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César Chávez vs. ‘wetbacks’ and ‘illegals’

Photo: Tim Graham / Evening Standard / Getty Images

Think Mexican points to a revealing 1972 interview with César Chávez, in which the famed labor leader and civil rights activist reproaches undocumented workers:

“This is the case right now, one of the strikes we have with the Butte Gas & Oil Co., where we’ve closed them down. They’ve been unable to get strikebreakers, or have gotten very few. And then all of a sudden, yesterday morning, they brought in 220 wetbacks — these are the illegals — from Mexico. Now, there’s no way to defend against that kind of strikebreaking.”

Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers union with Chávez in 1962, told HuffPo she was surprised to hear Chávez use the term “wetback.”

Yet the Los Angeles Times‘ Marisa Gerber showed us this week that Chávez’s word choice may not be so shocking, as she sifted through the ambivalent history of the label:

“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.”

Gerber stresses that the term increasingly became a derogatory one in the 1960s.

So, as I said last week, if Latinos are going to demand the head of Rep. Don Young, it’s mostly because the Alaska congressman failed to keep up with the times.

But we should still acknowledge the precarious interplay between words and time. I’m certain there are videos on YouTube this minute showing Dr. King or James Baldwin using the words “negro” and “colored,” and yet, how devastatingly bright would the Twitter bomb be should a white congressman use such terms today?

Is it that there are words used back then that we can’t use now, or that different people are allowed to use different words? My guess is it’s both.

I stand by last week’s position that Rep. Young is not as diabolical as many Latinos make him out to be. He used an archaic term for undocumented workers that has some historical venom in it, depending on how it’s used and by whom. He said “wetbacks” when referring to the undocumented laborers who worked on his father’s California ranch back in the 1930s, using a word that would’ve been part of agriculture’s everyday vernacular and splashed on the front pages of the nation’s major newspapers.

He’s since apologized for using the word — twice.

And to clarify, the term ‘”wetback” is not like “spic” or “nigger,” which were always hateful in all cases. For instance, the mainstream media of the 1940s was never going to call Jackie Robinson “the first nigger in baseball.”

Plus, at least Young supports the hiring of undocumented workers, unlike Arizona, Utah, Alabama, Indiana, Georgia and South Carolina — oh, and César Chávez.

About Hector Luis Alamo, Jr.

Hector Luis Alamo, Jr., is the associate editor at Being Latino and a native son of Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood. He received a B.A. in history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where his concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States. While at UIC, he worked first as a staff writer for the Chicago Flame and later became the newspaper's Opinions editor. He contributes to various Chicago-area publications, most notably, the RedEye and Gozamos. He's also a cultural critic for 'LLERO magazine. He has maintained a personal blog since 2007,, where he discusses topics ranging from political history and philosophy to culture and music.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.

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