Cesar Chavez Used Terms 'Wetbacks,' 'Illegals' To Describe Immigrants

Remember When Latino Civil Rights Leaders Used Terms Like This?
Cesar Chavez (1927 - 1993), founder of United Farm Workers (UFW), holds a shovel across his shoulders while working in the community garden at La Paz, California, 1975. (Photo by Cathy Murphy/Getty Images)
Cesar Chavez (1927 - 1993), founder of United Farm Workers (UFW), holds a shovel across his shoulders while working in the community garden at La Paz, California, 1975. (Photo by Cathy Murphy/Getty Images)

Between Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) calling undocumented immigrants “wetbacks” and the Associated Press dropping its use of the term “illegal immigrant,” the language used to describe immigration has made major headlines over the last few days.

But blog Think Mexican wants to remind you that there was a time when one of the most prominent Latino civil rights figures also used such language.

Think Mexican posted a link Wednesday to video of a 1972 televised interview with United Farm Workers union co-founder Cesar Chavez to its Facebook and Twitter accounts. In it, Chavez calls undocumented immigrants hired to break a strike, “wetbacks” and “illegals.”

“As long as we have a poor country bordering California, it’s going to be very difficult to win strikes,” Chavez says in the interview.

Discussing a strike against a gas and oil company, he then says: “All of a sudden yesterday morning, they brought in 220 wetbacks -- these are the illegals -- from Mexico.”

A 1969 article in the Lodi News-Sentinel quotes Dolores Huerta, who helped found the UFW with Chavez, using the term. "There is a detention camp for wetbacks at Coachella from where they're (wetbacks) (sic) taken out every day to work in the fields," one article says.

Huerta told The Huffington Post the term always has been derogative and was surprised to hear Chavez using it. She denied saying the word "wetback" during the 1969 newspaper interview.

"Maybe the reporter inserted the term," Huerta said. "That's not the first time I've been misquoted."

The term "wetback" has multiple connotations for Latinos, as The Los Angeles Times points out. While generally regarded in English as a pejorative term for undocumented immigrants -- particularly Mexican and Central American farm workers -- Latinos in the border area often use the Spanish equivalent, "mojado," without malice.

The term originated to describe people who cross the Rio Grande into the United States, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Chavez, the co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, is generally viewed as a pioneering Latino civil rights leader who helped secure historic gains for people toiling in the fields. President Barack Obama named March 31 Cesar Chavez Day in 2011 and Google honored his memory with a doodle on Sunday, sparking controversy since the day fell on Easter.

But many also criticize the labor leader's early attitude toward undocumented immigrants, whom Chavez sometimes viewed as a threat to unions because employers often recruited them as scabs.

Huerta disputes the criticism, pointing out that the UFW helped craft the 1986 amnesty agreement signed by former President Ronald Reagan that legalized the immigration status of nearly three million people.

"I can tell you as a founder of the union, we used to prepare immigration papers for people free of charge," Huerta said. "What Cesar would say is, 'if my mother crossed the picket line, I'd be against my mother.' He was against people breaking strikes. He wasn't against the undocumented."

While Huerta slammed Young for referring to undocumented immigrants as "wetbacks," she said the public condemnation he faced gave the episode a positive side.

"The one thing I'm grateful for is that there was this reaction to it," Huerta said. "I think that's progress."

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