What’s Wrong with “Wetback”?: What a Congressman’s Slur Reveals

Alaska Congressman Don Young (R-AK) referred to Mexican farm workers as “wetbacks.” in a recent radio interview on KRBD-FM (Ketchikan, AK), Young was attempting to make a point about the automation in farm production, when he said this:

“My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes. It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine.”

This racist slur made by a sitting congressman is best understood in the longer prevailing U.S. historical context that categorizes Mexican immigrants as unequal, without real humanity, and undeserving of true dignity. Such a comment by an elected government official is the latest example of the white racial framing and the racializing of Latinas/os.Taken together, these reinforce white supremacy on a large structural level. White racist words, such as the Congressman’s, frame people of color as inferior and create a wider narrative of racial oppression, which whites utilize to protect their dominant position in society at the expense of ethnic minorities.

Don Young, Congressman from Alaska, referred to workers as "wetbacks"

(Image from here.)

In the public sphere, many whites commonly use terms such as “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant” or simply “illegal.” All of these are problematic for the way they dehumanize entire groups of people. Recently the Associated Press announced that it was dropping the word “illegal immigrant” from its stylebook for proper usage; a victory against this demeaning and racist language was led by ARC and Rinku Sen.  For the record, the AP stylebook doesn’t condone the use of the term “wetback” either.

Apparently, Congressman Young did not get the memo about language from the AP. The 79-year-old seems to be stuck in time as indicated by his public use of “wetback” and subsequent delayed apology issued only after his fellow conservative Republicans chastised him and demanded that he issue a sincere apology.

This begs the following questions: What’s wrong with the term “wetback”? What does it mean? And, where does it come from?

Historically, the racial epithet “wetback” has been used by whites to suppress Mexican immigrant laborers while at the same time solidifying white superiority and domination. The racial slur stems from the white imaginary and the ill conceived notion of Mexican immigrants becoming wet as they purportedly swam across the Rio Grande River, entering the U.S. in search of higher wages. As with many racist slurs, it’s based on several lies, the most obvious of which is that in many places the Rio Bravo del Norte (as it is known in Mexico) is shallow enough to walk across without getting more than your knees wet.

The exclusionary meaning of “wetback” has been part of the white mainstream psyche, appearing as early as June 20, 1920 in this New York Times article (pdf). Since that time, the epithet has retained and reproduced its original negative racist connotations, categorizing Mexicans – and by extension all Latinas/os – as inherently criminalistic, lawless, and undesirable.

Of course, Congressman Young is not the first elected official who has used the term “wetback.” According to a recent USA Today article, the term has a lengthy record of usage, particularly in the last 32 years:

  • 1981, House Minority Leader Bob Michel, R-Ill:“A conservative Texan and a conservative from Illinois may be on different sides. Would I vote the same on wetbacks as a guy from Arizona?”
  • 1983, Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, D-S.C.:“You had people from Missouri. You had wetbacks from California that came in here for (Sen. Alan) Cranston. It wasn’t Iowans. And it was all bought and paid for. It was a fraud. One great, grand fraud.”
  • 1983, Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., “The main public perception is that we’re talking about wetbacks, that we’re talking about Mexican-Americans coming across the border.”
  • 1990, Veterans Secretary Edward Derwinski — serving under President George H.W. Bush — In a speech on drug abuse, he said drug cartels use “wetbacks” to smuggle drugs into the country. After Milder denounced the statement, he apologized, calling it “just one of those dumb slips.” But he also accused Milder of overreacting and having a “thin skin.”
  • 1990, Ann Richards’ campaign for Texas governor faced accusations she used the word in a 1976 speech. “If it takes a man to hire non-union labor, cross picket lines and work wetbacks then I say thank God for a woman or anyone else who is willing to take over,” she was alleged to have said in the speech. Richards, a Democrat, denied it and claimed her opponent fabricated that section of the speech and planted it in a Hispanic newspaper.
  • 2006, Arizona state Rep. Russell Pearce came under fire for praising a 1950s deportation program known as “Operation Wetback” on a radio program. He refused to apologize. “My critics don’t like history. They want to rewrite history. I didn’t use the term. I quoted a successful program,” he told the Arizona Republic.
  • 2008, Honolulu City Councilman Rod Tamhad publicly announced that “we don’t want any wetbacks, basically” on city development projects. He later said he never considered it a racial slur, and said, “I apologize if I offended anybody.”

The W-word carries additional baggage from a long history of blatantly racist legislation by predominantly white legislators trading in the politics of fear. Laws and policies such as Operation Wetback (1954), Operation Gatekeeper (1994), Arizona SB 1070/2162 (2010), and  and Texas Senate Bill 1128 (2013) create real harm and ensure the perpetuation of white domination.  And, as you can plainly see from the names of the bills and the text in each one, this harmful legislation begins with and is rooted in the language of “wetbacks” and “illegal immigrants.”

Racist slurs, such as “wetback,” continue to have real tangible social, cultural, and economic consequences. Such language is fundamental to the process of commodification and objectification. Brown people are exploited physically and economically, effectively designated as mere instruments meant to serve white systems of domination in order to sustain white privilege.

I ask you, how can Republicans rebrand their party by catering to Latina/o voters if their party permeates white racist anti-Latina/o ideology?

Comments

  1. Joe

    Frank, thanks for this excellent post, it is ten times better than anything I have seen in the mainstream media– whose white publishers and top editors still do not seem to ‘get it’ when it comes to the demographic changes that are ongoing…. Anti-Latino epithets remain ok….casual for top white officials…..

  2. Shari Valentine

    Excellent work tracking the historic and all too recent “acceptable” use of this nasty term. An American Indian activist friend of mine says if we are going to talk about wetbacks, let’s start with Columbus and those folks in Jamestown. And illegal doesn’t begin to describe what they did with immigration.

  3. lss014

    I agree with this post. Some things are better left unsaid. Racial slurs are not acceptable at all and for him to feel like nothing was wrong with the word was definitely unacceptable. The labeling theory fits right with this situation because they were labeled by Don Young and he clearly didn’t see anything wrong with what he said.

  4. Aggie2

    Iss014. Your comment is timely as I just passed over this article the other day:

    Bustamante, Jorge A. 1972. “The “Wetback” as Deviant: An Application of Labeling Theory.” American Journal of Sociology 77(4):706-718.

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