For Latinos, a Spanish word loaded with meaning
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 non-Latino say “wetback.” 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.”
An Alaska’s congressman’s reference to “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.
Everyone seems to agree that the English version of the term is highly offensive to Latinos when others use it. But when Latinos use mojado — which literally means “wet” but is also used to describe illegal immigrants in the United States — it’s different.
“My grandfather, for all practical purposes, was a mojado. They call each other mojados,” veteran Latino activist Arnoldo Torres said. “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 word 30 years ago.
In 1983, Ernest Hollings, a South Carolina senator running for the Democratic presidential nomination, used the English term 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 English 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 entered 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 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 profiling 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.
Amin David, a Latino rights activist from Orange County, remembers 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.
“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” 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 Republican 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.”
For Raul Ruiz, a professor of Chicano Studies at Cal State Northridge, Young’s apology was a bit off. He conceded that the term used to be more common, but doesn’t think it used to be any less offensive.
Ruiz, 70, admits some Latinos use mojados freely. But he says it has a different meaning coming from an Anglo.
“I’m not trying to excuse it, but the word mojado isn’t totally a pejorative in the way Mexicans use it in referring to themselves,” Ruiz said. “It really isn’t as mean-spirited at all.”
Back at Macias’ clothing shop in Boyle Heights, his family continued to discuss the term.
For Karina Macias, a UC Berkeley student who spent a recent afternoon during her spring break helping her parents run the shop, Young’s words are surprising given the growing political clout of Latinos.
“As the Latino population increases, the Latino impact on society increases,” she said. “If there’s a Latino in office, you can’t put ‘wetback’ in the headlines.”
She turned to her mother, who was leaning on the counter near the cash register, and asked her, in Spanish, what she thought about the word “mojado.”
The raven-haired woman with a sweet smile put her hand on her chest and raised her eyebrows. “Wow,” she said, shocked to hear her daughter use the term. “I think it’s offensive, it has always been offensive.”
Arturo simply smiled and shrugged.
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