Guest Column

Who You Calling 'Wetback'? -- A Chicano Becomes the Immigrant

By David Madrid,
Pacific News Service, Youth Commentary,
Feb 10, 2005

 Growing up as a Chicano, three generations deep in the United States, I have always felt the segregation between Chicanos and Mexican immigrants -- what we call "border brothers" and some call "wetbacks." It is a clash of identity and misunderstanding on both sides. Even something as lethal as the gang warfare between Nortenos and Surenos here in the Bay Area has this conflict at its base.

For years I heard the word "wetback" thrown around loosely by other Chicanos at school or from some family members. It wasn't always used with hatred, but often more as a description, a way to identify. I never used the word, but I never tripped off it, either.

I've also heard the terms that immigrants use for Chicanos. Words like "pocho" and "gringo."

Sometimes in public places like a department store, Mexican immigrants having trouble communicating with a salesperson will look to me for help. When I tell them, "I don't speak Spanish," I can see the disappointment in their eyes. When this happens I feel bad for not being able to help, but even more so because I can't speak the language. Like many, I am caught in the middle of two worlds. I'm proud of my roots, but at the same time I don't really know my culture.

At a young age, my mother told me that even though we were born in the United States, our family originates from Mexico, and that I should never forget that. We all face harsh treatment, and names like "wetback" are tools used to keep our people down and to demean us.

I thought I understood what Mexican immigrants felt here in the United States, but it took a recent trip to Brazil for me to feel what it's like to walk in their shoes.

Visiting Brazil was the first time I was in a land where I didn't speak the language (Portuguese) and where the culture was new. And to put it bluntly, I was the "wetback" there. It was frustrating and intimidating walking the streets of this new land without being able to communicate well. People would overlook me and write me off as being unintelligent, just because I couldn't speak the language. People didn't know anything about me and were quick to judge.

I couldn't help but think about all the Mexican immigrants in the United States who are judged and subjected to prejudice, not only from white society but from their own people. Us.

When I was in
Brazil, I kept thinking about this guy I used to work with at a movie theater. He was a new immigrant from Mexico with a strong accent and would always stress to me how badly he was treated. He would explain how he comes from a wealthy family and the only reason he was here was to finish his college education. He would stress how disrespected he felt by Chicanos here.

I told him it all comes with the job of being brown and working concessions -- everybody's rude. But now I understand a little more about what he was getting at.

It's one thing to be judged and looked down upon by white people, but it's an added slap in the face when someone of your own ethnicity does it to you. The next time I hear the word "wetback," I will step in. Especially, if it's coming from somebody who is brown. I will let it be known that we are all one people.

PNS contributor David Madrid, 26, is a writer for www.siliconvalleydebug.com, the voice of young workers, writers and artists in
Silicon Valley.

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