The latest scandal in Washington, D.C. involves a congressman from Alaska recounting how his family ranch would regularly hire about 50 or 60 “wetbacks.” The timing of this Republican’s slur on Hispanics is especially bad because the GOP is in the early stages of trying to revise its reputation as being inhospitable to Hispanics.
So how bad is the slur? I vaguely recall hearing the phrase back in North Dakota in the 60s. Although my family’s land wasn’t fertile enough for sugar beets, the Red River Valley was only a few miles to the east, and the RRV farmers grew plenty of sugar beets. Sugar beets are a row crop, and it thrived back then only if someone manually hoed for weeds between the plants, and migrant laborers performed that job every summer.
Because there were no migrant laborers in my part of North Dakota, they weren’t discussed often, but rather only in passing. African-Americans were even more of an abstraction, and I don’t recall them being discussed at all. Once again, however, I seem to recall my dad using the term “nigger.” (He also talked about a money cheat trying to “jew” you, and I didn’t even realize he was referring to the Jewish religion. I never met a Jew until law school in Austin.)
As a kid, I was oblivious to racial issues, and never discussed the subject with my dad. But, despite my dad’s use of the terms “wetback” and “nigger,” he always treated everyone he encountered with dignity and respect, and I am confident he would have done the same thing with Hispanics and African-Americans. But he probably also believed in the concept of “separate, but equal” even though the Supreme Court declared in 1954 that separate wasn’t equal, at least as applied to education.
The term “wetback” has been in use since at least 1920. And when Eisenhower took office in 1953, the NY Times was still using it in a non-pejorative way:
- “The rise in illegal border-crossing by Mexican ‘wetbacks’ to a current rate of more than 1,000,000 cases a year has been accompanied by a curious relaxation in ethical standards extending all the way from the farmer-exploiters of this contraband labor to the highest levels of the Federal Government.”
Based on Eisenhower’s concern about the negative effects of illegal immigrants, he initiated a program in June 1954 called “Operation Wetback” to crack-down on illegal immigrants in the southwest. According to an article in The Christian Science Monitor, the program started in California and Arizona because there was less local resistance there (compared to Texas) and by the end of July 50,000 illegal immigrants had been caught and 488,000 self-deported to avoid being caught. The program moved into Texas in mid-July and by the end of September 80,000 were in custody and 600,000-800,000 self-deported.
So when did the term “wetback” become a slur? Wikipedia provides an interesting paragraph regarding “wetback” as an ethnic slur:
- “Generally used as an ethnic slur, the term was originally coined and applied only to Mexicans who entered Texas by crossing the Rio Grande river, which is located at the Mexican border, presumably by swimming or wading across and getting wet in the process. The non-offensive Spanish term is ‘mojado’ which means ‘wet.’ It is often preferred by Mexican-Americans by blood or pure-blood Mexicans who have become U.S. Citizens, to be referred to as ‘Los Mojados’ which translates to ‘the wet ones’ or ‘wet people.’”
Although I can’t find anything definitive on the subject, I suspect “wetback” became a slur when people started applying it indiscriminately to all Hispanics, not just illegal immigrants. Then, as Americans have become more ethnically sensitive, the use of any informal descriptor for a group of people has become a symbol of bigotry. This sensitivity is currently being applied to the term, “anchor babies,” which refers to children born in America to non-American parents.
I am a staunch opponent of political correctness, but as America works its way through the problems associated with diversity, I think it is a good idea to talk and think in ways that reflect sensitivity to the feelings of those in the minority and out of the mainstream.