CAUTION: This thread contains a racial slur against hispanics. Use extreme caution.

Every day or so, I check out some the headlines at Jim Romenesko’s Media News. For some reason, I find media gossip interesting. Especially today, since the Pulitzers are announced today. However, immediately before I can look at the main links, I see this headline in the sidebar –WP’s Waxman uses w-word …Protests follow.

Well, apparantly the scoop is that during an online chat at, a caller from Takoma Park, Md., asked why in A Beautiful Mind, Alicia Nash – whom according to published reports is a latina – was played by Jennifer Connelly – whom according to other published reports, is not latina.

Well, Sharon Waxman, who is an entertainment reporter for the Post said this…

Well, a few questions later, she was called out on that…

Kinda’ glib, isn’t it…

but later…

However, the chat, nor the apologies have gone over well.

OK, from what I read, she was recounting the opinions of a Hispanic friend of hers…but her mistake was the naked use of ‘wetback’. I’m going to give her that benefit of the doubt (that it was her friend who first said it, and she was relaying in in the chat), simply I have no way to prove otherwise.

Anyway, in my opinion, she should have been more careful with how she set up the anecdote, but the second apology she gave was sufficient remorse. I give a bit or leeway in relaying anecdotes since your relaying the words of others and not yourself. I don’t think Waxman was out to be racist or anything…

How should Waxman and/or the Post handle this?

Just a nitpic, but isn’t “wetback” a slur just for illegal latino aliens in the US, not for latinos in general?

I think it’s a slur against illegal Latino aliens in the same way that “nigger” is a slur against lazy black people, not all black people. Sure, there are those on both sides of the ethnic fence who will loudly proclaim that it only means one thing or the other, but the fact remains that there are a lot of people who are offended by it.

Why “wetback”?

When you mentioned the “w” word, I thought you meant “wog”, which is a slur you hear a lot in Australia.

“Wetback” is new to me.

Because a lot of illegal Mexican immigrants have to swim the Rio Grande river to get to the United States…or so I was told in elementary school.

Where I live ‘wetback’ (or ‘wet’) specifically is a slur used against illegal immigrants from Mexico or Latin America (especially Central America). Actually, if you have ever lived along the Rio Grande you know that for a good part of the year there probably isn’t much swimming involved in its crossing. And any area west of El Paso to Tijuana is very dry land. But ‘swimming’ the Rio Grande is where the term comes from.

Even many 2nd generation or more Hispanic people will here say it as slur toward more recent immigrants. Upper and middle class Mexicans/Spanish speakers - the types who don’t have to swim river or cross deserts on foot - also use the term ‘mojado’ (wet) in the same way. It’s not exactly PC, or polite, but it isn’t taken as a blanket slur against all Mexicans - just those of a certain class and background.

In fact many poor or working class Mexican immigrants here use it sort of with a bit of twisted pride (every group does that with ethnic slurs I suppose). There are music groups, nightclubs, etc. with those words (‘wetback’ or ‘mojado’) in their name around the border.

HOWEVER, away from the border or heavily Hispanic areas it does seem to be more of a general slur. And since the sort of people who make ethnic slurs probably don’t appreciate the distinction between say Mexican and Venezuelan culture, or between upper class Mexicans and poor immigrants, it does become a slur against any Latino/Hispanic.

Huh. My understanding was that the origin of “wetback” was in reference to the migrant workers spending their days bent over in the fields in the hot sun, their sweat soaking through the backs of their shirts.

If I’m wrong, I’d really like that clarified. My classroom is 97% Hispanic, and even at 10, they are more than aware of these words. We had a discussion of racism, ignorance, etc. around MLK day, and they had questions about several slurs against Hispanics–including this one.

Anyway…to answer the OP more specifically. I don’t think any slur in America is as strong as the ‘n’ word (I have never seen “wetback” called the ‘w’ word or w*tback in print for instance). I am not implying it isn’t a slur, but it’s heaviness as a slur varies. Also, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists is a fine organization I’m sure - but I don’t think they, or any such organization (such as the MLA), are the absolute arbiters of what is proper or correct language in any and every context.

Any rational person should understand the difference between relating a phrase or quote, and saying it yourself. I remember an interview on Brian Lamb’s C-SPAN show where a Kennedy-Johnson era official was describing how White House life had changed since the 1960’s. He mentioned that at the time they still had a kitchen staff consisting of what they called then " the Filipino mess boys".

Sure enough, callers called in to complain about how awful it was that he said such a racist thing on the show. Brian Lamb and the guest looked somewhat perplexed, as that was the term used by White House insiders to describe the staff at the time, and they were just telling history. .

I have to agree that it’s not the same as ‘nigger’, it IS more specific and is used in a derogatory sense by more affluent hispanic Americans - one of my best friends was a Latina, her parents were middle-class (her father was a machinist), her mother’s side had been in America for about 4 generations but was originally from Mexico, her father was half Spanish and half Mexican. They all used the term for poor immigrants who were illegal and/or new to America.

It could still be insulting and prejudiced to affluent hispanics if it was used incorrectly against them - calling them a ‘wetback’ would not be the same as calling a black person a ‘nigger’, it would be closer to calling a black person a gangster or welfare queen or implying they were ‘ghetto’, and you’d probably get the same reaction - they would be pissed off because you assumed they were because of their race.

The thing that makes me sad is that Alicia Nash comes from a family who feel somehow ashamed of their heritage, feeling that El Salvadorean = “wetback” *.

It’s a little like a black person choosing to be played by a white actor, because she didn’t want people to think of her as black. Or, someone pretending not to come from New Jersey because people make “armpit of the world” jokes.

  • I feel Ms Waxman should have put the word in quotes, and perhaps qualified it by saying straight afterwards that it isn’t the word she herself would have used.

Maybe times change. In the 1970’s, “wetback” most certainly was a derogatory term toward hispanics/latinos. They were fighting words where I came from in northern california. The term was used almost exclusively by whites. I can’t remember hearing a chicano/hispanic/latino using it toward another chicano/hispanic/latino.

I’m writing out chicano/hispanic/latino because all these terms are used, and not necessarily interchangeably, in the US.

Ruffian, AFAIK, it was always in reference to swimming across the border illegally.

I also have a pet peeve. I really dislike when one ethnic group uses another ethnic group’s slur as an example or analogy. Drive’s me crazy when someone say’s it’s like saying n*gger. Just MHO.