“My Family Hired Wetbacks to Pick Cantaloupes on Our
West Texas Farm!”
THERE! I’ve said it, but if you understand the admiration behind that statement you would not think the word “wetback” is a racial slur, as some are insisting today…
Use of the word “wetback” is a reality from the years when there were no legal ways for Mexican citizens to work in the U.S. Unemployment was rampant in Mexico, even among those with some education and trade skills; their economy and currency were in shambles. Mexicans, almost all men in those years, made their way to the border and across the Rio Grande River rather easily compared to today’s tight border security. Hence came the term “wetback,” or as they called themselves, “mojados.” In far West Texas, once across the river, they were still far from many available jobs. In fact, from the area where we farmed (Pecos, Texas), farmers and ranchers sometimes drove to El Paso and picked up a carload of willing workers! The Border Patrol would sometimes stop these pickups, but usually just took the wetbacks into custody and allowed the “patróns,” to return to their farms empty handed—to try again another week.
Segregation was still our national shame, and I would not claim there was no abuse, payoffs, or racial discrimination, but, just like today, the real tragedy was that there was not a legal way for these men to be employed and protected as temporary workers. They would work at jobs that Americans would not. Our “wetbacks” were valuable employees and, for the most part, honest and decent family men. To my personal knowledge they were treated as such by our family and other farmers that we knew…
We provided housing for them and they had to stay on our property—except on Saturdays, when dad or I would drive them into Mexican town to buy their groceries and beer; we would return to pick them up around 10pm. If they got drunk and missed the pickup they were on their own and subject to being put in jail or picked up by the Border Patrol. This seldom happened, but once we even went by the jail and gained release for one of our men; the sheriff was glad to oblige. There were various “understandings” about what happened if you became a “troublemaker,” and I certainly wouldn’t claim they received “due process.” Rather, they received a “free trip to the border,” compliments of the Border Patrol...
To my recollection most were paid the going rate $.30 to $.40/hour in American currency. Each Saturday night was “payday.” At the same time, we collected the amounts they wished to send home, often 90% of their pay. On Monday mother purchased money orders for them, always returning their receipts. I spoke some Spanish, and they often told me how grateful they were to have a job and be able to send money to their families. They also received mail through our P.O. box and proudly showed us pictures of their children.
Dad was a pretty good “farm doctor” (animals or humans!) and if someone got sick and could not work he would go and check on them, prescribing his own treatment and medicine; they were strong and resilient men and always anxious to get back to work. I can only remember a few instances when we took them to the doctor in town, and I believe all of them were for injuries…another reality of farm work.
Some of our “mojados,” with my sister, Barbara (near left), and my dad, Neil (far right),
with a truck load of Pecos Cantaloupes headed for the T&P depot.
Admiration? Yes indeed… My sister and I were taught that our “wetbacks” were to be admired for their character, work ethic, and desire to support their family. I personally interacted with them daily, usually driving them to the fields to work. I got to know them by first name or nickname; they called me “Ramón,” but my dad was respectfully, “patrón,” or “Mr. Neil.”
When it rained and no one could work, some of them usually came up to dad’s shop to hangout, laughing, singing, boxing playfully and joking with each other and dad and I… On one rainy occasion they wanted to play baseball, so I brought out my one ball, bat and glove. They wanted us to know that “Profanio” had actually played for a Juarez professional team! Dad scraped off a diamond with the tractor and the next day we bought more baseball equipment. There were a few more games in the coming days, but the team soon folded—they were working too hard to do much playing...
Dad had welding equipment in his shop, and on another rainy day, “Felix” proposed to dad that he weld a cracked fender on our beat-up old farm pickup. Dad said, “Tell him it is too rusty and thin, he will just burn a hole in it!” Felix insisted he could do it, grinning mischievously. Dad nodded to the equipment as if to say, “OK, show me!” Instead of choosing one of dad’s welding rods, Felix went outside and got a rusty piece of bailing wire… He sparked the welding torch, and proceeded to do a surprisingly good repair on the fender. Only then did he tell us that his family owned a body repair shop in Mexico!
I was a budding ham radio operator and my Morse code station (W5OUS) in my bedroom was easily overheard in the nearby field where our wetback crew was chopping cotton. I didn’t know I was being overheard but several days later, driving the crew to the field, I heard the vocal sounds of Morse code from the back of the truck: “dit-dah-dit, dit-dah, dah-dah, dah-dah-dah, dah-dit,” which de-coded to “Ramón.” I looked back to see a grinning “Luka,” making the sounds! Of course I was very curious about how he knew the Morse code—he told me he had worked on the Mexican railroad as a telegrapher!
