Let’s put an end to ‘wetback’

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When I joined the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, I never intended to set myself apart from or above my community.

I migrated to the United States at the age of four. This meant that I found it more natural to “assimilate” to American culture than, say, my mom, who arrived in this country when she was 31.

For me, the lure of enrolling in DACA extended beyond its benefits of obtaining a work permit or protection against deportation. It was the first time in my life that I felt that America acknowledged some value in me — it was the first time that I belonged, even if in a minimal way.

Unfortunately, the perpetual use of offensive terms such as “wetback” continues to remind me that legally, I am still an outsider.

The term “wetback” dates back to the 1920s and refers to the illegal crossing of individuals through the Rio Grande along the U.S.-Mexico border. Over the years, “wetback” evolved into a form of publicly shaming and targeting all Mexican migrants who crossed into the United States illegally to indicate that the individual broke the law.

When I was younger, it was customary for me to hear “wetback” used in jokes. Although I don’t condone this use of it, I never took offense to it until recently, when I witnessed a close friend of mine use the term as an act of aggression.

It was a hot summer day in Los Angeles when my friend and I decided to go to get a drink at a bar. Maybe it was the mixture of the booze and the heat, but somehow, my friend became involved in a verbal altercation with a stranger.

In an attempt to have the final word, my friend shouted to the stranger to “shut up” and “learn to speak English” and finally resorted to labeling the stranger as a “wetback.”

I stood there staring at my friend who had so comfortably labeled a stranger as a “wetback,” when he knew that I was a Mexican immigrant myself. My stomach dropped at the sound of the word. My muscles grew tense with anger, but at the same time, my heart ached just as if the verbal aggression had been directed towards me.

When he saw my reaction, my friend brushed off the offense by simply stating that “wetback” could never refer to me because I had assimilated to American culture — because unlike this stranger, I knew how to “speak” English.

My grasp of the English language and American culture was not a conscious choice. By migrating to the United States, four-year-old me had not made a decision to expel my origins in exchange for a new world.

For 23 years, my mother has attempted to master English. She understands it, but she is often embarrassed to speak it because of her deep Spanish accent. It pains me to think that someone like my friend would try to humiliate her as she tries to belong in this country.

It is incorrect to label anyone as a “wetback.” The term extends past its literal meaning of crossing the Rio Grande to any Latinx immigrant crossing the border illegally. It generalizes an entire people and reduces them to criminals. It makes us feel like we will always be outsiders in our search for a better life.

It’s as if a delinquent reputation precedes us regardless of our good conduct or accomplishments.

The reckless continued use of “wetback” makes anyone who “looks” Latinx vulnerable to being reduced to a degrading term. It strips our individuality from us.

I feel connected to a country that more often than not is uninterested in engaging in a relationship with me. It took 17 years from my time of arrival onto U.S. soil to obtain a glimpse of legalization through DACA.

Even though there is a possibility that I may be one step closer to becoming a legal resident of the United States, this does not mean that I would resign my native roots or be ashamed of them.

And the survival of derogatory terms such as “wetback” is a constant reminder that I don’t belong and continues to make me feel estranged from a country I recognize as my home.

What was perhaps more outrageous was that my friend confidently labeled this stranger purely based on his looks and Spanish accent. For all I or my friend knew, this stranger was an American citizen, and I was the only real “wetback” in the room that day.

Gladys Torres Avalos writes the Monday column on being a DACA recipient. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @gtorres_avalos.