August 13, 1999


"Wetbacks, Beaners and Greasers"

By Raoul Lowery Contreras

I've been called a "wetback" many times; I've been called a "little Brown Maggot", a "cabbage grabber", "vermin", "beaner" and other names not fit for a family newspaper. I've been called these things because I am an American of Mexican origin. Prior to recent times, there was little I could do about this while in any workplace.

Years ago, an overweight good old boy Marine Corps sergeant made the mistake of calling me a "wetback" several times in one sentence. His mistake was, he did so with no one around in an out-of-the-way supply hut. His overweight, over-the-hill body was no match for my efforts to stuff the word "wetback" down his throat. That was how I handled a "hostile work place" almost 40 years ago.

Today, the courts, not fists, suffice to combat a hostile work place. The California Supreme Court has just ruled that in order to protect employees from a "Hostile work place" a court can issue an injunction to keep people from using racial, religious or ethnic insults and slurs.

Free Speech is being defiled, cried certain people including the Avis Rent-A-Car company that appealed this particular case when it lost in lower courts on the question of maintaining a "hostile work place." Is Free Speech more important than a person's right to work in a place that isn't hostile?

In this case, several Mexican-origin and other Latin American origin men were constantly berated by two supervisors, one male and one female, both Anglos. They were insulted, called "wetbacks", "greasers", "beaners" and constantly threatened with the Border Patrol harassment. The men complained to the Avis Company, but nothing was done to stop the man and woman. The men sued; they won their case in the Superior Court, won when Avis appealed and, now, have won at the Supreme Court level.

The Court ruled 4-3 on the question of balancing Free Speech and a free-to-work-in-a- workplace that isn't "hostile", with Free Speech taking a back seat. Why? The Court really didn't have any choice, for the United States Supreme Court ruled in the Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986) that employees have the "right to work in an environment free from discriminatory intimidation, ridicule and insult." Funny, that's roughly what I told the obese sergeant years before as I used him to demonstrate my knowledge of hand to hand combat.

To that end, the court said that a company could be ordered to police the use of racial, religious and ethnic slurs ahead of time, by injunction. The company said that they couldn't prohibit speech ahead of time. Who is right? The court is, if one considers the value of a non-hostile work place versus the rantings of incompetents attempting to make up for their lack of self-worth by calling subordinates names.

Imagine a hard-working man with a wife and kids who has a good job, barely earns enough for his family to survive and imagine that man being abused by his superiors with insults and slurs because he's Catholic, Mexican-born and a recent immigrant. Imagine what that workday must be like when one is powerless to do anything about the conditions, even after notifying the company. I can't imagine any of this. Yet, it happens every day, throughout the country.

We should be thankful for the courts, for they have produced for those working people, men and women. They have ruled, over and over, that calling a man or woman a "nigger", a "wetback", a "greaser", a "mackerel snapper", a "Christ killer" or "slut", "whore", ad infinitum and ad naseum, is not proper and must be prohibited. A work place that isn't hostile is a paramount right and far overshadows someone's right to speak words in a Free Speech context.

Free Speech has limits. There is no law, nor should there be restraining someone from giving a speech filled with "nigger", "wetback", "greaser", beaner", "poor white trash", etc. There should be no law prohibiting someone from calling someone else such names in a bar, on the street, or in a park. But, when one is forced into a place, such as school, free speech of this nature ends. The target of this "free speech' can't leave the premises without permission, just as a person getting a traffic ticket can't walk away from a Redneck cop who stops a driver for "Driving While Black." Though voluntary in a philosophical sense, a workplace is similar to a confined school, or traffic stop.

Though dollar awards were made in this case, is $135,000 enough? No. The two supervisors should have gone to jail. Purposefully creating a "hostile work place" that forced hard-working family men struggle to maintain their jobs, their decorum and dignity without smashing some heads should be a felony crime. While at it, Avis should be barred from operating on public property in the entire state of California as punishment for allowing these abhorrent working conditions.

All citizens should be grateful that the courts have thrust themselves into the workplace to make sure men and women can get about their lives and work for a living in a workplace that is, at the least, neutral. The racists among us can count the days they reign supreme in the work place, for every shouted "wetback", "nigger", "greaser" will cost them, cost them dearly.

You can contact Raoul Lowery Contreras at

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