A Republican Congressman is facing heat for using the racial charged term “wetback” to describe Latinos during an interview this week.
But epithet was once commonly used among Latinos, and even among some civil rights organizations, as a way to distinguish U.S.-born Latinos from recent immigrants.
In an interview with a community radio station KRBD on Tuesday, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, referred to Latinos working on his father’s ranch as “wetbacks.”
“My father had a ranch. We used to hire 50 or 60 wetbacks and…to pick tomatoes,” the 79-year-old Young said. “You know, it takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine.”
Bloggers and social media immediately picked up on Young’s comments and attacked the conservative congressman just as the GOP is embarking on efforts to woo Latino voters. By Thursday, the congressman’s office issued a statement and said he “meant no disrespect.”
"During a sit down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio this week, I used a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in Central California," Young, who has been in office since 1973, said in the statement. "I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect."
The pejorative term refers to illegal immigrants from Mexico who reached the U.S. by swimming through the Rio Grande along the Texas border.
“We are outraged that in 2013 political leaders are still using racial slurs and insulting terms to refer to our community,” said Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente.org, an online Latino advocacy group. “Rep. Ron Young needs to publically apologize for his careless and hurtful statement.”
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, as a new generation of Mexican American civil rights leaders began to emerge, U.S. Latinos began to complain about illegal immigration and the strain it was putting on wages among Mexican Americans. At the time, Mexican Americans were among the poorest group in the nation and the population’s middle class was still small. Unauthorized migration from Mexico, some civil rights leaders argued, was being used by growers and businesses to stop Mexican Americans from demanding equal protection under the law and undermining efforts to halt racial exploitation.
The idea of “illegal immigration” also was only 30 years old (the U.S. Border Patrol was created in 1924).
Still, beginning during the Truman Administration, some Latino civil rights leaders began complaining about “the wetback problem” to federal officials. In fact, legendary civil rights lawyer Gus Garcia met with White House officials on behalf of the G.I. Forum to discuss the matter.
In 1953, Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) embarked on an effort to militarize the agency and launched “Operation Wetback” — a mass deportation effort that removed 3.6 million people of Mexican origin from the U.S. (some were U.S. citizens). At the same time, G.I. Forum leader and journalist Ed Idar Jr. wrote a report on behalf the G.I. Forum and the American Federal of Labor that argued “wetbacks” were a direct threat to the health and culture of American society. The report, entitled “What Price Wetbacks?”, also painted U.S. Border Patrol agents as unsung heroes, according to historian Ignacio Garcia.
The report was a reflection of some Latinos at the time. Still, it sparked outrage among others. Idar had sought show how undocumented immigrants, who he called “Guanajuanto Joes,” were being exploited but instead repeated old stereotypes. The report split members of the G.I. Forum and its leader, Dr. Hector P. Garcia, distanced himself from it. The Mexican-born Garcia had long been critical of illegal immigration but blamed it largely on the growers and businesses who were exploiting poor immigrants.
And the G.I Forum wasn’t the only one to use the term. Sociologist Julian Samora, a pioneer in Mexican American Studies, even published a book in 1971 called “Los Mojados: The Wetback Story.”
But overtime, the term ceased being used in public as Mexican Americans soon realized the term was being used to describe all people of Mexican origin in the United State, regardless of immigration status or citizenship. Soon the term was tucked away and banished among other offensive terms rarely used in public (expect by mainly racist who mean to use it.)
So when Young says he was using the term “commonly used” during his time growing up, he’s right. But it begs the question: was he using it to describe all people of Mexican origin regardless of status? Or was he using it to refer to illegal immigrants working on his father’s California ranch?
If it’s the former, the term is based on racism, intended or not.
If it’s the latter, Young is admitting that his family acquired its wealth, allowing him to eventually run for Congress, by hiring undocumented workers, and by breaking the law.