Latinos across the political spectrum slammed Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young on Friday for using the derogatory term “wetback” to refer to Hispanic migrant farmworkers.
Latino politicians and political organizations pounded on Young for saying in an interview with KRBD-FM that “50 to 60 wetbacks” used to pick tomatoes on his father’s ranch when he was growing up in California.
The right-leaning Hispanic Leadership Network echoed the sentiment.
“Rep. Don Young's comments were unacceptable, offensive, and obvious that he doesn't speak for conservatives,” HLN Executive Director Jennifer Korn said in a statement. “On behalf of the Hispanic Leadership Network, I'd like to thank leaders like Speaker Boehner, Sen. Cornyn and others for taking a strong stand and making it clear this kind of intolerance has no place in the conservative movement.”
Latino advocacy group Presente.org went a step farther, calling on Young to resign.
In his defense, Young first offered an explanation instead of an apology:
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… I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect.
The meaning of the word actually hasn’t changed, but using racial slurs has become less publicly acceptable, as Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas), the head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus pointed out.
"Rep. Young says that he was just using the language he was accustomed to as he grew up, but there is no excuse for ignorance,” Hinojosa said in a statement. “He has served alongside Hispanics in Congress since 1973, so he should know terms like "wetback" have never been acceptable.”
After a barrage of criticism, including from prominent Republicans, Young apologized Friday afternoon.
"I apologize for the insensitive term I used during an interview in Ketchikan, Alaska. There was no malice in my heart or intent to offend; it was a poor choice of words. That word, and the negative attitudes that come with it, should be left in the 20th century, and I’m sorry that this has shifted our focus away from comprehensive immigration reform."
The term “wetback” is a derogatory term used to refer primarily to Mexicans, especially undocumented immigrants. It originates as a slur referring to people illegally crossing the Rio Grande river in Texas.
The term first appeared in print in the New York Times in 1920, according to Fox News Latino. The U.S. government also used the term for its 1954 deportation program called “Operation Wetback.”
Young’s comments come as many in the Republican Party are working to boost its Latino outreach and smooth over past differences over immigration reform.