For Latinos, a Spanish Word Loaded with Meaning

Marisa Gerber, Los Angeles Times, April 1, 2013

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.


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.”


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.


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