Registered Home: Opening the Door to the Census

Our 2023 has begun with much hosting activity. Indeed, we will end the first nine weeks of the year with our guest room occupied one-third of that time. And the Visitors Calendar is already getting marked up with more visitors yet to come later in 2023. Beyond those who earmark calendar spots for our guest room, hosting various events also has brought dozens more people into our home just in January and February. Clearly, our desire to move forward from Pandemic protocols into the post-Pandemic era has evolved into a new equilibrium that finds our comfort zone balancing reasonable caution with enjoying life. We always have enjoyed sharing our home with guests and visitors wherever we lived, so we relish being able to do that again.

Panamá also has moved forward, and has started 2023 by implementing – three years later – the decennial census that COVID aborted in 2020.  Run by el Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censo  (the National Statistics and Census Institute), 9000 enumerators and supervisors started fanning out through Panamá on January 8 and will continue to collect information for three months, ending March 4.

We received a notice from our building administration that during the last week of January census workers would visit all the apartments in our building, accompanied by a member of the building staff to assure residents of the validity of the census workers.  We have gone through the census process in the U.S. several times in our adult lives, but always by completing and returning the census questionnaire without ever having census workers come to our house to interview us.  Add to that the factors of expat life and still-bad Spanish, and Brian was not sure what to expect on January 28 when his phone rang with a call from the administration saying that census workers were on their way to our apartment to interview him.

Not more than a minute later came a knock at the door.  Brian opened it to greet the building staff member and two census workers, inviting them inside to sit in our living room while we did the interview.  As they got seated, Brian asked them if they spoke English.  Of course, they did not.  Instead, when Brian needed help understanding what they asked in tag-team style, they spoke their questions into their phones to play back not-so-great translations for Brian to hear.  Fortunately, they handled Brian’s bad Spanish with patience and good humor (i.e., they…uh, err, umm…laughed with him, not at him…yeah, that’s it!).  This was not only the twelfth decennial Population Census, but also the eighth Housing Census.  Despite the challenges accompanying literal translations of idioms, Brian was able to answer questions about how many people lived in the apartment with him, if anyone in the apartment has disabilities, job and income information, whether we have internet service, and so on.  Noting the importance of census data to shaping public policy, the government has said that, among other things, data gaps from the aborted 2020 census resulted in problems with the country’s program of internet school during the Pandemic’s early waves:  in particular, because it lacked data on the limits of internet coverage many students could not participate in online classes.

It took less than half an hour for them to complete their list of 48 questions.  Then, as they rose from their seats and headed toward the door, Brian begged one more moment of their patience and asked if they would take a picture with him to commemorate the moment.  They agreed readily, and Brian handed his phone to the building staffer to shoot the pic.  Before they headed out to the lobby of our floor and onto the elevator to go to their next appointment, they gave Brian the official red Vivienda Empadronada (Registered Home) sticker to put in our lobby and show that we have completed the census.

Halfway through our third year living in Panamá, things like this boost the feeling of this as where we belong.  Little things matter, building one on top of the other to validate our sense of belonging.  While we experienced the census with newbie expat eyes, the act of participating – of showing our national IDs, of saying that we own our home instead of merely renting, and of being counted in the national population – serve to reinforce further our sense of belonging here, of being home.

On your mark, get set, here we go!