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L.A. Now Live: The word 'wetback' is full of meaning

April 02, 2013

An Alaska congressman's use of the word "wetbacks" during a radio interview last week stirred an uproar and he was forced to apologize. In Latino communities, the episode highlighted how cultural reactions to the word have changed through generations.

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

Join us at 9 a.m. as we discuss the meaning of "wetback"  -- or "mojado" -- in Anglo and Latino communities with Times reporter Marisa Gerber.

The English term, originally coined to describe Mexicans who illegally entered the U.S. by swimming or wading across the Rio Grande, evolved to include a broader group of immigrants who also entered the country on foot or in cars. The Spanish translation of the English "wet back" -- "espaldas mojadas" -- is typically shortened to just mojado or mojada, depending on the person's sex.

In 1954, as the U.S. economy sputtered to find its footing after the Korean War, the government launched the now-infamous Operation Wetback, a deportation drive that sent Mexicans back to Mexico in droves and roused complaints of racial discrimination and fractured families.

During that decade, the term was still splashed 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.

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