by: Jose Soto
The Spanish word “mojados” translates to “wetbacks.”
I remember the first time I ever heard that word.
The moment is surprisingly clear in my head, or as clear as it could be for a second grader. A fellow classmate and I sat across from each other at one of the cafeteria tables eating lunch. There was an El Paso Times newspaper set in front of us. One of the front page headlines read something about ‘immigrants.’ When he laid the page out and looked at it, he laughed to himself and worded out the derogatory word.
“Mojados,” he said.
The dialect is used for belittling immigrants who have crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States. I knew that even as a young child. It carried such a negative connotation. It became part of my diction as a second grader and has persisted ever since.
The kids at my school would throw around the word ‘mojados’ to make fun of the Mexican kids and I knew I was one of them, although no one ever did say it to me directly. I was light-skinned and spoke English well because my mother had instilled the importance of learning the language at a very young age. I was bilingual by the time I was four. I knew the Pledge of Allegiance and El Padre Nuestro. But I was also aware that I wasn’t American like many of the other children in my classroom. I had already established that connection by not being able to associate the families depicted in the television shows or films I watched to my own. I didn’t have a stay-at-home mother. My father didn’t wear suits. I didn’t live in a grandiose, white picket fence home. Most noticeably, we weren’t white.
To further cement that reality in my head was a memory I vividly recalled then as I do now.
To make a long story short, my mother, sister and I once crossed the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico into El Paso, Texas with the assistance of a ‘coyote,’ or a smuggler. In the wee hours of the night and hidden by the disguise of darkness, we crossed through a short desert terrain, through the high waters of the river in a small ‘lanchita,’ or a small boat, and under railroad train cars into the United States. I was four years old. My sister was eight.
My mother explained that the entire occurrence was only a game. “This is all a game,” my mother said. “All we have to do is get across to win, but we have to be extremely quiet to do so.”
At the time, I indeed perceived it as a game. It wasn’t until a few years later with help from the media and the children at school that I realized I was an undocumented immigrant. It was baffling, of course, because I didn’t quite grasp the social implementation of what that meant as a child, but I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to shout out to all four winds, or ‘los cuatro vientos’ as we would say in Spanish.
And so some of my childhood became a obtruded play with me being the central character as a Mexican kid trying to act as American as possible.
In fifth grade, I was elected ‘music director’ of my classroom, which merely meant I got to choose which songs we learned to sing along to during music hour. Neil Diamond’s “Coming To America” was one of the songs in the catalog. Out of curiosity, I picked the song one day. My classmates loved it because it was fun to sing along to. I loved it for more personal reasons.
It wasn’t until my family arranged and validated our permanent residency in the United States that I not only accepted but embraced my nationality and my stance here in the U.S. I was now in middle school and one of my teachers who was also a music instructor was an essential part of that.
Jim Marshall was the musical director for an ESOL, or English for Speaking of Other Languages, choir at Henderson Middle School. I joined the choir simply for my deeply-rooted passion for music. I was already a member of both the symphonic and jazz band and wanted to venture into vocal instrumentation. The music he wrote, accompanied by his own lyrics too, showcased the beauty of growing up bi-culturally in the borderland. Furthermore, his message was about embracing our Mexican nationality and culture while also loving the United States as our new home where we could access a valuable education and, consequently, endless possibilities.
And that is exactly what being a ‘mojado’ is all about.
With much demeaning rhetoric about immigration and immigrants provoking different emotions and opinions during President Donald Trump’s campaign and win, it is important to start talking about these individual and personal stories. Many immigrants like myself have similar accounts that can help bridge the platform of misinformation and propaganda to the one of truth and humanistic understanding. Although I am no longer undocumented, a permanent residency is not citizenship and still very much affected by the legislation Trump has already begun implementing.
We must be diligent about what course of actions the Trump administration undertake and unfold. The United States thrived as a country of immigrants in its inception and continues to do so now. Trump’s executive orders in regards to immigration and undocumented immigrants, which include building the wall throughout the Mexican border and publishing crimes, whether serious or petty, are detrimental to the progress of our nation and demeaning to the immigrant population.
I stand by my fellow undocumented comrades and encourage anyone who feels slightly affected by stories as such to voice their concern and alliance to those they love.
Instead of erecting a dividing wall, it is more efficient and easier to build a bridge to cross troubled waters.
But as ‘mojados,’ we’ll cross it regardless.