June 20, 2008

“Wetback,” in Hawaii?

By Daniel Muñoz

“Wetback,” a term that is archaic and used only when intended to insult persons of Mexican ancestry has shattered the tranquil and paradise image of the Hawaiian island. Hawaii, which to date had not been drawn into the volatile immigration debate has now been plunged into the issue when Honolulu City Councilman Rod Tam used the term “wetback” not once, but twice during a public meeting.

Marie Villa, editor of the Hawaii Hispanic News, was at first dumbfounded and then offended by the use of the word. Ms. Villa had thought that her island home was above this type of public racism. According to Villa, “Hawaii is home to about 100,000 Hispanics from Puerto Rican to Mexican,” and an island that is truly multi-racial. In a phone interview Villa stated, “Hispanics and Hawaiians look so much alike it is hard to tell the difference. Hawaii is not a melting pot but more like a toss salad. We have truly assimilated into the culture.”


Protesters gathered in front of Honolulu Hale to demand the removal of Rod Tam as chairman of the City Council Zoning Committee after he made an ethnic slur.

Villa stated that it was a shock to her and the Hispanic community when Chinese-American Rod Tam in discussing the use of undocumented workers by developers on public projects, at first paused, thought about his next words and said “uh, we don’t want any wetbacks basically and … developers, contractors, have been getting wetbacks from New Mexico, uh Mexico, sorry.”

Villa, who is also the President of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce stated she has been getting letters, phone calls, e-mails, and has been approached in person by Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, African-American, Caucasian, and other friends, who have expressed support and outrage at Tam’s comments. “So this is not just a ‘Hispanic thing.’ It’s a ‘people thing’” she stated.

For Villa the issue turned particularly nasty when she received a hate letter in her mailbox. “In my 19 years as a Hawaiian resident and as editor, this was the first piece of racist hate mail I had ever received. The amount of venom and hatred for Mexican people expressed in this letter is incomprehensible and overwhelming.”

Villa wrote in the Hawaii Hispanic News that, “a publicly-elected Hawaii official should not use a racial slur when referring to Mexican undocumented workers in an official government meeting. We didn’t attack anybody. We weren’t looking for a fight. We just expressed our individual rights as American citizens.”

“For that, the Hispanic community now finds itself immersed in a debate that we did not call for, or are familiar with. We sought out support from other Hispanic community leaders for political guidance and one of the first people I spoke to,” stated Villa, “was Herman Baca, President of the Committee on Chicano Rights (CCR), in National City.”

While racial hatred is new to Ms. Villa and the Hawaii Hispanic community for Baca and the CCR these types of issues have been addressed on a daily basis. Beginning in the late 1960’s with the INS./Border Patrol, San Diego Sheriff John Duffy, Chief of Police Ray Hoobler, County Supervisor, Susan Golding, who blamed immigrant for the rise in crime, and past CA Governor Pete Wilson who scapegoat the Hispanic community in his run for President. And, recently San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn in public statements depicted immigrants as gangsters coming across the border.

In a letter of support to Villa, Baca stated:

“As an organization that has been involved with the immigration issue for forty years we commend you and the community for standing up to the race baiting by Councilperson Tam. We extend our support for your declaration that you will ‘not tolerate any politician who facilitates or causes a Hawaii ethnic group to become the target of bigotry, racism or just plain prejudice.’”

Baca further stated, “Hawaii’s reputation as a progressive, multiethnic culture, diverse, and racially-tolerant state appears now to have been either a facade, or never existed. We urge you and the community to demand that Hawaii political leadership publicly denounces Councilperson Tam’s wetback comments. That they meet with Hispanic community leaders to give assurances that the civil and constitutional rights of our people are respected and protected, and if the state political leadership fails to address the community’s concerns; call for an economic boycott of Hawaii tourism industry.”

Villa stated she has also received other letters and emails of support from throughout the United States with the same sense of disbelief that this type of racism is occurring in Hawaii.

Marie Villa stated that two national Hispanic groups have called for Tam to be removed from the City Council; however, the local Hispanic community wants him to be removed from the chairmanship of the Zoning Committee where he used the “wetback” term.

The president of the Zoning Committee stated, “this is not going to happen.”

Tam has since apologized at a committee meeting and was censured, but Villa stated that, “the Hispanic community wants Tam to come before the Hispanic community and apologize.” Tam to date has refused.

In an interview with La Prensa San Diego Baca stated “The CCR has corresponded with Presidential candidate, Hawaii born Barack Obama, the Governor, and U.S. Senators from Hawaii, New Mexico’s Bill Richardson, National Council of La Raza and California Latino Legislative Caucus asking what they are going to do about, “the race baiting, xenophobia, and nativist Mexican bashing that has now crossed the Pacific Ocean into Hawaii? History teaches what will and does happen when the demonizing of a people is ignored by political leaders i.e. the Holocaust, Chinese Exclusion Act, interment of Japanese-Americans, Operation Wetback, etc.”

While the community waits for a response, the issue appears to be growing larger as the Hispanic community in Hawaii continues to rally around the issue, and more groups in the U.S mainline become involved in support of the Hispanic community in Hawaii.

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