Ignorance about Latinos pervades isles
Last year, bounty hunter Dog Chapman was recorded using the N-word. He later claimed that he didn't know the N-word was offensive to African Americans.
Last month, City Councilman Rod Tam used the word "wetback" at a Council meeting, in reference to illegal aliens. Tam claimed he didn't know that the word "wetback" was considered offensive to Mexican Americans.
The word "wetback" was originally used to mock Mexican immigrants who swam across the Rio Grande into the United States. However, the word is commonly used by anti-Mexican racists to insult and threaten anyone of Mexican ancestry, even those whose parents and grandparents were born in the United States.
It is similar to the history of the word "haole," which was originally used to refer to "foreigners." Being that the first foreign people to arrive in Hawaii were of European ancestry, it was later used to refer to all those with European ancestry. While some local European Americans refer to themselves as "haole," the word is also used by anti-white racists to insult and threaten anyone with European ancestry, even those whose parents and grandparents were born in Hawaii.
It doesn't look good for Hawaii, a state that likes to call itself a "paradise of racial tolerance," to have two prominent individuals display such ignorance on racial issues, especially when it comes to ethnic groups that don't have as many members here.
Hawaii has the country's highest percentage of multiracial people (including me, a Mexican-Puerto Rican-Spanish-Portuguese-German) and interracial marriages (like my brother's marriage to a Korean woman).
Hawaii also never had the large-scale violent race riots that have devastated many major U.S. cities like Los Angeles, Miami, Detroit and Cincinnati. However, that doesn't mean that Hawaii is immune to its residents having negative stereotypes and ignorance of cultural groups that are new or uncommon here.
While the conflicts between Hawaiians and European Americans have been well documented, an underreported racial conflict occurring in many low-income urban Honolulu communities and schools involves Polynesians, Micronesians and Asian immigrants. Some of these conflicts have ranged from mockery of each others' speech patterns to violent gang fights!
For many of those immigrants, this is the first time they're experiencing diversity. The old-Hawaii plantation history is irrelevant to them because their families weren't in Hawaii in the old plantation days! The insecurity of being someplace new, the humiliation of being mocked and the need to defend their honor all contribute to the current-day conflicts in urban Honolulu.
The fame of Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has exposed the isolation some African Americans feel in Hawaii. While Obama wasn't exposed to the level of hate here that was prominent in places like Alabama or Mississippi, he still felt stereotyped or misunderstood growing up here.
My experience as a local boy, born and raised in Hawaii, has many similarities to Obama's upbringing. The difference was that Obama is of African and European ancestry (with the African side being more visible), while I am of Latin American and European ancestry (with the Latin American side being more visible). Also, unlike Obama, I am a public school graduate (McKinley '99).
Because I look more like the typical Mexican, everyone assumes I'm from somewhere else. Some even refuse to believe me when I mention being born and raised in Hawaii. Usually, I'm stereotyped as being from California, Mexico or Puerto Rico. Some have even said I look Middle Eastern.
Coincidentally, the day after I learned of Tam's use of the word "wetback," a lady at a bus stop wanted to ask me about what buses pass by. But before she even asked about the buses, she asked if I "speak English."
This reminds me of back when I was in middle school (Kawananakoa, the so-called safe option of Honolulu middle schools), some local Asians assumed I was "foreign." Not only did I "not look local," I have a tendency to mumble when I talk. If a Hawaiian, local Asian or a European American was mumbling, people would just consider it mumbling. But because I "didn't look local," I was stereotyped as being "foreign." The big irony is if those local Asians were sent to Idaho or Mississippi, they would be the ones stereotyped as "foreign."
Those same local Asians were surprised when I expressed an above-average level of intellect ... maybe because I wasn't Asian!
Some people express shock when I mention that my family eats kalua pork, shoyu chicken, saimin and other popular local food. Why are people shocked when a Latin American family adjusts to Hawaii culture the same way so many Asians and Samoans adjusted to Hawaii culture?
Now, after the Rod Tam controversy, some people in local chatrooms are expressing shock that many Latinos in Hawaii are demanding respect. Some are expressing shock that we refuse to be doormats when being humiliated. How dare we stand up for ourselves?
Some say "it's just words."
To those who say "it's just words": What if someone called your mother a whore? Is that "just words"?
I don't mean to sound like a victim. I just want to inform the people of Hawaii what it's like to be a Latino here.
Despite being part of a cultural minority, Hawaii is my home. I was born and raised in Hawaii. Hawaii has a great climate, great culture, great music, great food and many great people! I am a University of Hawaii alumnus and a Rainbow/Warrior/
Wahine fan -- and I'll represent the UH green until the minute I die!
I hope the Latinos from outside Hawaii don't get scared off by the Tam controversy. I will welcome any Latino to join in the cultural diversity of Hawaii!
Pablo Wegesend lives in Honolulu.