Alaskans of Hispanic descent are angry about Rep. Don Young's use of the term "wetback." But at a meeting this week, some also expressed appreciation and gratitude for his work on their behalf.
Young used the slang for Mexican nationals who have entered the U.S. illegally -- considered a racial slur -- in a radio interview in Ketchikan on March 26. He was referring to workers on his father's farm when he was a boy.
"People are angry," said Daniel R. Esparza Sr., who organized the meeting. "We need to raise our voices or nobody will hear."
Arthur Sosa spoke for several of those present when he said Young "insulted, belittled and dehumanized people in the community."
Claudia Rodriguez Zinn agreed and suggested that Young "put out his own money to pay for (public service announcements)" or make a speaking tour denouncing the hurtful effect of racial terms.
"I want to say something in favor of Mr. Don Young," said Hugo Forest, originally from Argentina. "Thirty years ago I had a lot of problems with Immigration. They wanted to deport me. I didn't have enough money to eat. I was alone. One of the people who came to my help was Don Young."
Norma Wadsworth, who described herself as "the only Mexican in Tok" for many years, told a similar story. She inherited business interests from her late husband and mother-in-law and encountered difficulties in dealing with a long list of regulatory agencies.
"I wrote to Don Young and he wrote back," she said. "If it hadn't been for Don Young and Sen. Stevens, I wouldn't have made it."
Neither Forest nor Wadsworth were willing to give Young a pass for talking about "wetbacks," but they stressed that the insensitivity of his language shouls be balanced with the help he has given immigrants in Alaska.
"I think all of us make mistakes," Wadsworth said.
Alaska Federation of Natives President Julie Kitka, who was present at the meeting, took the opportunity to share a letter she had sent to Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich on March 22. In it she asked the two lawmakers to consider publicly supporting immigration reform.
Because Alaska is not seen as on "the frontlines of the intense conflicts about immigration," the state's congressional delegation should be more free to take a stand, she said.
Kitka said she spoke with Young after the controversy erupted and brought up her letter to the senators. "He told me he's very sorry about saying that and that he does want to help with immigration reform," she said.
Murkowski has also agreed to the proposal, Kitka said.
"So we could piggyback an apology from him with getting him to work for immigration reform," said Richard Benevides.
"I knew there had to be some kind of good come out of this," said Guadalupe Marroquin, president of the Hispanic Affairs Council of Alaska.
Rodriguez Zinn wondered whether Young would follow through. "He's already issued a formal apology," which she and others found insufficient, she noted.
"An apology doesn't solve the problem," Esparza said. "The big banana is for him to commit to vote for immigration reform."
Kitka advised the group to write a letter expressing their concerns and asking Young to address them in person. In the many years she has dealt with him on behalf of AFN, she said, he has never shied from addressing any group of constituents, even a potentially hostile one.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.