In light blue vests, four student census workers and their 22-year-old supervisor wandered through Escazú, west of San José.
The fivesome walked up steep roads, skipped over rocks to cross streams, dealt with barking dogs – and got lost.
“We didn’t know we were going to be census takers until last week,” Gerson González, 21, said.
Student census workers heeded a last- minute call of duty to assist in the task of surveying an estimated 1.3 million households. Approximately two dozen were sent to Escazú, where they encountered many obstacles. But none were more daunting than the area’s numerous condominiums. Security guards denied access to many census takers, as the upper-class neighborhood presented a challenge to the young pollsters.
The group’s supervisor, Paula García, also a college student, had worked with the National Statistics and Census Institute (INEC) last month to train principals in census taking. The principals then instructed teachers. Her classmates, all statistic students at the University of Costa Rica (UCR), were trained last Monday. They began surveying Tuesday.
Since the 1950s, the task of conducting the census has fallen to primary school teachers. Approximately, 35,000 were needed for the 2011 National Census, which lasts from May 30 to July 3. This is the country’s first census since 2000. However, not all teachers wanted to participate. To fill the void, National University students and statistics undergrads at the UCR have been asked to help. They would be paid ₡50,000 ($100) for a week of work. UCR statistics classes were suspended all week. The census would be the students’ only assignment this week.
After collecting their materials at the INEC headquaters in San José, 75 UCR students went out to being their work at 9 a.m.
Garcia’s group took a bus to Escazú. They exited in the middle of high-rises and beneath a sticky mid-morning heat. The census takers looked bewildered, meandering through the forested hills of San Rafael, a neighborhood in Escazú.
Rebeca Sura, at last, found her census area at 11 a.m. She and a reporter and photographer from The Tico Times broke away from the rest of the group in search of census candidates.
Sura approached a neighborhood where a security guard turned her away, saying nobody was home. A gardener answered the door at the next house. He told Sura that the family would be home later that night. She walked up to another condominium called Portofino.
For the third time in 10 minutes, Sura explained what she was trying to do. The guard nodded, took down her name and cedula (identification) number and unlocked the gate.
Finally, some access. But with one caveat: Only three apartments in the complex had anyone home.
Sura, 19, dressed in all shades of blue to match her vest. The teenager’s nose was pierced and large round earrings bobbed up and down as she prepared to survey her first person.
“They gave us training, from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. yesterday,” Sura said. “It’s now assumed that we know everything that we need to do the census work.”
Perhaps the most important law of census taking is persistence. INEC employees are told to keep checking in with places where nobody appears home. The enumerators leave behind slips of paper with their contact information so residents can call them when they arrive home. If nobody contacts them, a census worker should follow up later in the day. These efforts are supposed to continue even in the rain, and it poured on Monday. If a resident cannot be located or is out of town during census week, a worker for INEC will try to make contact later in the month.
Census takers cannot disregard a person they’re assigned to survey. They can take no for an answer, as residents can refuse to take part in the census.
Rejection and empty homes aren’t the only obstacle for workers. Language can be a major barrier. Foreigners who have lived in the country at least six months are supposed to be tallied in the census.
Many census takers can’t survey English speakers (or Mandarin speakers or whatever language an expat might speak) because neither the interviewer nor the interviewee were bilingual. There’s a box to check for that situation.
A maid invites Sura into a fourth floor apartment in Portofino. She takes Sura to a living room, where a couch faces out a window with a magnificent view of the capital. An issue of the magazine Cigar Aficionado with former U.S. President John F. Kennedy on the cover sits on a table in front of Sura. She waits for her subject to appear.
Jorge Andrés Beirute, 69, is an affable investor. Born in San José, he had worked as a doctor, heading up part of the pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson’s Latin American branch. A divorcee, his children live in the United States and Mexico. Beirute lives alone. He’s bald with a beard and wears a black tracksuit as he greets Sura. She begins the survey, mumbling through the first few questions.
“My hearing is bad,” Beirute said. “I can’t hear you when you’re talking like that.”
Sura speaks up and Beirute responds to each question with politeness. They finish after 25 minutes. Sura takes the elevator up two floors to survey a Nicaraguan expat. She goes down three floors to speak with the last person still at home.
Sura spent almost two hours in Por–tofino.
“It’s been complicated,” Sura said. “Not everyone is here and I’m going to have to keep coming back.”
It’s 1 p.m. already. She figured her day could go until 8 p.m.
At the nearby Paco Center, in downtown Escazú, some of the student enumerators hail taxis looking to grab some lunch. Sura seemed to have the best luck of all of them so far. Many never made it past the security guards, and had to leave forms with them to pick up later. One worker held up two fingers, when asked if she was able to talk to any residents. García herded her colleagues into a taxi. She waited for another one. The morning had been both tiresome and baffling. That wasn’t the worst part.
“We spoke to nobody,” García said, “We kept going around and around didn’t get to speak with anyone.”
Preliminary results of this year’s census will be ready in January.
Making Everyone Count
The Costa Rican government has conducted an official census since 1864. In the 1950s, schoolteachers were put in charge of canvassing their neighborhoods. The practice continues today. In 1998, the country created Census Law No. 7839, which created the semi-autonomous government body the National Statistics and Census Institute. The division has the authority to conduct a census every decade, as well as more frequent, albeit less comprehensive, housing surveys.
Here’s a look at Costa Rica’s population growth since the first census, almost 150 years ago:
Source: National Statistics and Census Institute