So, I guess its all about “context” when we use words like “wetback”—any word can be used in a derogatory context. However, in the context of my life and experience, “wetback” is a term of admiration.
(Yes, I can see that this story will be interpreted by some as an apology for employing illegal workers. In my opinion, the “wetback” problem is not the hard working Mexican citizen, or even the employers, but the lack of a reasonable plan for them to work in the U.S. on a temporary basis. Sure, many of them come with dreams of citizenship, but I believe that the question of “citizenship” is an entirely separate and very complicated issue that they must achieve by other means.)
Bye R@y - 4/2/2013
Ray Mack Thompson (PHS 47)
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I maintain an e-mail list of many Pecos High School friends, most of whom graduated in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. I sent my wetback story to them and below are some of their comments:
•••••• Ray, this was very nice!
•••••• Oh Ray, thanks for a trip back in time! This is how I remember the "wetbacks". We did not live on a farm, but always saw them in town. I remember them being brought into town in large cattle trucks, all singing and glad to be in town! Many wore shoes that were actually pieces of old tires cut and strapped on with rope. One of the first things they would buy was shoes! Also remember a group that discovered popsicles! They were so thrilled, they bought "tin suitcases" and filled them with popsicles. Walked down the street with the melted ice dripping from the suitcases!
Thanks for remembering they were essential and welcomed part of our home town.
Jan Dunn Phillips
•••••• I really enjoyed this. When Doug and I married in l956 he was farming (cotton) and had wetbacks/ braceros. Later when we had son Will, one man, Jose called him el general. They were all hard working men who always sent lots of money home to Mexico. Doug would bring them to town on Saturday nights to buy groceries,at Jimmy Toone's and would pick them up at the Union Cafe on Oak Street by the Cactus Theatre, I think. Happy Easter.
•••••• Ray Mack this is a great story…You need to share more of these…This brings back a lot of fond memories…Ya’ll’s farm was a great place to hang out… I always look forward to going out with Dad…
•••••• That's a really west texas story with the meaning of going along to get along.... Truly a win win operation.there are a lot of prominent families in Pecos due to the wetback invasion and later, the bracero program. While surveying for Sun Oil in the Davis mountains,we often found wetback camps in the greasewood and cat claws, set up with coffee , nap sacks of food and sleeping pallets. We didn't disturb them because we knew what a fragile lifeline they had.
Once, in the foothills of the Davis Mountains,we came upon a field filled with perhaps 200 workers, picking, and gathering the bags for weighing. We stopped to setup our plain table, rolled out the map, when we noticed that nearly all of those workers had disappeared. Several minutes later a Border Patrol jeep with two agents rolled up and asked if we'd seen anything unusual or large groups of Mexicans in the area. We said, “We certainly saw only those in that field.”—and they rolled on. How did they know the BP were on their way?
As recently as two months ago, the husband of my tamale lady told me he was a wetback. He said his family was waiting until he made enough money to bring them to the US. He said, "I made damned good money too! He made $3 a hundred pounds and most of the time broke $36 dollars a day. That's a lot of cotton, and a lot of hard hard labor, but, to this day he is grateful because what he had never had before in Mexico.
•••••• WOW! I liked your story; somehow it pinned the tail on the donkey. I'll guess they will go after that next. Funny how words mean one thing to people who have real world experience and yet a different meaning to Ivory tower bigots, who would like to put their spin on words. I think if people had to work and produce we wouldn’t have near as much trouble and conflicts. I always had the description, as you described it, in my mind and could never figure how it described or had a connotation of something bad.
The word “Bracero” meant one who was here legally. Both groups were hard working and interesting to talk to. It is a shame something couldn’t be worked out. I bet it they were unionized they could get immediate approval for a green card. (Of course the union dues would be the first month’s wages)
Now, I am going to point out one of the bad things the “Wetbacks” described to me. There was one Rancher—they described him and the location of his ranch. They said he would work you for a month with the promise of money at the end of the month. At the end of the month he would contact the Border Patrol and say there were some “Wets” camping on his land and would they pick them up. When some of the other rancher and farmers heard about this they spoke to the Border Patrol. It was my understanding the Border Patrol had to respond to any report. They would apprehend the “Wets” and then then threaten to prosecute the rancher for working them unless he paid them, right then and there before they were deported. This and the word of mouth seemed to stop this practice.
