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Slur has a complex translation in Latino community

April 01, 2013|By Marisa Gerber
  • New U.S. citizens celebrate.
New U.S. citizens celebrate. (Los Angeles Times )

When Boyle Heights shop owner Arturo Macias hears fellow Latinos use the Spanish word for “wetback,” he doesn't necessarily take offense.

Macias, who crossed illegally into the U.S. through Tijuana two decades ago, has heard the term mojado for much of his life and sees it less as an insult than a description of a common immigrant experience.

“As a country of immigrants,” he says in Spanish, “in one way or another, we’re all mojados.”

Macias is very offended, however, when he hears a white person use it. That distinction befuddles his 20-year-old daughter Karina.

“It definitely is a term to divide people,” she said. “You can't use it as a term of endearment at all, whether it's someone outside of your culture or not.”

The slew of apologies that followed news that Alaska’s congressman had used the term during a radio interview last week brought the term into the national debate. But in Latino communities, it also highlighted how the word’s context and power has changed through the generations.

Everyone seems to agree that the English version of the term is highly offensive when outsiders say it. But mojado -- which literally means “wet” but is also used to describe illegal immigrants who sneak into the United States -- is a different story.

“My grandfather, for all practical purposes, was a mojado. They call each other mojados,” said veteran Latino activist Arnoldo Torres. “It's about understanding the complexity. Of seven, eight, nine  generations of Latinos that have lived in the United States.”

Torres was already dealing with the fallout of the phrase 30 years ago.

In 1983, Ernest Hollings, a South Carolina senator running for the Democratic presidential nomination, used the word at a dinner during a campaign stop in Des Moines. Hollings apologized and met with a group of Latino leaders, including Torres, then the executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

“We said, 'Look, this is why it's offensive. We weren't looking for some astronomical apology,” Torres said. “Our hope was very simple. If we're able to educate him, maybe he can tell others.”

Each time the word resurfaces, it carries with it a long history and a nuanced reputation.

The term, originally coined after Mexicans illegally entered the U.S. by swimming or wading across the Rio Grande, evolved to include a broader group of immigrants who snuck into the country on foot or in cars. The Spanish translation espaldas mojadas, is typically shortened to just mojado or mojada, depending on the person’s gender.

In 1954, as the U.S. economy struggled to find its footing after the Korean War, the government launched the now-infamous Operation Wetback, a deportation drive whose roundups sent Mexicans home in droves and roused complaints of racial profiling and fractured families.

During that decade, the term was still splashed quite freely -- often without quotation marks around it -- across the pages of the country's major newspapers.

In 1952, the New York Times ran a story under the headline: “Hero in Korean War Deported as Wetback; Served in Army 3 Years After Entering U.S.” Three years later, the Associated Press wrote a story about “the 'wetback invasion' across the Mexican border.” And Angelenos at the time read headlines like “Wetback, 16, Gets School Diploma in Jail” and “Roundup of Wetbacks in L.A. Still On,” in the Los Angeles Times.

Amin David, a longtime Latino rights activist from Orange County, remembers a time when Latinos could joke with one another about the term -- “One of the jokes that we used to say was that if we crossed the Rio Grande we wouldn't even get our backs wet because there was no water,” he recalled. “Slowly, we abstained.”

“It moved from a humorous-type label to a very derogatory one,” David said, adding that he noticed the shift begin in the 1960s.

Gustavo Arellano, editor of the OC Weekly and author of the syndicated ¡Ask a Mexican! column, said the term started to drop off in the 1980s and '90s. As its usage waned, “illegal alien” and the shortened “illegals” gained footing.

“When you want to insult Mexicans, calling them a wetback is so 1950s,” Arellano said. “It’s so dated.”

The Alaska congressman who sparked the most recent furor is Don Young. He spoke of “50 to 60 wetbacks” who picked tomatoes at his father's farm in California.

“I used a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in Central California,” he said in an apology Friday. “I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays, and I meant no disrespect.”

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