La prensa

The Power to Name

Author: Juan Pacheco
Created: 19 March, 2010
Updated: 13 September, 2023
5 min read

It can be argued that US mainstream media is the most influential institution of information and opinion worldwide. As quoted in an article in Journalism Studies, “FOX News Channel’s the O’Reilly Factor is offered in more than 30 countries…attracting more then two million viewers a night.” It can also be said that the political agenda of various individuals and institutions is supported by the access provided them by the media. In addition, media outlets and their radio and television personalities often initiate popular language and terms of reference. This often occurs without any regard for the negative effect these references may have on the individuals or institutions being . In this case the naming of undocumented workers frequently referred to as illegal aliens.

There is a fairly recent historical reference of naming that can be used as an example. The term jap was used extensively during and after WWII without any regard for the negative impact it would have on U.S. born persons of Japanese ancestry. Jap was used extensively when referring to all Japanese Americans; in private discussions, print media and film, at a time when many of these loyal citizens were dying in the defense of the U.S. in Europe and unjustly being held in concentration camps. This was a perfectly acceptable term used without any restrictions or negative repercussions. The interesting fact concerning this reference is that it has made a dramatic transition over time. If used today by print, film or popular news outlets it would cause an uproar from the affected Asian population, swiftly followed by supportive denunciation against its use by the mainstream media and rightly so.

Taking its place along this historical link is another more contemporary vilified subset of the U.S. population, the Mexican undocumented worker. In an article by Kate Phillips in Neiman Reports she states, “an estimated twelve million people are said to reside or work in the United States without the required papers to be here. Some have overstayed their visas; other millions most likely have crossed the borders illegally to find employment.” This large number of individuals constitutes a shadow society having little access to influential institutions in order to counter the negativity associated with their presence here. That is not to discount the concerns and legitimate debate their presence here may have on the social and economic structure within the U.S. But in order to raise the level of dialog about their plight the undocumented worker must be reclassified both in name and in their immigrant status. The first step will be the decriminalization of these 12 million individuals.

The term illegal alien is both inaccurate and insulting when used to label an otherwise hard working honest group of individuals who have emigrated to the U.S. from a third world country in order to support their families and find a better life. It can also be argued that their presence here constitutes the backbone of the U.S. labor pool. These undocumented workers also contribute more to the U.S. economy then they will ever be entitled to draw from it in their later years. In USA Today an article by Travis Loller, “Many Immigrants Pay UP At Tax Time” written in 2008, he states that taxes paid by undocumented workers “will amount to billions of dollars in federal income, Social Security and Medicare taxes this year. One rough estimate puts the amount of Social Security taxes alone at around $9 billion per year.”

And yet media outlets and conservative T.V. pundits, many of who insist that they have a right to use this reference, have in essence unfairly burdened 12 million people with two words that have both alienated them from society and caused them to be criminalized in the U.S.

There is an immediacy of purpose and will that must be exerted at the highest levels of political and academic discourse in order to reverse this negative categorization of undocumented workers. Which begs the next question, which is who then does the minority affected by injustice turn to when self-serving mostly right wing conservative media pundits are determined to have their way? Which is the most effective leverage that will allow for a corrective course of action regarding the use of this pejorative term?

Since this term is used most notably in the commercial media, notable scholars, politicians and objective media outlets must make a concerted effort to curtail the terms use. This will not occur until a good portion of the affected public brings their objections to the forefront, thus this article. Only then, when the economically dominant public effectively puts the media on notice when readership, viewer ship or commercial interests may be affected and when individuals of public notoriety reject the use of illegal alien will we see its use curtailed.

Juan Pacheco is a fine art photographer and writer. Having grown up in the Boyle Heights and ELA area of Los Angeles he has been profoundly affected by the issues regarding the Chicano/Mexicano experience.  Having recently moved to Oceanside the issues of immigration have become more relevant in that the stark reality of the “other”, while in sharp contrast with the economically dominant majority, is an almost daily experience. Juan received B.A. from CSULB and M.F.A from CSULA.

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