“Just a bunch of wetbacks…”

john ater
3 min readAug 2, 2022

The words drifted down Castro Street; “Just a bunch of wetbacks. Ship ’em back to Mexico. They are taking our jobs.” Turning to scan the crowded sidewalk, I looked for the face connected to the voice dripping with disgust. I could not tell.

I seethed with anger, playing repeatedly the overt racism, misogyny and privilege I saw and heard in my community daily. Gay men, particularly white, successful men can be worse than the Georgia crackers who support Trump. People of privilege. I wanted to ask if he was willing to spend two hours in the Central Valley harvesting the vegetables and fruits he purchases at Whole Foods.

When I was six, Papa planted that burning anger aimed at ignorance, racism and privilege deep in my spirit.

Every afternoon, I got off the dusty school bus and made me way a mile down the caliche road from the front gate to the main house on the ranch. Every afternoon, I walked into that huge house cooled by a southern breeze, set my books on the table and headed out the back door for the horse barn where I would find my papa astride his gelding, my mare saddled and ready.

There was always a mother cow to find, a water gap that needed mending, a stray calf separated from the herd. We rode out each day to perform whatever minutia was necessary to operate a successful ranch, to check in with Francisco, the ranch manager and his crew of vaqueros.

Vaqueros on The King Ranch in Texas, circa 1965. With my thanks to The King Ranch and @TracesofTexas on Twitter.
Vaqueros on The King Ranch in Texas, circa 1965. My thanks to The King Ranch and @TracesofTexas.

One afternoon, I walked into the barn and Papa, not looking up from the pocket size notebooks he always carried, asked me what was wrong. He and I shared a deep connection, call it telepathic or intuitive, so he always knew when something was up.

I began checking the cinch, the bridle and bit, the blanket, tightening here and there, adjusting her bridle so the bit didn’t dig into her soft mouth, avoiding his question.


“Nothin’,” I answered.

“John,” a touch of iron hardening his voice, “What is wrong?”

“Nothing really, Papa. It’s just a bunch of those wetback kids picking at me at school.”

I heard the leather creak as he came out of his saddle. I could feel his anger and I turned toward him.

john ater

author / street photographer / writer / editor / iconoclast / anarchist