Like the vast majority of immigrants, Juan Orona and Sergio Orona came to the U.S. seeking a better life for themselves and their families. What they found was hard work, many challenges and, ultimately, a validation of their belief in the power of the American Dream, as seen from behind the wheel of a big rig.
“We live in the country of opportunity,” Juan said. “As far as I’m concerned, a lot of people don’t think that, but America is the No. 1 country in the world for me and my family.”
The brothers, who were born in Mexico, were recently named to the Relay Haul of Fame in honor of their dedication and commitment to their profession; to their carrier, Lake Trucking; and to the nation as a whole, especially through extremely difficult times.
Ted Brozanski, president and CEO of Lake Trucking, nominated the pair for the award, noting their steadfast commitment through the COVID-19 pandemic. Juan and Sergio continued to deliver much-needed supplies to a panicked nation — even when their family experienced loss due to COVID-19.
“The Orona brothers represented Stokes Fish and Lake Trucking in such a manner that they became the face of the company to our customers,” Brozanski said. “We still hear from customers today (about) how the Oronas would always deliver on time, always with a great attitude and always making sure the customer’s interests were their first priority.”
The brothers’ shared career in the cab began when Juan formed his own trucking company and asked his brother to come work for him. Sergio was working in construction at the time, and an economic slowdown spurred him to make a change.
“One afternoon we were building a porch behind our house, and I said, ‘Sergio, we need a driver. I need somebody to go to Chicago,’” Juan said. “I said, ‘I’ll teach you how to drive. Believe me, it’ll take one trip and I’ll have you driving like a professional.’ In 3,000 miles he was driving like a professional.”
While Sergio initially agreed to drive only to help his brother, he soon discovered a love of the road.
“I said, ‘I’m going to try for a couple of years,’” Sergio said. “A couple of years pass, and I start loving it. I like to go because you can see different things every day. See different people, good people, bad people, everything. I used to come home and think, ‘I cannot wait to go out again.’”
Eventually, Sergio signed on with Lake Trucking Co. He then returned the favor to his younger sibling and encouraged Juan to join the team. Two years later, the two were working together once again. The duo spent 20 years delivering seafood, both along local routes and going as far afield as the greater Midwest. Juan even took a detour into dispatch for 18 years, before returning to the road.
“After he went to dispatch, we used to argue a lot, me and him,” Sergio said with a chuckle. “He used to tell me, ‘You have to do this.’ I used to say, ‘You’re just taking advantage of me. Huh?’ Everybody used to tease me about it.”
Both men, now in their 60s, say they love the road so much they find it hard to visualize themselves doing anything else.
“There’s nothing like being out there on the open road by yourself,” Juan said. “Give me my destination, what I’m doing, and I know how to do it well. You don’t have to worry about me.”
In fact, it can be difficult to convince the brothers to take a break.
“The last time I took a vacation was like, three years ago. One time I went six years without taking a vacation,” Sergio said. “Vacations to me are more work than what I’m doing on my job. Everybody says, ‘When are you going to retire?’ I say, ‘Not ’til I cannot walk.’ I don’t care to retire, because I know my job and I’d miss my job.”
That said, both men admit that the passing of time has brought new changes and new attitudes to the trucking industry. Neither is particularly fond of certain aspects of new technology that take the skill out of driving or subject them to unnecessary oversight.
“When we started, there was no air ride in the tractors. Small sleepers. Now there are air bags and everything,” Sergio said. “It was really hard for me now that we’ve got this automatic truck. I think all the old drivers don’t like it. I don’t like it for nothing. I told my boss I can get better fuel mileage with a standard because I know how to switch my gears a little bit better.”
Juan says the GPS tracking features sometimes cause a bit of frustration during his workday.
“My biggest problem with these new cabs is that they’re just looking at you on the screen,” Juan said. “I have a problem with new guys when they tell me, ‘You’ve got a pickup at such-and-such place.’ Then an hour later, ‘Did you pick it up? Did you miss your exit? I see you on GPS and you have missed your exit.’ I say, ‘No, this is the way to get in there.’ That’s the problem when they’re just in their office dispatching; they’ve never been out here doing it.”
As for their advice to the new generation, the two lifers said it’s important for any driver to respect the fundamentals.
“The Golden Rule would be to be courteous, treat other people the way you want to be treated, be safe out there,” Juan said. “Safety is the first thing. If a car cuts you off, let them go; nothing happened. Just let it go.”
“I’d tell them have a lot of patience,” Sergio said. “If you want to learn, look at a mistake that somebody else made and learn from it. Don’t make the same mistakes.”
Dwain Hebda is a freelance journalist, author, editor and storyteller in Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition to The Trucker, his work appears in more than 35 publications across multiple states each year. Hebda’s writing has been awarded by the Society of Professional Journalists and a Finalist in Best Of Arkansas rankings by AY Magazine. He is president of Ya!Mule Wordsmiths, which provides editorial services to publications and companies.