It was close to three years ago a friend of mine told me she wanted to introduce me to one of her friends.
My friend has good intuition. We agreed to meet for a morning coffee, my favorite kind of meeting. It was summertime, so we decided to wait at a table outside, a perfect start to my day.
A few minutes later, as I’m watching cars drive by, I saw a white semi parking next to the coffee shop. The huge truck reminded me of the fear I had as a child of these giant machines! I used to see them on the road during our family trips back in Mexico.
Well, I eventually got over it.
I stared at the semi and then saw a short-haired woman get out of the driver’s side. She had a spring in her step and a smile on her face as she walked toward us. The simple fact of watching Lilian Calderon come out of that truck filled me with admiration — a woman breaking the mold. A female truck driver, and a Latina at that, was something I had never seen before.
Curiosity took over me. I was eager to learn more about how Lilian came to this male-dominated, nontraditional job. I was particularly interested, knowing traditional Latino cultural views about women taking part in this type of role. How did she overcome the “macho” factor? I was beyond intrigued.
Originally from El Salvador, Lilian moved to the U.S. in 1990 at age 11. Her mother had passed away, so she came to join her father and three older siblings in New Jersey.
The journey from El Salvador to this country wasn’t easy, and adapting to a totally new environment was even harder.
Her dad was an abusive alcoholic and Lilian was often at the receiving end of his cruelty. She moved to Sparta, New Jersey, to live with her sister and began working right away. She worked cleaning houses and at a cookie factory while learning to speak English.
She married at 20 and in 1996 things started to look up. She was expecting her first child. Lilian was excited about becoming a mother, but it was around that time she received the most terrible news.
“My sister had been murdered at the hands of my then-brother-in-law,” Lilian said. “It was horrible. He killed my sister in a jealous fit of rage, leaving my two nephews without a mother.”
This horrendous event still brings Lilian close to tears after all these years. With the loss of her sister, Lilian requested custody of her nephews. Once she was granted custody, she moved to Iowa, determined on staying as far away as possible from the place that had caused her such pain and sorrow.
In 1997, once her family had relocated to Iowa, her husband applied and received his CDL license and started working as a truck driver. In the meantime, Lilian stayed home to take care of her youngest daughter and two nephews.
“In 2000, I gave birth to our second child and decided to go back to school after that to get my GED, and my husband encouraged me to apply for my CDL license, too,” Lilian said.
She had to go to school for two months in order to learn how to drive a semi and get her license.
“There were 10 students in my class; eight men, another woman and myself,” she recalled. “I was the only person of color. I recall this feeling I had, the way they looked at me, as if I had no business being there.”
Toward the end of the course, several transportation companies came to recruit drivers, and she said they would always ignore her. Lilian did not care.
“I was there to learn,” she said, “and I also knew my husband’s company was ready to hire me.”
Lilian received her license and started driving, but by the fourth trip she was ready to quit. It was extremely hard to drive the semi. She talked to her husband about how she felt. He pushed her to continue, and looking back, she’s grateful she didn’t quit.
Driving got better but her marriage didn’t, and she divorced in 2006. She also realized that she had to quit driving in order to stay close to her daughters, and found a job at a manufacturer in Ankeny where she worked for seven years.
“I wasn’t making as much money there, but I felt it was worth it, my daughters needed their mom,” Lilian said.
When Lilian’s oldest daughter turned 18, she went back to her love of driving semis and traveled through 48 states.
I asked her what she likes about driving. She smiled and told me that driving a semi through the country affords her the opportunity to meet people from across the nation.
“I like talking to people, we might look different but if you really want, you can find something in common,” Lilian said.
She is happy doing this, but occasionally male drivers have made sexist comments toward her such as, “Women should stay at home taking care of the kids and that she shouldn’t be driving those trucks.” Lilian sees this as a challenge and she thinks to herself, “Watch me.”
When it comes to politics, Lilian tells me she used to be a registered Republican. Her gratitude runs deep remembering that President George H.W. Bush signed the Immigration Act of 1990, which benefited thousands of Salvadorians. Then, in 1997, legislation was passed providing various forms of immigration benefits and relief from deportation to certain Nicaraguans, Cubans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, nationals of former Soviet bloc countries and their dependents who had arrived as asylum seekers, allowing people like Lillian to obtain their residency, and eventually, their citizenship.
Raised evangelical, Lilian didn’t like some stands of the Democratic Party. She is against taking the Ten Commandments out of schools and public buildings. Nowadays she disagrees with the Republican Party, adding that the Trump Administration is a disaster. She’s now a registered Independent.
Times change, and so do people’s perspectives.
It is undeniable that regardless of political views, Lilian is a pioneer in a male-dominated field. She likes what she does; she is proud and is making a difference in an industry that is in high demand.
Next time I see or drive next to a semi I will not be afraid, I will just respect the gigantic vehicles gliding on the road and keep in mind it could be Lilian and her capable skills driving next to me.
By Claudia Thrane