Somewhere in the corners of my mine lingers this: there was a reward. You were paid 50 cents for each “wet” apprehended that you reported. Somehow this story above was connected to this. It is funny how things worked out back then without lawsuits and government intervention.
I recall one “Wet” who worked for my father-in–law. He would go home as soon as the crop was in. My father-in–law would put him on a bus to El Paso and he would be back in time for planting. This went on for 12 years that I know about. He would return with a picture of a new addition to his family. He used his money to buy some land in Mexico and the last year he offered to buy an old tractor my father-in–law had. (I think it was given to him.) They placed it on a flatbed trailer and my father-in–law drove it to Presidio. How he got it across the river and into Mexico I don’t know. My father-in–law received a letter a couple of months later stating he had made it home with the tractor and had a new kid also.
I was teaching School in the highest paying school district in Texas—but the pay wasn’t that good. To supplement my income I worked for my father-in–law on Saturday and Sunday when he needed help. He had a well that was pumping sand. Over a period of time this sand would migrate to the end of the irrigation ditch, which made using it impossible. The above mentioned “Wet” was driving the tractor so the job of shoveling the sand out of the ditch fell to me. I had been hard at work doing this for a couple of hours when two Border Patrolmen busted out of the brush beside me, hollowing at me in Spanish, not to run. They were somewhat dumbfounded to find they had appended an English speaking schoolteacher! After I explained who I was, one of them said, “But this is a wetback’s job!” - Charles Stubblefield
•••••• Ray, thank you for sharing these memories of Pecos in the old days. I vividly remember the wetbacks coming into town on Saturdays to shop, and they always seemed to buy those big aluminum suitcases at the Penny’s store and carry them around while they were in town. That was just a way of life as we were growing up in Pecos.
Margaret Hart Helm
•••••• Ray, I really enjoyed this, and have to say that I was raised the same way. Coming to Pecos from Midland, this was a new phenomenon to an 8-year old city girl. But my parents had grown up on farms and knew the value these workers brought first hand. Some of my classmates were first generation Americans and became great friends. We were lucky to have them in our community!
•••••• Hello Ray Mack. A note to remind you how much your correspondence is appreciated and enjoyed. In particular, I refer to the article about the Wetbacks in Pecos. I got to have the children of many of those workers in my First Grade classes at Pecos Elementary… While Billy Rex was stationed in England during -1954-1955-1956, and I stayed in Pecos. That was my first teaching experience, all my preparation was for secondary school, and I was not fluent in Spanish! However, with Ray Whitley as Superintendent, and Wailand Bessent as Principal, it was one of the most memorable experiences of my thirty- eight year teaching career. (The rest of my Graduate work was in Early Childhood Education.)
They assigned a ten year old boy, who was fluent in English but had never attended school to my class, as well as thirty five other students. While he learned basics, he acted as interpreter. I became more fluent with conversational Spanish, the children learned to communicate in English as well as some basic First Grade skills. (Even games, including some fundamentals of baseball--now that was a challenge--- as we waited for their bus to arrive)
I can still see those shinning dancing eyes, those little shy smiles as they loved and appreciated everything and anything we did. I know as those families experienced worked with families such as yours, schools and things they otherwise would not have had for exposure, the term and experience as a "Wetback" was a desired one and surely not derogatory to them.
Hope this Spring and Easter Season is a good one for you. Thanks again for keeping us in the loop.
As ever, Harriet (Ross) Johnson
•••••• Thanks Ray for a good and uplifting story! I love it! That's what we called them in Fort Stockton, Texas, where we moved from Pecos when I was a junior in high school.
Sue Hinson (Class of 1963)
•••••• Ray, your article about the wetbacks on the farm was really interesting and enjoyed so very much. It brought back a lot of memories. Thanks for the memories.
•••••• Great read, Cuz. And so true. You know when I grew up in Prosper, our help at my grandmother's were black people, only we called them "nigger.” Even one woman called herself “Nigger Jenny.” Times sure change things. But I do remember your help at the farm in Pecos. They became good friends. How are things at your house? I'm fine. Just quilting and retreating away.
Love you, Dorothy
•••••• Yelp, you can't really blame someone for wanting to better them selves and their families.
•••••• Ray, I really enjoyed your letter about the Mexican laborers in Pecos. I too admired them. I think they have a work ethic that’s unsurpassed. I hired a “wetback” this spring to do a few days work around the house. He had walked from McAllen to Austin. His sister-in-law drove him from there to Azle. A local doctor is a benefactor who gives him a place to live. He told me there is no work in Mexico. He comes here to support his family and keep his children in school. How could anyone not respect people like him?