestizo referred to mixed race or ethnicities particularly involving Spanish and indigenous descent, Zouein explained. “Sometimes these classifications were used to rank social class,” she said.

“It just made things very confusing to me,” Zouein said. “There are so many ethnicities that I feel some of us don’t know about.”

Zouein spoke with her sisters in Ecuador to get more clarity about their race and ethnicity. Through their conversations, she defined her race as white and ethnicity Latino, even with her Lebanese heritage, since she grew up in South America and has more cultural ties there.

Samantha Suazo, a teenage Big Sky resident, views her race and ethnicity with one descriptor—Latino. She preferred that to Hispanic, but even as she tried to explain the difference between the two, she acknowledged how confusing it can be. “I just don’t get why [the census] says that Hispanic or Latino does not count as a race,” she said.

Suazo’s family came to Big Sky in 2014 after her father, Marvin, got offered a construction job. Her parents fell in love with the community and environment of Big Sky. Before, Marvin spent time in Mexico, and the whole family lived in Honduras.

“What will our kids say?” Long asked. Will they say they are white? Will they identify as mixed? She can have conversations with her oldest daughter, about to enter the third grade, in Spanish. “I always make them [her children] Chilean food. Or my grandma, who is from Germany, will have some food that I learned as well. I tell them that this recipe is from my great-grandma,” Long explained.

Zouein’s parents are teaching Arabic to her oldest daughter who is about to enter kindergarten. Zouein also speaks Spanish with her at home. Her daughter understands what is said to her in both Arabic and Spanish but responds to her mother or grandparents in English.

Even with varying and diverse backgrounds, these three women came to essentially the same conclusion about defining their race and ethnicity in the United States—it is confusing. Furthermore, they felt the options on the census did not make filing it out any easier or more straightforward.

“If they want to know who is living in the United States, then I think statistics would prove better [by showing] how many Latino people are here, how many people are from Spain are here. I think that would give them a better idea and results would be way more accurate,” Suazo said, and advocated for the consideration of Hispanic, Spanish or Latino origins as races.

Part of the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) goal with the format of the census was to make it understandable and streamlined, something people could look at and fill out with ease.

Zouein’s Ecuadorian and Lebanese heritage and Long’s German and Chilean heritage do not neatly fit into any category. Suazo brought up scenarios that questioned what a person would define themselves as if they were born in Ecuador and now live in the U.S. but have not completed the citizenship process.

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In June 2019, the Supreme Court rejected the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census, which was proposed by the Trump Administration. On July 21, 2020, President Trump issued a memorandum on excluding undocumented immigrants from the census after being denied the citizenship question.

“For the purpose of the reapportionment of Representatives following the 2020 census, it is the policy of the United States to exclude from the apportionment base aliens who are not in a lawful immigration status under the Immigration and Nationality Act…to the maximum extent feasible and consistent with the discretion delegated to the executive branch,” President Trump said in the memo.

Opponents argued this order would benefit Republicans in redistricting, as many democratic areas tend to have more diverse and immigrant populations. Trump argued the Constitution does not specifically define which persons must be counted and that it falls to the President’s discretion.

Data sharing agreements with the Trump Administration and South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska and South Carolina allow for the accumulation of driver’s license and state identification card information to help figure out citizenship statuses, NPR reported. Information gathered is not expected to include information on unauthorized immigrants, as all four states require proof of residence in the U.S. upon applying for a driver’s license or state ID card.

“When the Census Bureau receives the records, they are stripped of all personal identifiable information and are used for statistical purposes only while remaining strictly protected by Title 13,” the Bureau said in an Oct 2019 statement regarding data sharing.

Confusion and politics aside, the census is the tool the U.S. has to count its people and determine community needs.

“The U.S. Census’ once a decade count is a tool used to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars for more than 100 social services programs and to guide decisions on new schools, new clinics, new roads, and more services for families, older adults, and children,” Candace Carr Strauss, Big Sky Chamber of Commerce CEO, said. “In addition, it determines seats in the House of Representatives and congressional and state legislative districting. It is anonymous and reflects who we are and where we live as a nation and should not be made a political hot potato.”

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