Austin Contractor calls immigrant workers “wetbacks”

Caleb reports in the Monitor today:

Friestman told the Monitor that Cabaza was clearly upset when the talks turned to details related to proposed paperwork that contractors would have to fill out to certify that they pay their workers appropriate wages.

“He said, ‘Just put in whatever the heck you want,’” Friestman recounted. “‘It doesn’t matter. We’re going to pay them whatever you say we have to pay them. Look, I grew up in South Texas and down there, we used to work these wetbacks. But we were good to them. We would house them and we would feed them, and we were good to them.’”

And then the defense:

“He’s a straight talker. He is Hispanic himself, grew up in the Rio Grande Valley,” Thoden said. “I think there’s frustration on the part of the construction community when we’re brought in at the tail end of agreements that impact day-to-day operations on the work site.”

There is indeed a long history of Latinos in the U.S. using the term “wetback” to describe recent immigrants. Labor icon Cesar Chavez railed against the use of “wetback” labor to break strikes organized by his almost entirely Latino membership.

But that’s hardly an excuse today, and the fact that somebody is Hispanic should not immunize them from criticism over denigrating other Hispanics.

The fact is that terms like “Hispanic” and “Latino” refer to an extraordinarily diverse group of people, originating from a variety of countries, all of which have their own very complicated set of racial and ethnic tensions. Mexico, for instance, has long promoted a “Mestizo” ideology that sought to eliminate ethnic distinctions, but even today the Mexican ruling class is much whiter than the Mexican working class.

Latin American immigrants also regularly encounter prejudice within the Latino community here. When I talked to refugees from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala for an article I did two years ago about immigrant detention centers, many of them recounted being mocked as uneducated peasants by Spanish-speaking Border Patrol agents. Latino friends of mine have similarly described regular dealing with prejudice or snobbery from other Hispanics based on class, ethnicity or nation of origin.

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