Travis County commissioners on Tuesday condemned the use of a racial slur by a construction contractor during a county staff-led stakeholder meeting last week.
The county organized a May 8 discussion between construction contractors and labor groups about proposals to reform Travis County’s worker protection rules. The contractor used a derogatory term for immigrants who have entered the country illegally, sources told the Austin Monitor, which first reported the incident.
Aaron Cabaza of Aaron Concrete Contractors used the slur in public comments during a discussion about wages and other work site conditions. Cabaza, several meeting participants told the Monitor, had grown agitated about proposed paperwork that contractors would have to fill out to certify that they pay their workers appropriate wages.
The American-Statesman obtained a copy of the recording of the meeting through an open records request and confirmed that Cabaza used the slur. After meeting participants objected, Cabaza said: “It’s not derogatory for me. That’s where I’m from. That’s how we grew up.”
Cabaza, who is not a county employee, apologized for his use of the slur in an email to Travis County’s staff Tuesday afternoon, which he shared with the Statesman.
“I sincerely apologize for the very poor choice of language during that meeting,” Cabaza wrote. “I feel terrible that my comments have been hurtful to the Austin community. It is a community that I love to live and work in.”
“I am Hispanic myself, and I employ many Hispanics in my company and they have all helped make Aaron Concrete a great place to work. We contribute so much to the Austin community through our hard work each day.”
Cabaza ended the email by saying, “I am 110 percent willing to apologize publicly to this stakeholder group, to the County Commissioners and to others in our community. It seems I do need sensitivity training as I did not realize how my comments would become so hurtful.”
County spokesman Hector Nieto said staff members immediately told Cabaza that use of that language was not acceptable. Nieto said the county holds one contract with Aaron Concrete for planning and texturing services and has had at least two previous contracts since 2012.
Asked whether the county plans to retain the company’s services, Nieto said, “As of right now, the county considers this matter handled.”
During the county commissioners’ meeting Tuesday, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt allowed a 10-minute recess for a news conference about the matter.
Commissioner Margaret Gómez criticized the use of the slur as counterproductive and suggested the county consider sensitivity training of some sort.
“It is bothersome, especially when I believe that we’re in a very, very enlightened community. And yet I think that people will slip here and there,” Gómez said, “And it just is not appropriate at all for anyone to call other people names or labels or that kind of thing. It just takes away from being able to work together.”
Commissioner Jeff Travillion said it is important that the county respond in some way, either through a letter, meeting or mandatory training.
“To call the statement insulting would be an understatement,” Travillion said. “I think it reflects a dangerous and growing mindset that unfortunately is led from the top of our country down, from even our president’s office, from even our state Legislature at times.”
Travillion added that the contractor should be made aware that his comment was not appropriate nor acceptable in Travis County.
Commissioner Brigid Shea also alluded to the country’s political environment and the “tone that’s set at the national level.”
“It’s so damaging, and it’s just such a horrible example for people in our country,” Shea said. “The whole purpose of this was better working conditions, better wages and a better overall environment, and so to see one of the employers using terms that lead you to believe that they think of these workers as less than human is just completely unacceptable.”
Eckhardt said the court is taking the incident seriously. She said the county’s human resources office and other staff are working on creating training that will cover respect, understanding and conflict management.
“We are all working on setting a standard to which we can hold ourselves to as well as the standard to which we hold both our friends and our enemies, in the hopes that our enemies become our friends,” Eckhardt said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to note that the American-Statesman obtained a copy of the recording of the May 8 meeting and to include details about Aaron Concrete’s work for Travis County.