Thursday, August 21, 2008

Not Yet Illegal

This may be my last writing post for a bit. We leave for Acapulco Saturday morning and Ibis's sister and her son arrive here tomorrow. Our car died a couple days ago so there's a chance we'll be taking the bus there, joy. Figures nothing can go smoothly. Anyways, on to todays post.

I finished my first draft last weekend, as you all know, but I'm still struggling with what to call my main character. Not his name - that's Mateo - I mean, how do I label him? He's a Mexican trying to sneak across the border into the US and he encounters others in the same position along the way.

We've all heard derogatory terms for people who've already made it across, the most common being wetback. I'm not opposed to using a slang or offensive term, but that particular word doesn't apply in this situation. For most of the story he's still in Mexico. You could say he aspires to be a wetback, or a wannabe wetback as Ibis so graciously suggested, but again, that doesn't really fit.

I posted this question on Absolute Write and I'm hoping to get more input here. For those of you who already commented there, I apologize for the redundancy, but I have a couple readers here that aren't on AW.

Some people questioned whether I even need to label them. I think I do because it starts to get confusing without a specific term. At one point I have several groups hiding in the desert. One starts running, then the other group jumps up, and I feel like it's nothing but "this man" then "that man" and "the woman."

Here are the suggestions I've received so far:



a term Ibis heard in songs, etc, as a kid

yes, it means chicken, but is also spanglish for people being smuggled across


particularly around the Rio Grande and Rio Bravo area since the boats used to cross are called "pato"

not sure what this means; help from my spanish-speaking readers?

There were a few suggestions that would be something border control uses, not what the people in question would call themselves, but I'll include those, too:

short for mercancia or merchandise



Spanish for "wetback"

I'd prefer a Spanish term, but I'm open to suggestions. So far I'm leaning towards migrant, pollo, and brasero. I'd love to hear your thoughts.



ac said...

FYI, Cajuela means trunk.

"He's a Mexican trying to sneak across the border into the US and he encounters others in the same position along the way."

The first term that came to mind is Compadres. Compadres means godfathers, but in "Puerto Rican" we use the term to demonstrate closeness with another person. It's not religious, nor it is meant in a mafia way. I believe a word like Compadres will humanize those coming across the border as brothers. But Compadres may not fit the story.

I also like Brasero - it's romantic in a way.

Melanie Avila said...

Ooh, he's crossing in a trunk - or trying to - so that could work. But he ends up crossing on foot. He's on his own but is near other groups being led by coyotes.

Compadres could work. I'm thinking I'll do a definition at the beginning so it's very clear to the reader.

My first reaction when Ibis suggested brasero was "isn't that a guy who cooks meat?" but he explained it for me.

Thanks for your help. :)

Melanie Avila said...

I'm commenting on behalf of a friend who can't open my blog. He's a Mexican in the US and votes for emigrante.

I wanted to include this to help the conversation along...

TL said...

I can give you the California perspective. Migrant workers usually work in the US and bring money back home to their families. Migrant may work if he intends to go back to Mexico. If your story takes place during this era, I would definitely use a modern slang. I like emigrante.

ac said...

Mel, I'm curious to know why your Mexican friend chose emigrante. I wonder if you can conduct an informal survey to find out whether Mexicans prefer a PC word such as emigrante or one like brasero or pollo which aren't really "unPC" but each is political.

Personally, my issue with the word emigrante is that the visual it brings to mind doesn't portray the struggle to cross the border as brasero or pollo does.

I know your friend can't access your blog, but can you ask him why he likes emigrante? I'm curious to know the reason.

Robin said...

I like Brasero or Mojado, but they both make me want to eat guacamole.

spyscribbler said...

I like emigrante, or runner. Emigrante would be great in the title, if you don't already have a title.

But I don't know, really!

WendyCinNYC said...

Mmmm, El Pollo Loco. I miss that restaurant.

I like emigrante as well, but what do I know? I agree with Auria that it doesn't sound struggle-ish, but it also doesn't sound degrading. Although I once had a Mexican boyfriend with "wetback" written on his surfboard, so the equivalent of that term would have been fine and dandy to him, I suppose.

Melanie Avila said...

TL, he doesn't plan to return, at least not in the near future.

Melanie Avila said...

AC, that particular friend doesn't know anything about my book. He happened to email me today so I asked his opinion.

The only reason he gave for preferring emigrante is it's not offensive. He suggested several other phrases, but I'd rather have a single word, so that's all I shared here. He did say wetback is very offensive to him, even though he's legal.

