A Cuban Woman in the World of Truck Drivers

“The highway is my second home”

Illustration: Mary Esther Lemus

By Rachel Pereda (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES – Every morning, Milene crosses herself in front of the steering wheel before leaving for work. She switches on the engine of the heavy-duty truck, checks everything is ready and asks God for it to be a good day and to let her get home to her children safely before putting the truck into gear. At 45 years old, she carries out this same routine every day as she pulls onto the highway, her second home.

Cuban Milene Cordero arrived in the US when she was 27 years old, in April 2005. Like every new beginning, she had to face all the challenges immigrants run into, grow because of the language barrier and settle in the country that had opened its doors to her. Yet, she never imagined she’d drive heavy duty trucks.

“When I arrived in the US, I put my head down and started learning English, but I couldn’t finish the course because it was in the evening and I didn’t have anyone to look after my son who was only two years old at the time. Then, I studied to be an ultrasound technician and I managed to complete the course, but I never went to the hospital to do my internship to graduate because I fell into an awful depression that led to a painful divorce.”

Milene lost interest in everything as a result of this depression, but she slowly managed to get better and pick herself back up. She applied to different jobs. She began working at Miami Airport and then in a factory where she’d see large trucks pass by. Ever since then, the idea began floating around in her head. As she was unable to finish her English course, she set out to learn the language by listening to the radio and watching TV.

All of the men in her family drive big trucks, so that was another impetus. Back then, she was divorced and had a heavier burden to carry than a truck, and that was to raise her 12-year-old son and still work at the same time to provide for him. This was the path she found to get by. It’s a very well-paid job that would let her grow financially. In addition to the challenge, it posed for her, it was a test she also wanted to pass out of pride and personal satisfaction.

She began studying, to get ready and she passed the exams to drive an 18-wheller truck in 2013. Milene says that very few women were driving a semi at that time. There are more women on the highway now, it’s a job anyone can do if they want to.

“There aren’t so few women anymore, but we are still a minority if you compare us to the number of men on the road. I think it’s the fear. I had this experience with my sister. I set out to train her and to explain everything, but she couldn’t do this job. Women are afraid of the highway, of driving such large vehicles, because a 53-feet-long semi-trailer [approximately 16 meters] isn’t the same as a car. If they could overcome this fear, there would be lots more women joining this profession.”

Photo: Milene Cordero

The beginning: the first miles on the highway

Her family didn’t accept her decision in the beginning. But when they saw she was being serious, they started giving in. She went alone to Missouri, where the school was.

Milene talks about the essential role her mother played in looking after her son for the first three months she went away for training.

“As it was job that required a lot of traveling and we were far from home, my mother’s support has been essential. I wouldn’t have been able to drive such trucks if it hadn’t been for her, because sometimes we spend months on the highway,” she says.

The first time she drove a semi was for Prime Inc., in Springfield, Missouri. According to her, nobody wanted to accept a woman for the job back then. She was 36 years old and had the willpower to do it and to earn her colleagues’ respect.

She says that she heard a comment in the company’s lunch room once. No man wanted to work with her or train her, maybe because of machismo. Yet, she is grateful to her trainer Warren Atkings, who she learned a great deal from.

Over time, she learned to overcome setbacks, preconceptions and to slowly earn her place. “It’s scary at first. Once you get up there, you get a chill down your spine.”

Milene currently drives alone, because she suffered sexual harassment at the hands of a colleague. “There was always an invitation to something, insinuations, and detestable things. He never touched me, but there were always words and looks.”

Starting from scratch: motherhood and migration

When migration and motherhood go hand-in-hand, they really shake you to your core. Both experiences have a lot in common. They force you to get out of your comfort zone and adapt to new routines in an unknown context.

She spends approximately 11 hours driving and every day is a challenge. “I’ve had lots of difficult experiences. This is dangerous work, and you have to always be aware of everything. You have to look out your mirrors every five seconds. You can’t drive when you’re tired or looking at the cellphone. When you drive all night, your eyes close on their own when the sun starts to come out. You have to fight against it, because an accident in a semi is a death sentence.”

According to Milene, one of the greatest challenges is weather conditions. “I’ve been in the middle of a tornado, a dust storm, a snow storm, and just about any situation while driving a semi. They are all dangerous. You can pass through a state in the scorching sun and, when you pass into another state, there’s a great downpour or it suddenly starts snowing. Weather conditions change a lot from one place to the next and you have to learn to deal with all kinds of meteorological situations. Stress is a constant.”

One of the many stories she has, when she was most afraid, was when she was driving through Louisiana during the night and a tornado warning was issued. Milene remembers that the heavy rain didn’t allow her to see anything in front. She was driving in the right lane, which is where big trucks need to drive. Suddenly, a strong wind came that dragged the heavy truck to the left lane, with the trailer and all. “The first thing that went through my head was I’m dead, but then I realized that I could see what was in front of me and I moved back into the right lane. I stopped in the first place I could park until it passed. In addition to this story, I’ve had my brakes burn out going down a hill, ice making the truck slide. I’ve had so many experiences on the highway over these more than ten years.”

She has traveled to every state in the country with work, except for Alaska. Nor has she driven outside of the US. Her longest journey has been from the far-eastern coast to the western coast, which she used to do quite regularly years ago.

Work and motherhood: the highway that brings you home

Her personal life has been affected and it’s very hard to have a stable relationship with a partner, Milene admits. “You spend so many days away from home and this is time that you aren’t giving love to your family. That eats away at a relationship. Driving a semi as a mother is tough because you have to raise your kids from afar.”

In this regard, she says that it’s very hard to be a mother and drive a truck without a support network that helps her to do both.

After her first child Raudys, who is now 20 years old, Milene had two more children, Henry, five years old, and Broly, a year younger. “I was on the highway up until birth pretty much when I was pregnant with Henry. I drove the semi-trailer locally up until the very last day with the second. My eldest son has always helped me with looking after his brothers.”

Right now, Milene is driving a semi locally, so she goes home every day to be with her children. “In my free time, I like to take care of things around the house. Despite my work, I like to be at home. I enjoy spending time with my children, watching them play, happily, and for them to have fun.”

Milene is very happy with everything she’s managed to achieve ever since her arrival in the US. “I feel like I’ve managed to do a lot for myself. Two years after arriving, I had to deal with a painful divorce and hustle on my own. This job was an opportunity to improve my life and I managed to do it. Yet, I’d like my children to study, so they can get ahead in life and not have to work in this profession, so they don’t have to dedicate half of their lives to the highway.”

While driving the semi, she feels free on the highway and the force of the vehicle under her control. Every day, she embarks on the adventure of traveling kilometers and kilometers. With every curve, every up and down, her confidence grows and her fear remains at bay. Her nerves always under control. She knows it isn’t common to see a woman driving such a large and powerful vehicle, but she does it with a lot of passion and wholeheartedly. With her gaze fixed on the horizon, she continues on and every mile is another word in her unusual story.

Every morning, Milene crosses herself in front of the steering wheel before leaving for work. She checks everything is OK and, before putting the truck into gear, she offers a prayer to the heavens asking for it to be a good day and for her to get home safely to her children. At 45 years old, she carries out this same routine every day as she pulls onto the highway, her second home.

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