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Is the correct term

By Javier Huerta

Thanks to Jeffrey Mcdaniel for calling attention to the situation in Arizona.  And I believe he’s right when he says, “Perhaps we poets need to be caretakers of the language around this subject: for example, illegal alien vs. illegal immigrant vs. undocumented migrant.” Of course, this conversation has been going on for about four decades if not longer.  I’m actually planning to submit a proposal to AWP for a panel on Literature of the Undocumented. I plan to ask writers who have lived the undocumented experience and are now writing from that experience. Indocumentado/a seems to be a good choice. I and some of my fellow IRCAistas have talked recently talked about Orgullo Indocumentado, a project of coming out and stating that we were once undocumented. The idea is that if more people come out as formerly and currently undocumented that we force the issue. Aqui estamos y no nos vamos. Y si nos hechan nos regresamos. The point is not to ask for amnesty but to demand recognition as a “person”. In regards to the discussion of  how we poets can be caretakers of the language around this subject, I include here thoughts I have written and rewritten on why the term “Mojado” may be the most beautiful way to self-identify.

I’ve been reading Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives, and one of those narratives is about/by an immigrant simply identified as “El Mojado.” In a footnote the editors define the term “mojado” as “Wetback. A derogatory term for Latino immigrants, referring to workers who cross the Rio Grande into the U.S.” That’s an accurate description of “wetback,” but it lacks understanding of the use of the word “mojado.” I have said this before on this blog: just as un beso is not a kiss, mojado is not wetback. After all, why would the man choose “El Mojado” as his alias if it were derogatory? The word “mojado” carries a sense of bonding and belonging among a group of people who share the experience of crossing the border “illegally.”

Take this episode from Ramon “Tianguis” Perez’s diary:

The door opens and a tall woman of about thirty-five in a pale green dress appears. Her skirt comes down to her ankles, and her blouse comes up to her neck, where it’s topped by a ribbon of white lace, just like the ends of her long sleeves. She has short hair tied lightly at the neck. Her bronze skin lets me know that she’s Hispanic.

“Pardon,” I say in Spanish, “is this the place where you help wetbacks?” As always I use the word mojados.

“Mojados?” she says to herself.

Some light wrinkles cross her forehead and her eyes look to the walls, as if she expected to find an answer there. Then she turns towards me with her eyes wide open, as if she was having trouble seeing. Her slight smile has vanished and now her lips are tightly shut. I feel her looking at me from head to foot.

“Mojados?” she repeats. This time it’s clear that the query is directed at me.

“Yes,” I say, baffled, “somebody told me that here you help mojados.”

“No!” she says with cold emphasis. “Here there are no mojados.”

Even more confused, I manage only to say thanks and to find my way down the stairs again.
The Cuban stands in the same position below, only now his chin is pressing the muffler against his chest. I tell him about the conversation I had upstairs.

“Undocumented worker is the correct term,” he says.

The woman in the account chooses political correctness over actually assisting an undocumented worker. In his typical style, Tianguis doesn’t offer too much commentary as to how he feels about the woman or the situation. A paratextual analysis offers more insight into his thoughts about the controversy of identifying as “mojado.” I believe Tianguis must have this interaction in mind when he writes the dedication to his book, “Para mis camaradas: los mojados,” or as it is translated, “for my fellow mojados.” When Tianguis begins his journey he identifies chiefly as a Zapotec Indian from the village of Macuiltianguis in the state of Oaxaca. By the end of his journey, Tianguis identifies not only as a Zapotec Indian but as someone who has entered and lives everyday in the U.S. “illegally.” For Tianguis, the word that best expresses this second identity is “mojado”; in this one word he expresses his bond and shared experiences with other undocumented immigrants.

The original manuscript of the diary is in Spanish and has the title, Diario de un Mojado, with which Tianguis again expresses that identity and that belonging to a group with shared experiences. Instead of publishing the Spanish original, Arte Publico first publishes the translation by Dick J. Reavis with the title, Diary of an Undocumented Immigrant. This is what I find fascinating: that the translation/publication process repeats the same scenario that Tianguis narrates in the excerpt above and critiques in the paratextual dedication and title pages. The translation/publishing process (which could include the author’s input, by the way) decided on political correctness over allowing Tianguis to self-identify. Diary of a Mojado seems to me to be the only correct translation.


Posted in Uncategorized on Sunday, April 25th, 2010 by Javier Huerta.