I agree with emigrante. I don't like the word for this purpose, I just didn't want to shoot it down right away & close off the discussion.

Melanie Avila said...

Robin, LMAO! Guacamole sounds yummy!

Thanks Spy. I was thinking that whichever word I decide upon could be an alternate title idea, especially since Wendy just mentioned a children's book called The Other Side.

Melanie Avila said...

Wendy, while I'd rather not use an offensive term, I'm not opposed to it so long as it's something the MC would call himself. Does that make sense? Kind if the way certain ethnicities can get away with calling each other names that those in other races cannot. (not that I want to start that debate here).

Brasero is sounding better and better to me, but I'll have to do some real research to make sure it's an appropriate term.

Zoe Winters said...

i think mojado could work. The term "wetback" pretty much becomes a racial slur. It's a little disjointing, like the N word.

I think it also depends on how these characters see themselves and how you're characterizing them. Journeymen could work in this regard. It gives a "quest" feel. Or you could find a spanish term that means the same thing.

Runners is also a great term that gives a sense of action/adventure/danger. You could also find an appropriate spanish term that works with this.

Zoe Winters said...

oh, also, have you named the novel yet?

If it's a big enough theme of the book, you could make the label the title of the book or part of the title.

Melanie Avila said...

Zoe, it's called The Other Side, but like I said, I could use whichever term I settle on as an alternate title.

Also, mojado literally means wet, so basically wetback. That's why I'd prefer not to use it. It's all besides the point because I don't want something that applies to those already across.

I'll look spanish equivalents of runner and journeyman, that's a good suggestion!

Packsaddle said...

I like "Saltador".

Or, "Saltador de la Frontera".

(which would also be a good name for a mariachi band)

Now, about those royalties....

ac said...

Mel, I know you won't use mojado but I wanted to add that the word is also a racial slur.

"Mmmm, El Pollo Loco. I miss that restaurant."

Wendy, that cracked me up.

"Saltador de la Frontera

(which would also be a good name for a mariachi band)"

So true! I love it.

Mel, if you find interesting research about brasero, I'd love to read about it on your blog.

Melanie Avila said...

Packsaddle, that's pretty damn funny!

Melanie Avila said...

AC, you're right. I'm glad you see where I stand (not saying others don't) because I don't want to be offensive but I DO want to be accurate.

Now I'm curious what I find too, lol. :)

Jenna said...

Here's my two cents...

I think the only way to go is to figure out what a Mexican running for the border calls himself or what they call each other. That is the only way it will ring true.

If you make up something or use something that "fits" but isn't authentic it's like lying to your readers...if there is an actual term.

I think you need to keep PC crap out of the process...if that means you use a word that is the equivalent of black people referring to one another a *n's*, so be it...remember in your story it's a Mexcian talking to a Mexican...not you talking about Mexicans.

There has to be a term they use. But if not make up something relevant, something he calls himself when he talks with himself, something that gets him through, you can make a whole scene out of how he comes up with the name.

"Journeyman" is iffy only because that is the term used, here of course, for guys in the trades (electricians, iron-workers, steel-workers, etc.) who have worked their way through an apprenticeship.

If there is a term or a cool translation for "man on a journey" that would be cool.

I think authentic is best because that is what a lot of people love about books set in other countries or within other cultures...that we learn things and terms we would never know otherwise.

But just my two pennies :).

Melanie Avila said...

Jenna, you've expressed exactly what I've been trying to say. I might just have to start polling people on the street. :)

Thank you for clarifying my thoughts for me.

Jenna said...

Yeah I can just see that...

"Excuse me sir, but what would you call yourself if your were trying to cross the border?"


Melanie Avila said...

But in Spanish. ;)

Anonymous said...

One idea that your post gives me is that he's probably trying to cross into the US to make a better life for himself. Maybe he should have a term that is hopeful or optimistic? While we in the US see this as a bad thing and a problem, he is seeing it as something good.

Runner did come to mind, but think of some optimistic or hopeful words, and that might help. I can't think of anything at the moment, but I also have only been awake for 30 min. :-)

ac said...

"I think you need to keep PC crap out of the process...if that means you use a word that is the equivalent of black people referring to one another a *n's*, so be it...remember in your story it's a Mexcian talking to a Mexican...not you talking about Mexicans."

The thing is that Mexicans, at least my neighbors and other Mexicans I know, don't use racial slurs to describe one another. They may use a slang term like pollo or brasero but those are not racial slurs.

Melanie Avila said...

AC, I think her point is just to keep it honest, don't make up a word just to suit my purposes.