SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2015       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Nicole Jackson

My Name is Wetback

One of the many blessings of childhood is the ability to live in a world of fantasy. At eight years old, life was all fun and games, and laughter was acceptable in any situation (grown-ups were too serious and boring). In second grade, nicknames were an essential to each realm of make believe. My friends and I would call each other by a new name every week, and we became innovative name creators at MacArthur Elementary.

The Arizona public school I attended reflected the diversity encouraged in the 2003 Supreme Court case Grutter V. Bollinger, which fought to ensure a multiracial student population at the University of Michigan. MacArthur Elementary embraced diversity, and interaction between students of different backgrounds was a common occurrence. Various upbringings introduced derogatory terms that were incomprehensible to the young student body. Second grade students embraced diversity in an unknowingly offensive manner.  

 Life in elementary school consisted of friendly competition.  During recess, my friends and I created a game by comparing skin nuances. We were enveloped in the fantasy of youth, and oblivious to the cultural values inherent when announcing the "winner" had the darkest skin color.

Looking back, I understand the harmful implications of our created competition. The game took place during the 2000s, which was the first time that being an individual of multiple races was recognized on the U.S. Census. During this time, adults may have formally embraced diversity, but older prejudices were reflected in the subconscious of their children. Choosing a “winner” by skin color implied that one of us had had superiority over another. 

  I discovered that I had the darkest shade of skin, and proudly announced that I am Mexican. I had won the competition! The prize I received was a direct product of racial youth desensitization: a nickname.  In a few weeks my peers no longer referred to me as Nicole. My name was Wetback.

I welcomed the name, and inscribed “Nicole aka Wetback” on all my class books and assignments. My classmates and I thought it was humorous and extremely unique. Our teacher Mrs. Smith, on the other hand, saw no humor in the manner.

Inside the front cover of one particular math book, I discovered that someone wrote the word “wetback” next to Nicole Jackson’s name. I was appalled that a young student knew the term “wetback”, let alone would apply this degrading term to a fellow student.

The use of the derogatory phrase “wetback” at school can be attributed to the large Hispanic population in the Southwest. One year after my incident, Latinos were pronounced as the nation’s largest minority group. Because I was surrounded by this minority, I was exposed to terms such as “wetback” at an early age.

As an eight year old, I did not understand the implications of my nickname.  I was not offended by being called Wetback; in fact, I welcomed the unique namesake. I had the most popular nickname in school. Mrs. Smith quickly corrected my sense of achievement.

I was now faced with a new challenge, as it was my duty to explain the implications of the nickname my student was so proud of. I explained to Nicole how the term “wetback” was much more demeaning than she understood, and it was unacceptable to use the term in a lighthearted manner.  Using derogatory terms as a joke was not a good habit to adopt.

                   Although I knew the term "wetback" was often used to refer to Mexicans, I did not think it carried the same meaning if people called me wetback in school.  Mrs. Smith discovered that I was unaware of the present racial discrimination against Mexicans, and indifferent towards derogatory implications of the term.

I asked her if she knew that the term “wetback” was a derogatory term used to describe the illegal immigration of Mexicans into the United States. Nicole was surprised. But her understanding was not much better. She thought that Mexicans were called “wetbacks” because their hard labor jobs, such as roofing, made them sweat. It was upsetting to discover that she would degrade her heritage by calling herself “wetback”.

Nicknames are the epitome of youthful innocence. Lack of knowledge led my second grade class to believe that we could freely use offensive terms in a lighthearted manner. We were children with a narrow view of the world, too young to recognize the detrimental impact of our actions.

As an adult, I am able to reflect on the incident and analyze racial discrimination in a new light. I was aware that children did not always look like me, and quickly became desensitized towards outward appearance. My comfort level grew to the point where I felt joking about ethnicity was acceptable. Narrow understanding of the word allowed “wetback” to take on a positive meaning. We were not savvy enough purposefully reclaim the derogatory term and turn it into an emblem of pride, as occurs in many social movements today.  When I won the “competition”, I was not praised, but simply referred to. I was not the only Mexican in my class, but I was the only Mexican who welcomed a nickname that degraded my own ethnicity.

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