You learn unusual skills growing up in an immigrant family. Like most life skills gained in childhood, they’re often taught by grown-ups, such as the importance of not talking to strangers. Others reflect the quirks of where you grew up, such as how decide if an earthquake is even worth it.
But like most skills meant to keep us safe, we’d rather not be in danger at all. This was the case when we had to think about green trucks.
“If you see a green truck, just get out of there,” the older man would advise the fresh one, as they ate supper.
“Did you hear, a bunch of green trucks showed up at the Lucky last Thursday?” your aunt (probably your aunt), would mention to your mother, as they prepared supper.
“Yes,” and they would add, with apprehension, “I saw one when I was going to work and I’m glad I had taken the bus that day.”
Green trucks belonged to La Migra, the colloquial term for the United States Border Patrol, the mobile, uniformed law enforcement arm of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, frequent immigration raids occurred in Orange County, California (where I’m from), usually in areas where large groups of [mostly] Mexican immigrants worked blue-collar jobs or sought day labor.
These never occurred where people lived, however. As a child who did not understand the nuances of adult things yet, I wondered why they wouldn’t just show up at peoples’ houses while they were asleep, if they really needed to catch people. Was there an unspoken line of dignity and civility that was not crossed? Were the raids mostly for demonstrative purposes?
Families passed on practical advice on the matter, but we all were more likely to worry about earthquakes. Raids became the subject of idle chatter and gossip.
But eventually, the rumors returned–the green trucks were back. This time, people reported seeing them in our neighborhoods. Parked idly on the school playground. Driving past the church on Sunday. The conversations changed:
“If you see a green truck, get out of there, and come home. Don’t complain about walking,” my dad would scold in the kitchen, motioning to my clumsy chopping knife skills.
On another Saturday afternoon, my mom called me to the kitchen. “I need you to go get milk from the store with your cousin.” I was never allowed to walk in my neighborhood alone, much less walk to the store. “There were green trucks there last weekend,” she explained. This was not the independence I assumed I was being granted.
None of us kids had never actually seen a real Border Patrol truck. Therefore, most unfamiliar green trucks or SUVs were somewhat terrifying. By the time I reached middle school, I figured the green truck thing was hearsay and not much else.
My cousin and I grew up together. My earliest memories of life include her. Our families lived in the same one-story bungalow on West Walnut Street, so she was standing next to me when I learned about not talking to strangers. When we had to duck and cover for the first time, we knew which table to run under, together. We learned about the green trucks together, too. Like me, she had never seen one.
Eventually, my parents bought their first house in a different part of town, and I saw her infrequently. One summer, being now of age to walk to places alone, we decided to visit the old Carnation Ice Cream Parlor on Bristol street. It would be about a three-block walk.
As we approached the strip mall from the neighborhood end of the street, the parking lot looked, off. Cars were moving erratically; far too many people were outside. It was quiet. We wondered if there had just been an earthquake.
Two green trucks were in the parking lot. They were very different than what we expected. (In fact, they were mostly white, with a tasteful–by government standards–stripe of kelly green). But it was clear what they were. Not by their appearance, but by the uniformed men it carried, and the way that the rest of the people in the shopping center were moving.
In that moment, I learned two things:
1. I could still get ice cream. I would cross the street, walk over to the parlor, order a small vanilla cone, pay for it, and eat it. There would likely be no line.
2. My cousin could not.
My own fortune made it easy to be in denial. “You know, you have blonde hair, I’m the darker one–let’s just go, play it cool.” But she had stopped walking, and was looking around, her fairer skin red with incoming tears.
“I’m going to get under this car, like the people.”
In life, some people have advantages. In that moment, we had the advantage of being kids, standing on the other side of a busy street. Upon realizing that we would not be getting ice cream and enjoying our summer freedom, we walked back to the house.