JUNEAU — Rep. Don Young’s use of an ethnic slur to describe the California farmworkers who picked tomatoes for his father threatens to become an embarrassment for a Republican Party trying to court Latino voters.
In a radio interview in Ketchikan on Tuesday, Young, R-Alaska, called the workers “wetbacks.” The pejorative term was once commonly used to refer to illegal Mexican immigrants who reached the United States by fording the Rio Grande along the Texas border. The Spanish term is “mojado,” for “wet.”
Speaking with a reporter for community radio KRBD during an Easter recess visit to southeast Alaska, Young, 79, launched into one of his trademark diatribes against the federal government. Then, according to an audio clip and news story posted on the station’s website, Young moved on to a discussion of the economy and automation, offering a personal example.
“I used to own — my father had a ranch. We used to hire 50 to 60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes. You know it takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine.”
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Bloggers quickly picked up on the interview Thursday, and by 7 p.m. in Alaska, Young’s office released a statement in which Young said he “meant no disrespect.” But he stopped short of apologizing.
“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,” Young said in the statement. “I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect.”
Lupe Marroquin, president of the Hispanic Affairs Council of Alaska, said she was disappointed by Young’s remark.
“It kind of opens your eyes to the way Don Young thinks,” she said. “He didn’t even pause. It’s like that’s just what he calls migrant farmworkers.”
Marroquin, a Democratic legislative candidate last fall, added, “It’s really bad form for Don Young to be using an ethnic slur to describe an ever growing population in the United States that means more to the economy than just picking fruit.”
The Latino community is one of the fastest growing minority groups in Alaska, almost doubling in size between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census. More than 40,000 Latinos live in the state, making up 6 percent of the population. In Anchorage, that number is 8 percent.
The large turnout of Latinos for President Obama in the last election has led to several major Republican initiatives to reach out to the community, where only conservative Cubans have been reliable Republican voters.
Young, in office since 1973, has made the news over the years for malapropisms and worse. On Thursday, he addressed a Choose Respect noon rally at the Capitol in Juneau and appeared to advise people to drink alone to reduce the risk of domestic violence.
“Watch the alcohol and the drugs,” Young said from a podium on the Capitol steps. “You look at the relationship between violence against the loved ones you love, (it) is usually related to either one of those. And I’m going to suggest for those that may be drinking together — Stop it! If you want to drink by yourself, you may do it. But when you drink together, the possibility of harm becomes greater every day.”