The Green Truck

One learns peculiar life skills as a child growing up in an immigrant family. Like other things one learns from grown-ups, such as not talking to strangers, or how to duck and cover in an earthquake (substitute your region’s natural disaster of choice), one listens, it’s not too terribly hard to remember what to do, but one doesn’t expect to ever be in a situation where these skills have to be used. This was the case when having to think about specific kinds of green trucks.

“If you see a green truck, just get out of there,” a wise grown-up would comment to a newcomer, at the dinner table.
“Did you hear, that green trucks showed up at Lucky’s last weekend?” you’d hear your aunt mention to your mom.
“Yeah, I think I saw a green truck that morning when I was going to work and I’m glad I was on the bus.”

Green trucks belonged to La Migra, the colloquial term for Border Patrol. In the 80s and 90s, immigration raids would happen in Orange County, usually around places of employment. I don’t know if someone tipped them off to a place where people knew actual undocumented people were working, or if they just noticed groups of immigrant-looking people hanging out in places that they did not like and wanted to change that.

But they’d stay away from where we lived, which made me wonder what the goal of the raids were–if they really wanted to kick out undocumented people, why not go to where they lived and catch them at night? Was it a scare tactic that was supposed to be sporadic and random? Or, did white people really just hate us that much?

Eventually, we started to hear rumors of this happening in our neighborhoods. The conversations changed:

“If you see a green truck, get out of there, and come home,” your dad would tell you.
“I heard they saw green trucks on Sunday at 99 Ranch last weekend, so I need you to go get milk alone with your cousin today,” your mom would tell you.
“I saw a green truck when we were going to Mass on Sunday, and since we were in a car we just turned around and went home.”

In a sense, it was like the Smoke Monster from Lost. It would show up with no warning, take people, and make them disappear. Unlike the monster, if you lost someone you knew, you’d eventually hear from them again, but it would be weeks, since many of us, even those the United States, did not own a phone.

As a result, any green truck or SUV freaked me out as a kid and my cousins and I definitely ranked Green Trucks above Strangers, earthquakes, and assorted mythical creatures who enjoyed terrorizing children. The thing is, none of us had ever actually seen a real Border Patrol truck. There was no internet search that could clarify this for us. By the time I was in high school, I figured the green truck thing was hearsay and not much else.

My cousin and I grew up together, and my earliest memories of life include her. We had to live in the same house to save money, so she was around when I learned about not talking to strangers. We experienced our first earthquake together, and we knew exactly which table to run under. We learned about the green truck together too. Like me, she had never seen one, and eventually brushed the threats off. Mexican families can be doom and gloom, but this was the United States, and grown-ups needed to learn to not be so afraid all the time.

Eventually, my parents bought their first house in a nicer part of town, and I only saw her every weekend, then less often, when we were in middle school and then high school. One day, we decided we were finally of age to go to places alone, because strangers were no longer a danger, and earthquakes — ugh, anything under 8.0 is a waste of time. So we decided to walk to the strip mall on the corner of McFadden and Bristol to get a cone from the old-school Carnation Ice Cream parlor that had kept the soda fountain bar and pastel-colored upholstered booths from the 1950s. It was going to be about a three-block walk.

When we reached the main street to cross, we noticed the parking lot looked odd. Cars were haphazardly moving; too many people were outside. It was too much action for the amount of sound coming from the area. We wondered if there had just been an earthquake.

There were two green trucks in the parking lot. They looked nothing like we imagined they would look like, but we knew because of what was written on them, what the uniformed men that came out of them were doing, and what the other people in the parking lot were doing.

At that moment, two things became very real to me for the first time.

1. I could still get ice cream. I could cross the street, walk over to the parlor, ask for a vanilla cone, and get it. There would likely be no line.
2. She couldn’t.

My first reaction was denial. “You know, you have blonde hair, they wouldn’t bother you, let’s just–” But she had drifted away, looking around, trying to see if she could fit under a car.

“That’s what the people over there are doing, I’m going to get under this car,” she determined.

I don’t remember how much longer we stayed there, but we did have the advantage of being kids, and being on the other side of a busy street. We ended up back at the house, and we didn’t tell our parents. We didn’t get out much for the rest of that summer.

I’m 30 now, and my cousin just turned 31. She lives a very different life than me. She’s never been on a plane; I whine about how my company won’t fly me first class on business. She’s never had her own apartment; I just bought a cute house by a local architect and notice minimal denting in my paycheck.

To this day, I look back on that memory with survivor guilt, anger, and, (because I tend to look at everything like a problem that can be solved), helplessness. I’ve known before this election that I’ve taken a lot of things for granted, but not a day has gone by without replaying this memory in my head since November 9. She may not be there the next time I set up a “long-layover” at John Wayne on my way to San Francisco for work. And even if we do stay together, we’ll never be equals again like that afternoon when we walked out of the house with a couple of bucks in our pocket.