From Undocumented Child to Federal Judge

From an undocumented child to a federal judge, Manuel Barbosa joins us to discuss his own incredible migrant story he recounts in his autobiographical new book, "The Littlest Wetback."

Read an excerpt from Barbosa's book.

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The Littlest Wetback

by Manuel Barbosa

About the Title

I had serious misgivings about using the word “wetback” in the title, given that it has properly been relegated to the dustbin of outdated and intolerable ethnic slurs. It seems painful to write the word and almost impossible to utter. Yet it was quite common at the time that my story begins. As a matter of fact, the U.S. attorney general initiated a deportation program in June of 1954 which was officially called “Operation Wetback.” This was actually the third such initiative with that name. Operations Wetback I and II had taken place under two prior administrations with the goal of opening up jobs for American citizens during trying economic times.

The offensive nature of the word comes not from its literal meaning, but rather from the degrading racist attitudes that created it and its use in government policy shows the prevalence of those attitudes at the time. My use of the term here is a reminder that it has existed, and there is some merit for us in not forgetting that it existed, and that even now a U.S. Congressman (Don Young, Alaska 3-29-13) felt at liberty to use it in a public interview. As with many things that are feared or considered taboo, they cannot be eradicated until they are confronted.

Sometimes we get lulled into complacency by the coded words that become prevalent in our discourse and we mistakenly view the evolution of racial rhetorical subtlety as progress. Ian Lopez, a University of California law professor, provides a brilliant analysis of how “dog whistle” politics has been used effectively to the detriment of minorities and even the middle class (Dog Whistle Politics, 2014). Perhaps removal of the dog whistle is a means of shaking off the complacency.

As I pondered the use of the “W” word, I came to the realization that in Spanish it didn’t carry the same demeaning and hostile tone as it does in English. It is often used in the diminutive form, “mojadito,” when used in the third person, thus connoting sympathy or pity. When used in the first person, it seems to humbly convey a spirit of suffering or adventure brought on by a life that desperately seeks hope beyond the unknown foreign horizon. Sometimes it seems to convey determination and adventurous courage: “Me voy de mojado” (“I’m going as a wetback”). The Spanish word has a sound devoid of all disdain and offensiveness, conjuring up a sad social reality from which it springs, with all its human dimensions. It is a reality that Spanish speakers are in some form familiar with, and thus view with compassion.

I was surprised recently, perhaps pleasantly, when I spoke to a college class in which a large number of students were unfamiliar with the term. I should also point out that over the last couple of years I have sought the opinions of many friends, educators, professionals and Latino advocates, and overwhelmingly, they felt my chosen title was appropriate under the circumstances. 

Read more here.

View photos from "The Littlest Wetback."

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