Last week Alaska Republican Don Young’s “wetback” comment —describing workers from his dad’s ranch— created a tremendous uproar. As it should, for the label carries with it a history of racism and a continuation of its effects into the present day. A label such as this one clearly reminds you what’s truly in someone’s heart. The fact that Young still uses the word, especially in the public sphere should be appalling. Yet, the focus has primarily been on Don Young for surfacing the atrocious word. People are attributing his age, as if it were a generational mishap—a racist act of old. It is treated as an individual act that seldom happens because as a nation things are “improving.” Even when he later non-apologized, he blamed time for not updating him on the word’s supposed change of meaning. But Latinos don’t need to be called “wetbacks” to serve as a reminder of racism, for its prevalence is found in current systematic racist government policies.
In 1954, the U.S. government launched Operation Wetback to deport undocumented Mexican immigrants back to Mexico. The U.S. used mass raids and surveillance to round up those who looked Mexican, regardless of immigration status. Hundreds of thousands were eventually deported. In 1954 they called it Operation Wetback, the name explicitly clear of its militarized and racist function. Today they call it Border Security. Although the title is different, present immigration policies are a stark reminder that little has changed.
Attitudes like that of Don Young’s are alive and present every day. They might not use that specific label, but anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric still have the same profound effect. Think about the wide array of measures, which target Latinos, and other communities of color. In Arizona they have SB1070, designed to strike fear in the Latino community. Copycats soon followed, and states began to make conditions even more miserable for already marginalized undocumented immigrants. Meanwhile, the U.S. plays politics in Latin America, creates migration factors, demands cheap immigrant labor, exploits this labor, pays these workers less than a living wage, and then forcefully removes people. Last year, the government zealously surpassed 400,000 deportations. Pouring money into programs that treat people like their lives mean nothing. They build higher fences and put more soldiers on the border. They could care less for thousands of people who have died attempting to cross.
In already underfunded schools filled predominately with Latinos and other communities of color, the U.S. government policies intend to deny these youth their history, rewrite a different version, and eradicate ethnic studies programs. They try to change everything about Latinos from their culture and language to the way they look. They call Latinos “illegal” and say women and their bodies are nothing more than a drain on society. So, yes the word “wetback” is offensive, but so is the environment in which Latinos live in.
The word should and must be critiqued, but a word uttered publicly should be contextualized within the racist policies that surround it. If politicians slip in public, what do you think they say in private? Remember, this is an elected representative, someone with political, social, and economic power. Yet, don’t forget that politicians don’t need names like Operation Wetback or even a derogatory label to push racist agendas. They don’t need to call you a “wetback” for them to treat you like one.
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