Why Elgin ex-judge put a racial slur in his book's title

Manuel Barbosa debated using a derogatory term in the title of his autobiographical book pretty much until the moment it went to the printer's.

"I consulted many people, including highly respected academics and friends," he said. "I thought long and hard about it."

Barbosa, 67, said he explains in the first couple of pages of "The Littlest Wetback: From Undocumented Child to U.S. Federal Judge" why he chose to use the word, coined in the early part of the last century to describe undocumented immigrants who crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico into Texas.

"I am not trying to promote the use of the word," said Barbosa, who retired in December 2012 from his post with the U.S. Northern District of Illinois and is now a board member at Metra.

"We tend to sometimes fall into complacency, thinking that because our rhetoric has become more subtle and civilized, we have equally progressed along related policies. My point is, we haven't in many respects."

Barbosa came to the U.S. in 1947, when he was 2 months old and his family crossed the Rio Grande on a raft.

They lived on a cotton farm by the Texas border, then migrated to Nebraska and eventually settled in Elgin when he was 10. He eventually obtained legal residency and became a U.S. citizen.

His book delves into Mexican history, his family's role in the Mexican Revolution of 1910, and "a broad range of subjects from the practice of law to local politics," he said.

Jaime Garcia, executive director of Centro de Informacion in Elgin, said the term was commonly used when he and Barbosa were growing up.

"I think he's just trying to lay it out, to try to be as candid as possible," he said. "I don't like using that term, especially nowadays, but I can see why he's using the term."

"I think he's just trying to make the point that, here is someone that as a child, he was a, quote, 'wetback,' and that didn't keep him down. He worked and he studied and he made his way all the way up to be a federal judge."

Barbosa pointed to "Operation Wetback," a controversial 1954 immigration enforcement program under the Eisenhower administration.

"The attitudes and the policies haven't changed much," he said. "We simply softened the language a little bit."

Barbosa said most people tell him they like the title.

"I'm very glad that people are sensitive to the use of the word. By no means do I wish to desensitize people about it."

Still, some deemed the term too much for TV.

Carolina Cruz Bilingual, journalist for WTVO/WQRF and anchor/producer for Eyewitness News en EspaƱol, said she was told by superiors not to use the term during her interview with Barbosa, which was scheduled to air Monday.

"It could be considered just as offensive as the 'n-word' for African Americans," she said.

The Spanish translation "is not necessarily as offensive, depending on the person," she added.

Jorge Chapa, professor of Latina/Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said he finds the term offensive, but agrees with Barbosa that language can evolve even while underlying attitudes remain static.

In some circles, even the word "Mexican" can be used as an insult, he pointed out.

"It's an important point to make," he said. "It's up to him - is that the best way to make it? Are you communicating your meaning or are you turning people off? That's between him and his editors."

Barbosa will sign copies of his book from 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Elgin Public House, 219 E. Chicago St.

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