The Truck Stops Here

Denver's loncheras were cooking until the city put the brakes on mobile vendors.

Gertrudes "Raul" Cabral leans against the cold counter of his Chevy lonchera, shaking off the sleep. He was here until eleven o'clock last night, sweeping bits of cheese from the floor, wiping the grill, washing pans, hosing rubber mats, counting cash, locking the doors. Now, as the first school buses rumble along Morrison Road, he is back again, staring down another long day.

He yawns, jams his hands into the pockets of his jacket, sighs. Beside him, the fry cook grills a pile of sizzling pork, which fills the kitchen with the aroma of charred bacon. Outside, a commissary worker hoses down the parking lot while a Mexican radio station blares. A middle-aged woman lugging two five-gallon buckets, one filled with salsa, the other with meat, stomps up the slick steps of the truck, slipping as she enters.

This is the life, Raul says, seven days a week, all year long. Even for Raul, who logged several years on an oil rig, the food-truck business can be dirty, tedious and hard. During the past few months, it has become even harder. Denver zoning inspectors, acting upon complaints from residents and businesses, have cracked down on a regulation requiring food trucks to move after four hours. According to the city, the ordinance is intended to keep mobile food vendors mobile and to prevent them from disturbing homeowners, merchants and commuters.

A customer outside Romulo Cabral's King Taco lonchera.
John Johnston
A customer outside Romulo Cabral's King Taco lonchera.
Romulo's King Taco was one of the first loncheras in town.
John Johnston
Romulo's King Taco was one of the first loncheras in town.

But for Raul and others who've invested their life savings in these trucks, the ordinance has meant the slow death of their businesses. Between the time it was approved in August and this morning in early January, sales at the loncheras have plummeted 50 percent. Raul, a wiry, serious and brooding man of thirty, can barely pay his bills, support his wife and son, make the mortgage on their Lakewood home and help his ailing mother and father.

So he stands inside his truck on this frigid morning, preparing to defy the city. Again. Although his permit states that he cannot open until 1 p.m., Raul says he must be ready for business in his spot at Alameda Avenue and Raritan Street by 11 a.m. in order to catch the breakfast crowd. Although his permit states that he must close his location next door by 9 p.m., Raul says he often lingers in order to serve the late-night stragglers. Those extra few hours could bring him a $1,000 fine or even jail time, but Raul believes he has no choice.

"If I work the hours they say, I won't make any money," he says. "I'll be out of business right away. I have to risk."

At 10:30 a.m., Raul steers his truck onto Morrison Road, traveling a few miles to the parking lot of Polo's Records. There he parks, flicks on the neon "open" sign and proceeds to break the law.

Even as a boy, Raul knew he would one day leave Mexico. His father was a farmer in Zacatecas, and the family was poor. During the dry season, they were even poorer. When Raul was nine, his family moved to Jerez and opened a small grocery store, but Jerez wasn't much better than Zacatecas. Before long, Raul's father sought work in the United States. For seven months at a time, he would cut timber in Colorado and cook restaurant food in Las Vegas.

When Raul, the oldest of five children, turned fourteen, he decided to follow his father. He was working at a gas station but not earning enough to buy himself a new pair of jeans, a dress shirt and a good set of boots. His mother pleaded with him to stay in Mexico and work at the store, but Raul simply said, "I'll call you when I get there."

"In Mexico, I always wanted to buy my own house and live there rent-free," he recalls. "But my dreams changed. In Mexico, it's hard to do good business. You already have to have money. You already have to have land. We didn't have those things. I had to leave for my future."

He bought a one-way bus ticket to Tijuana and arrived at the sprawling border town with only $10 in his pocket. Without friends, relatives or a place to stay, Raul wandered the streets, sleeping under bridges, cleaning windshields for spare change, scrounging food. One day he made his way to a hill overlooking the border. Beyond a chain-link fence topped with razor wire and riddled with holes, he saw the distant skyline of San Diego. Out of nowhere, a man appeared.

"Want to go to L.A.?"

Raul said he didn't have the money; all he had was a rumpled scrap of paper with his father's phone number in Las Vegas. The man led him back to Tijuana, dialed the number and told Raul's father: "I have your son here. For $750, I can bring him to L.A." Raul's father sent the $750. Soon after, Raul, the courier and another immigrant returned to the hill. After a few nervous moments, they sprinted toward the border and wriggled through a hole in the fence.

That night and into the early morning, the three trudged through miles of scrub, prickly pear and sand, diving into arroyos at the thump, thump of INS helicopters. At dawn they saw a white van parked beside a road. They climbed inside. A few hours later, they were in L.A.

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