On Don Young, Chuck Todd, and the "W" Word

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on April 2, 2013

I've got nothing good to say about Don Young, the Republican congressman from Alaska who last week stumbled into the headlines with his reference to "wetbacks" who picked tomatoes at the Young farm in California many years ago.

Young's comment shows that he is as thoughtless now as he was reckless when he plundered the federal treasury for pork-laden projects known as earmarks. He was responsible for the most infamous earmark of them all: Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere.

Rep. Don Young

But on Sunday's "Meet the Press", NBC's Chuck Todd took his disgust with Young's latest indiscretion too far when he asked Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), "Does that make Congressman Young fit to serve?"

Young's comment was reprehensible. But Todd's outrage was excessive. It was a Bridge Too Far. It dropped him into the steaming Washington swamp of political correctness and asymmetrical rhetorical warfare.

Moreover, Todd's question showed that his understanding of the word "wetback" is as weak as his understanding of U.S. immigration history, which was the subject of my blog post yesterday.

It is incorrect to suggest, as Todd and others seem to think, that the "w" word is as offensive and reprehensible as the "n" word. This ignores the reality of how the word has been used historically and how it is perceived by Latinos.

To draw on Mark Twain's observation about the differential power of words, the "n" word is close to lightning in its destructive force, while the "w" word is more like the lightning bug. It shouldn't be used in civil discussion. But it is far less charged than the word "gringo", which is often loaded with hostility when it is used in a political context.

"Wetback" has a far more benign history. It is a direct translation of "espalda mojada", the term that described someone who swam the Rio Grande to enter the United States illegally. Later it was extended to all illegal immigrants, usually with the noun deleted and the adjective standing alone. It became common in Mexico to say of someone who had taken the illegal route: "Se fue de mojado"— he went as a wet (back).

Gradually the term was adopted — proudly and sometimes defiantly — by people in other parts of Latin America. It spread from daily conversation into popular culture, appearing in the titles of movies and books and songs. There are many examples. I'll offer just one.

Salvadorans have embraced the song "Tres Veces Mojado" — Three Times Wet — as an anthem for those whose route took them across the borders of Guatemala and Mexico before reaching the United States. The song was a hit for the hugely popular Mexican-American band Los Tigres del Norte. You can join the 495,000 who have seen the video on Youtube, right here.

Young's use of "wetback" was insensitive. It was an embarrassment to him and to his party, whose cringeworthy ability to antagonize Latinos seems boundless. He apologized for it, as he should have. Now Chuck Todd should tone down his own inclination to muddle the conversation. The national immigration debate could use less heat and more light all around.