Generally used as an ethnic slur, the term was originally coined and applied only to Mexicans who entered the U.S. state of Texas from Mexico by crossing the Rio Grande, which forms the border between Texas and Mexico, presumably by swimming or wading across the river and getting wet in the process.
The first mention of the term in The New York Times is dated June 20, 1920. It was used officially by the US government, including Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954, with Operation Wetback, a project which was a mass deportation of illegal Mexican immigrants. Usage of the term appeared in mainstream media outlets until the 1960s.
The term can also be used as an adjective or a verb. As an adjective, it pertains to activities involving Mexican illegal aliens in the United States. The earliest known recorded use in this way is by John Steinbeck in Sweet Thursday as he wrote, "How did he get in the wet-back business?" It was originally used as a verb in 1978 in Thomas Sanchez's Hollywoodland with the meaning, "to gain illegal entry into the United States by swimming the Rio Grande".
- "Wetback". www.merriam-webster.com. Retrieved September 2, 2010.
- Hughes, Geoffrey (2006). An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-speaking World. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.
- Norquest, Carrol (1972). Rio Grande Wetbacks: Mexican Migrant Workers. University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-0220-3.
- Gerald B. Breitigam (June 20, 1920). "Welcomed Mexican Invasion – Thousands of Families Crossing the Border to Till the Soil and Otherwise Build Up the Southwest". The New York Times. section 8, page 6.
In the Laredo district alone, a speaker at a business men's dinner recently estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 of these 'wetbacks,' as they are called because of their method of entry, had crossed into Texas in that time.
- "President Trump : Can he really win ?". Channel 4.
- "Wetback". Interactive Dictionary of Racial Language. Retrieved April 20, 2007.
- Hawkins, Derek (February 9, 2017). "The long struggle over what to call 'undocumented immigrants' or, as Trump said in his order, 'illegal aliens'". Washington Post. Retrieved 26 April 2018.
- Green, Jonathon (2010). Green's Dictionary of Slang. Edinburgh: Chambers.