Being Latino on Google Plus

Why we should forgive Rep. Young’s ‘wetback’ comment

Photo: John Moore / Getty Images

Republicans, what has the country been telling you for the past year concerning the way you talk about Latinos? Tone, tone, tone.

Yet it seems the GOP can’t go a week without doing or saying something without incurring the wrath of the 17 percent.

This time, it’s an Alaska congressman:

“Rep. Don Young says he ‘meant no disrespect‘ when he used the term ‘wetbacks.’

‘My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes,’ Young, an Alaska Republican, told a local radio station in a story posted Thursday. ‘It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine.’

Young’s comments came as part of a wide-ranging interview in which he slammed regulations and offered his own prescriptions for the economy. The word ‘wetback’ is a slur often used to refer to undocumented immigrants, especially those from Mexico.

‘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,’ he said in a statement later Thursday. ‘I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays, and I meant no disrespect.’

Young went on to praise the role migrant workers play in society and called for the country to address immigration reform.”

The term “wetback” is generally an offensive one, flung at any Latino, immigrant or not, by rabid ethnocentric rednecks (another offensive term).

“Colored” is another slur once viewed as the polite alternative to “nigger.” Now no one dares use either label, except rappers and the nation’s most illustrious civil-rights organization.

My point is that times changes and each successive generation remakes the world in its own image.

Rep. Young is an old man, turning 80 this year. A few weeks ago he celebrated the start of his 31st year in the U.S. Congress.

An old man saying “we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes” is like old white person saying “I was raised by a colored woman.” Sure, it makes you wince. But such uses usually get a pass — as they should — because we understand that older people come from a different place and time.

Young was born in California in 1933, six years before Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath. (In a later book, Steinbeck quaintly described field work as “the wet-back business.”)

And “wetback” has several different connotations. If used toward someone like me, who’s a second-generation American living in the third largest city, then it’s clearly offensive.

But the way in which Young used the word was perhaps its most accurate. When and where Young was raised, “wetback” was used to describe how many immigrants came to work in the fields (by wading across the Rio Grande) and the nature of their work and work ethic (the pools of sweat on their backs).

And it’s better than “illegal.”

Plus, at least he hired those wetbacks in the first place. Most of today’s Republicans — and even some spineless Dems — want to put systems in place that ensure no undocumented immigrant ever receives a paycheck.

Young, however, was talking about how today’s automation makes it difficult to hire more undocumented laborers.

Candidly, I get the sense that most Latinos are incensed by the word “wetback,” not because the term itself is all that offensive, but because it recalls a bitter past. By running away from “wetback,” Latinos hope to run away from their own, noble history. Erase the word, and you erase the memory it’s associated with.

So let’s all go easy on the congressman. He says he didn’t mean to offend anyone, and I truly believe him.

Lord knows Latino grandparents are apt to say much worse.

About Hector Luis Alamo, Jr.

Hector Luis Alamo, Jr., is the associate editor at Being Latino and a native son of Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood. He received a B.A. in history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where his concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States. While at UIC, he worked first as a staff writer for the Chicago Flame and later became the newspaper's Opinions editor. He contributes to various Chicago-area publications, most notably, the RedEye and Gozamos. He's also a cultural critic for 'LLERO magazine. He has maintained a personal blog since 2007, YoungObservers.blogspot.com, where he discusses topics ranging from political history and philosophy to culture and music.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.

Comments

  1. Negative words are not as bad as Negative laws. Do you know children as young as 12 are “legally” harvesting our food in the U.S. The majority of these children are Latino and deserve equal protection. My latest attempt for equal laws.
    Will you sign this petition? Click here:
    http://signon.org/sign/eliminate-legal-child?source=c.em.mt&r_by=7407788

    See The Harvest documentary if you want to “see” what is going on in the U.S.

Speak Your Mind

*