Tam sorry for saying ‘wetbacks‘
City councilman apologizes for ‘wetbacks’ slur
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City Councilman Rod Tam apologized yesterday for his recent use of the ethnic slur "wetbacks" about illegal immigrants from Mexico working in Hawaii.
"I was appalled," said Marie Villa, president of Latin Business Hawaii. "In this day and age, when we use derogatory remarks, it shows how shallow-minded we are."
On May 13, Tam's Council Zoning Committee discussed the planned University of Hawaii-West Oahu campus in Kapolei. Tam warned the developers that labor unions are saying "that they (the developers' workers) have to be skilled, licensed workers. We don't want any, uh, wetbacks, basically."
Tam said he first learned of the offending term through a 1950s musical, "Flower Drum Song," which is about two Chinese illegal immigrants.
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City Councilman Rod Tam apologized yesterday for his use of a racial slur made during a committee meeting last month about illegal immigrants from Mexico working on the proposed University of Hawaii-West Oahu at Kapolei.
Members of the Latin community were outraged that a public official would use the term "wetbacks," referring to illegal aliens from Mexico.
"I was appalled," said Marie Villa, president of Latin Business Hawaii (Hispanic chamber of commerce) and editor of Hawaii Hispanic News. "In this day and age, when we use derogatory remarks, it shows how shallow-minded we are.
"Being born in Mexico, I found that derogatory remark insulting," said Villa, who became a citizen at age 15.
The Council's Zoning Committee, of which Tam serves as chairman, discussed development plans for UH-West Oahu on May 13 when Tam warned the developers to have better communication with labor unions.
"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," Tam said. "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."
In response to media inquiries yesterday, Tam issued an apology, saying 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 called "Flower Drum Song," about Chinese illegal immigrants. From this musical, Tam said he thought the term referred to illegal immigrants.
"People interpret it differently now," Tam said. "It's a terminology used in the past."
When Villa heard this response, she said: "How ignorant is that? That's an excuse, not a reason to say that. Is this guy educated at all?
"As a politician, to say something like that, are we so far away from the mainland that we can get away with saying stuff like that?" she said. "Nobody in the mainland would dare use that (term)."
Councilman Nestor Garcia said, "I didn't think too much of it. I didn't think he meant any ill will by it."
He said Tam is a friend and that he does not think he has a "racial bone in his body."
But Garcia said he did take Tam aside after the meeting and told him that "it might not be the best thing to say next time."
Tam said he has been concerned about developers hiring illegal immigrants and does not want the practice to grow in Hawaii. He referenced a recent case in Honolulu, where 19 people were arrested in December following a raid at a downtown construction site and Halawa warehouse.