Jeff Schnaufer | First 5 LA Writer/Editor

As an immigrant from Oaxaca, Mexico, Deisy Gutierrez thought she had no reason to participate in the last U.S. census 10 years ago.

“There was no one to explain to me what the census was,” the Los Angeles resident recalled.

In fact, she thought there were more reasons NOT to be counted.

“I thought it was only for U.S. citizens to participate. I did not have legal status here,” said Gutierrez, a mother of three boys. “My fear was if you share your personal information, la migra would come to your house and I could be deported. That was the fear we had at the time — me, and other people around me as well.”

Then fate intervened.

Gutierrez was learning parenting skills with her third child, Edwin, from a government-funded program akin to “Mommy and Me.” But then the program suddenly stopped. The reason: lack of funding.

“I was very upset about them closing the program,” she recalled. “I could not understand why it was being closed, because it was a great program. That’s why I started participating in Best Start.”

It was through the First 5 LA-funded Best Start Metro LA Community Partnership that Gutierrez began an educational journey that would come full circle. From parenting tips for herself to helping other parents and, ultimately, back to the census.

“I was going to Best Start to learn how to be a better mom,” said Gutierrez, who joined in 2011. “I didn’t realize how being involved would take me to a higher level of leadership.”

Not only did Gutierrez learn how to improve her parenting skills, she learned how to access and connect parents to resources from L.A. County agencies, how to advocate, how to be a good leader and how to support others. Her efforts earned her a role as co-chair of the communications and parent task forces.

“It was a very active experience,” Gutierrez recalled.

Then she met a promotora by the name of Blanca — and her life changed.

Promotores, or community health workers, typically work in communities where they live, building trusting relationships with fellow residents and sharing information about local resources and issues. They often share a desire to improve conditions in their communities so that children and their families might know a better way of life.

“I was seeing myself doing what she was doing at the time,” Gutierrez recalled of Blanca, who came to the Best Start Metro LA Community Partnership. “I love to engage with community members. I love to learn.”

After receiving her work permit as a result of her enrollment in DACA, Gutierrez applied — and was accepted — to work for the Promotores program through the Esperanza Community Housing Corporation.

“I started doing outreach door-to-door with other promotoras through Esperanza,” Gutierrez recalled. “Our purpose was to inform community members about Obamacare. A lot of people could not apply for Obamacare because of lack of papers. We partnered with St. John’s Well Child and Family Center to help them have the health services they needed.”

Being a promotora helped Gutierrez learn how to access services in L.A. County with little or no income. “From that experience, I became the bridge from the services to the community.”

Gutierrez’s outreach skills appealed to the Koreatown Youth and Community Center (KYCC), who hired her to work with the Latino community as a prevention education specialist. Her duties included running several community groups and doing presentations on topics ranging from child raising to prevention of alcohol abuse.

Then, last August, L.A.Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office invited Gutierrez and about 40 other community members to receive training for the 2020 census. And the circle began to close.

“When I was part of the training, I started listening to what the purpose of the census was and why it’s important to be counted, regardless of the age,” Gutierrez said. “I learned a lot of answers to the questions I had with the 2010 census.”

(See parents’ questions about the 2020 census on First 5 LA’s parenting page here.)

Armed with answers, Gutierrez expanded her work as part of KYCC’s partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau to count an increasingly diverse and growing population in Los Angeles. This includes working with the First 5 Association of California to encourage parents and caregivers of children ages prenatal to age 8 to count young kids in the upcoming census. One million children prenatal to age 5 were not counted in the 2010 census and California had the highest undercount of this population among all of the states.

Gutierrez trained parents to go door to door in Koreatown to educate community residents about the importance of participating in the 2020 census.

“In this area of Koreatown, there are a lot of Latino community members. For the Latino community, the fear is still there, about the immigration,” she said of the 2020 census. “People ask, ‘Why do I have to share my information?’ When you see someone you don’t know, why would you share your private information?”

“From my experience, when you talk to neighbors and friends, when you start building trust with people, it comes more easily,” she said.

“Let me give you an example,” Gutierrez said. “We talk about the resources in the community. If they have babies, we tell them about resources for diapers. We explain that the more people who are counted in the census, the more resources come from the government budget to their community for social services, schools and other programs.”

Ana Nieves has known Gutierrez since they were both members of Best Start Metro LA. More recently, she has learned about the importance of the census from Gutierrez.

“The information she shares is always very valuable,” Nieves said of Gutierrez. “I now know that every person in the community counts. Many people are scared. I know that even if we don’t have papers, we have a right to be here.”

Nieves emphasized that immigrant families have the right for all their children to be counted in the census because the decisions made in Washington, D.C. depend on us being counted here in L.A.”

“Sharing census information and making sure people are able to resonate with the message is important. Deisy’s reputation is extremely helpful in situations like this,” said Angie Aramayo, Central Area Representative for Mayor Garcetti. “She can speak from a nonprofit, parent perspective and the hard-to-count areas need to hear that voice.”

With the onset of COVID-19, Gutierrez’s work with the census changed.

“Previously, the work involved going door to door to engage existing participants. The impact has been not being able to talk one-to-one with participants,” Gutierrez explained.

Instead, she listened and learned from her community groups to assess their most pressing needs: food and rent. KYCC distributed food cards and connected community members to resources in the county.

In July, Gutierrez was promoted, using her research and outreach skills to coordinate education and information on local resources for 145 participants in five community groups on everything from prevention of drug use to coping with life during the pandemic. Every meeting is hosted in virtual spaces.

While Gutierrez no longer works exclusively on the census, participants in her groups receive information on the importance of answering the census. So she had a strong reaction when the U.S. Census Bureau announced on August 3 that it was cutting short all census-counting efforts by a monthending on September 30. After the pandemic hit, the deadline had been extended from the end of July to October 31.

“Unfortunately, as a Latino community, we have less than 60 percent self-response in Los Angeles County,” Gutierrez said. “It is like they (the U.S. Census Bureau) are taking away our opportunity to be counted, to make our community count. I felt disappointed and at the same time frustrated because I know that it is better for the community to be counted, because this is how we get the resources we need.”

Gutierrez’s passion is contagious. Several months ago, she spoke about the importance of participating in the 2020 census to an audience that included 60 local parents. One of those in attendance was Mayor Garcetti.

At the end of her speech, the mayor told Gutierrez that she was “an angel for the Latino community who could inspire others.”

The recollection brings Gutierrez a moment of pride. And it brings her back to Best Start.

Best Start Metro LA, to me, is the foundation of everything that I do for my community,” she said, choking back tears. “As promotora and community member, we are always, constantly advocating for families and parents. First 5 LA does not know the impact this investment has had. I am — I think — one of the best examples of that investment. I work day in and day out for my community to make positive change.”

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