In our coverage of the BBC 100 Women list for 2023, we've chosen to highlight the accomplishments of Clara Fragoso, a Latina trailblazer in the transportation industry. Focusing on the truck driving sector connecting Mexico and the US, we pay homage to Latina truck operators, a crucial yet often overlooked segment of our workforce. The significant contributions and sacrifices of these Latina transportation professionals should make us all prouder to be Latina.
It is rare to find a woman behind the wheel, with a total amount of 3% worldwide, and Mexico isn’t the exception: according to a BBC documentary on the subject, female lorry operators only amount to 2% out of a total of 500,000 workers, whereas in the US that number rises to 6.6%.
Nonetheless, there are more and more Latinas in the US’ booming market: the Labor Department stated that there are about 12.5 million, a number that equals 16% of all working women and that has surpassed that of black women. These statistics include a majority of women of Mexican descent, followed by other nationalities such as Puerto Rican or Cuban.
Despite the dangers that lurk on Mexican highways, these Latinas try to destigmatize the transport industry from within and welcome more and more women drivers to join them.
Driving in a male-dominated industry
As a Mexican mother of four and a grandmother of seven, Clara Elizabeth Fragoso Ugarte has been working as a truck driver for eighteen years delivering goods from and to the US. Leaving a situation of domestic violence behind, she had to find a way to make ends meet as a canteen worker.
“The salary was very low and I couldn’t stay at my sister’s forever. She was supporting me but there were too many of us in her house so I had to find a way to start over. When talking to my customers at the restaurant I’d ask: ‘How do I get to drive a truck? How do I learn?’. And many of them would say: ‘No, this is not for women. Also, you are very pretty… Better find yourself a husband,’” Clara said during the BBC documentary.
Finally, one of the customers offered to teach her and she hasn’t stopped driving ever since. Now every time she sits behind the wheel she feels empowered and strong as a Latina truck driver /operator.
Liszt Hyde González is another Trailera who wants to give her family a better life. As an experienced driver, she knows the tricks of the trade and the things one must give up to live this kind of life.
“For us truck drivers, men or women, there are no special dates, no birthdays, no Christmas or New Year. I would like to spend more time at home, more than four days [in a row]. But there are pressing needs and life is expensive, bills don’t wait,” Liszt said to the BBC.
Her daughter admires her for this, yet she would never be a truck driver herself because of the dangers involved. For example, in 2022, almost 9,000 truck thefts occurred, and violence was involved in most of them. However, women not only need to keep an eye out for delinquents but also for their male coworkers.
“I had to leave other trucking jobs because of the harassment of some colleagues who were very insistent. And if I reported it, I was told to leave. They said: ‘I’m not going to lose my drivers because of a woman’. But it has changed with time, quite a bit. Especially how they respect us,” Clara told the BBC.
The dangers ahead
Most women drivers have been exposed to many dangerous situations, like being stuck in a traffic jam for hours. This might seem harmless, but that is when most highway robberies occur. Felons can bribe the National Guard or even impersonate it by using the red and blue lights on their cars.
“In terms of risks, the most sensitive aspect is our physical integrity as women. They can touch your load, they can touch your truck, but if they touch you… I will not get into details or say names, but among my friends, there are two who have been victims and it causes problems. The PTSD, the consequences are not just for you but for your family, your partner, and your inner circle,” said Liszt to the BBC.
In Clara’s case, one night she was held at gunpoint by a young man while others robbed her cargo. At first, she thought she was going to be murdered, but ended up bonding with the boy because he was robbing to support her mother, another victim of domestic violence.
“I needed to connect with him so he would calm down and I could feel confident he wasn’t going to harm me. [...] I felt sad because my children were his age and it made me think about the effects that violence against women has in this country,” said Clara on the BBC documentary.
Training the new generation
Fragoso’s work also takes place outside the vehicle, when she trains other young women drivers and inspires them to stand against gender disparity in the industry. One of her trainees, Martha Patricia Trejo, has recently joined the company Clara works for. As a 37-year-old mother of two, she comes from a long line of truck drivers and is starting to get a hang of the truck driving lifestyle after having finished her training four months ago.
“There are moments when we, the newcomers, get discouraged because we are tired of the long journeys, or because we get lost. And then I talk to her [Clara] and realize she went through the same things. If she can do it, I can too,” Martha told the BBC.
Even though she comes from a family of truck drivers, she had to work hard to get to where she is now and still worries about the dangers one can encounter out on the road. However, Clara tries to teach the new generation how to cope with that anxiety, as well as the heartache drivers feel being so far apart from their families.
All and all, despite the dangers the job entails, Latina truck drivers both in Mexico and the US are happy about the benefits and the freedom this profession gives them.
“You can change your life and make great money at this job, and you are going to feel like you have a job with purpose,” said Desiree Wood in an interview with NBC News.
She is the president of Real Women in Trucking, an organization from the United States that offers mentorship to female truckers.
However, these strong women believe there’s still much work to be done to debunk stigma and gender discrimination, and they won’t stop driving until they reach their destination.