Honolulu Council Renounces “Wetback” Slur

HONOLULU

The Honolulu City Council  unanimously rebuked one of its members, Rod Tam, for using the derogatory term “wetbacks” to refer to undocumented Mexican workers.

Council Chairwoman Barbara Marshall says Tam will not be removed as chairman of the powerful zoning committee.

Before the council passed a resolution rebuking him, Tam had apologized for the remark, saying that he did not know the meaning of the term but that he agreed with the council’s decision to rebuke him.

Some Hispanic residents said they wanted to meet with Tam to ensure he is more sensitive to people of other cultures in the future.

Tam made the comment during a May 13 Zoning Committee meeting on the construction of the proposed University of Hawaii’s West Oahu campus. He was expressing concern about developers hiring undocumented workers in Hawaii.

The Honolulu Star Bulletin reported that Tam said: “The concern from (labor unions) is basically that they (the developers’ workers) have to be skilled, licensed workers. We don’t want any, uh, wetbacks, basically. OK. We’ve been receiving (reports about) developers or contractors been bringing in wetbacks from New Mexico. Uh, Mexico. I’m sorry. Mexico. OK. Illegal aliens. And that’s a problem here, basically. We don’t want that type. We want safety building here.”

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary says the word derives “from the practice of wading or swimming the Rio Grande where it forms the U.S.-Mexico border” and is “usually offensive” terminology for “a Mexican who enters the United States illegally.”

Tam issued the apology in response to media inquiries, the paper said, asserting that he had no idea the term was derogatory or used offensively toward Mexicans.

“Over here in Hawaii, we’re so liberal,” Tam told the Star-Bulletin. “We have multiethnic cultures. We don’t think in the same terms of the mainland. People look at it different. I learned something, and I apologize if I offended anybody.”

Tam said he first learned of the offending term through a 1950s musical, “Flower Drum Song,” which is about two Chinese illegal immigrants.

“I was appalled,” said Marie Villa, president of Latin Business Hawaii told the Bulletin. “In this day and age, when we use derogatory remarks, it shows how shallow-minded we are.”

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