Wetback (slur)

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Wetback is a derogatory term used in the United States to refer to foreign nationals residing in the U.S., most commonly Mexicans. The word mostly targets illegal immigrants in the United States.[1] Generally used as an ethnic slur,[2] the term was originally coined and applied only to Mexicans who entered the U.S. state of Texas from Mexico by crossing the Rio Grande river, which is the U.S. border, presumably by swimming or wading across the river and getting wet in the process.[3]


The first use of the term wetback in The New York Times is dated June 20, 1920.[4] It was used officially by the US government, including Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954,[5] with 'Operation Wetback', a project that involved the mass deportation of illegal Mexican immigrants.[6] Usage of the term appeared in mainstream media outlets until the 1960s.[7]

The term can also be used as an adjective or verb. As an adjective, it pertains to activities involving Mexican illegal aliens in the United States. The earliest known recorded use in this way is by John Steinbeck in the novel Sweet Thursday, the sequel to Cannery Row, with the sentence, "How did he get in the wet-back business?" It was originally used as a verb in 1978 in Thomas Sanchez's Hollywoodland with the meaning, "to gain illegal entry into the United States by swimming the Rio Grande".[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Wetback". www.merriam-webster.com. Retrieved September 2, 2010.
  2. ^ Hughes, Geoffrey (2006). An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-speaking World. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.
  3. ^ Norquest, Carrol (1972). Rio Grande Wetbacks: Mexican Migrant Workers. University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 978-0-8263-0220-5.
  4. ^ Gerald B. Breitigam (June 20, 1920). "Welcomed Mexican Invasion – Thousands of Families Crossing the Border to Till the Soil and Otherwise Build Up the Southwest". The New York Times. section 8, page 6. In the Laredo district alone, a speaker at a business men's dinner recently estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 of these 'wetbacks,' as they are called because of their method of entry, had crossed into Texas in that time.
  5. ^ "President Trump : Can he really win ?". Channel 4.
  6. ^ "Wetback". Interactive Dictionary of Racial Language. Retrieved April 20, 2007.
  7. ^ Hawkins, Derek (February 9, 2017). "The long struggle over what to call 'undocumented immigrants' or, as Trump said in his order, 'illegal aliens'". Washington Post. Retrieved April 26, 2018.
  8. ^ Green, Jonathon (2010). Green's Dictionary of Slang. Edinburgh: Chambers.