Whenever people ask me whether OC Weekly still uses terms like “illegal immigrant” to refer to undocumented folks, I'm reminded of the episode in The Simpsons when Homer, Apu, Barney, and Mr. Skinner formed the Be Sharps. Bart asked Homer if they destroyed their fame by doing something stupid, like saying they were bigger than Jesus; Homer replied that that was the name of one of their albums, and the album even had them walking on water, in a hilarious parody of the cover art for Abbey Road. So when people ask me about our style guide, about what terms we use to describe folks without papers, I tell them that not only does this infernal rag use “illegal immigrant” and “illegals,” I point out that our Navel Gazing category for any Latino-themed story, regardless of documentation or not, is “Illegals! Illegals! Illegals!”
Yep: we do things differently around here. And that's why I've always declined the requests of activists to drop the “i-word”–illegal immigrant and all its derivatives–from our pages, a movement popular nowadays in mainstream journalism, from the Associated Press to the Los Angeles Times. But our case isn't a rash, “edgy” decision–not even close.
There are many reasons why we're opposed to dropping “illegal immigrant” from our infernal. The most truthful, if flippant, response I can offer is that we have a deep problem with banning any words from our pages, no matter how reprehensible–our business is words, to use according to need. And we've used many terms to describe people without papers: we've called illegal immigrants illegal immigrants, DREAMers, undocumented folks, unauthorized immigrants, illegals, and even jes plain ol' immigrants.
Which leads to our main reason for using “illegal immigrant”–because we should. We operate in Orange County, California–Hate City, USA, where we've been fighting Know Nothings longer and harder than any publication in the country not named Intelligence Report (the quarterly magazine of the Southern Poverty Law Center). We've chronicled the rise and fall of all the hilarious haters who taught America how to use the issue of illegal immigration for political gain, from Harold Ezell to Barbara Coe, Harald Martin to the Minuteman Project, former Newport Beach councilmember Dick Nichols (who said there were too many Mexicans going to the grassy areas of Corona del Mar State Beach) to Dana Rohrabacher and far too many other losers to list right now.
And if there's one lesson that we've learned in our nearly 18 years of reporting on these pendejos, it's that they don't like when we take their language and flip it on its head–the sociological concept of reappropriation. By using their terms without shame, by twisting the life out of them, we render them useless in their ability to harm during one-on-one incidents; do it enough, and I believe you effect change on a national scale. Intelligent minds can disagree on this point, so all I can offer is our experience, the sense of deflation the other side feels when we use their noxious language, turn it against them, and laugh at their stupidity for using it in the first place. I remember an appearance I once did on KPCC-FM 89.9–I can't remember right now if it was with Larry Mantle or Patt Morrison–but I remember going toe-to-toe with Coe using her argot against her and infuriating her so much that the host essentially had to give them a time-out. And this has happened more than once during other radio appearances.
Bowdlerizing terms robs us of this potent tool in the fight against hate–that said, if we're going to use “illegal” and all of its spawn, we damn well better stand by our decision and be ready to offer an explanation by those who ask for it. And that's just what happened about a month ago, and is the inspiration for this post. I received a call from Alex Nogales, head of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which has previously awarded me with an award for my ¡Ask a Mexican! column. He told me that his organization had received a complaint about the Weekly's use of “illegal”, et al., and asked for our rationale. I told him what I've written here, that it wasn't gratuitous but rather deliberate, and not only did he understand, but he agreed with me–an absolution, if you will. He asked that I write this essay, which I have. And I also agreed with what he said: while the Weekly will continue to use “illegal” et al, I feel daily newspapers and mainstream organizations should drop the i-word, if only because their use of it has no radical reasoning behind it–just lazy journalism.
I don't make this decision lightly. As I've written forever, my papi came to this country every which way but loose, damn any documentation, just like numerous cousins, uncles, aunts, and friends. I've long worked with DREAMers, who prefer the term “undocumented college students,” a decision I respect by calling them as such. All of them have done wonders in this country as so-called illegals, despite all the hate. And so, I end with the best-ever commentary on the i-word issue, courtesy of my pal, former OC resident and permanent punk legend Martin Sorrondeguy in his song, “Ilegal, ¿Y Que”–“Illegal, and What of It?” Sticks and stones, cabrones.