The Running Family

Running Family
Caltrans posted several of these signs along San Diego freeways beginning in 1990, when the city was a funnel for undocumented immigrants headed north. The signs were intended to warn drivers they might encounter people frantically darting across lanes of traffic as they tried to evade border security.

One particularly deadly spot was on Interstate 5 at Camp Pendleton, south of the Border Patrol checkpoint. Immigrant smugglers would stop their vehicles and order everyone out, instructing them to cross the freeway toward the beach. The idea was for the immigrants to walk north and then, once they had skirted the checkpoint, cross the freeway again to the vehicle, which would be waiting on the other side. People who had never seen a freeway were crossing up to eight lanes of traffic, often at night, with little idea how fast the tiny, distant headlights they saw would be upon them. Parents were killed in front of their children, children in front of parents. Drivers who hit these people were left emotionally wrecked. One was haunted by the sight of an anguished face flying across the windshield. Another swore he had hit a bear.

Today, the running family is found on T-shirts, coffee mugs, stickers, book covers and CDs, in fine art and even hanging in an exhibit at the Smithsonian. The characters have been reinterpreted carrying surfboards and wearing Pilgrim hats. One depiction shows them being followed by a man with a gun. The image has become a Rorschach test for how people feel about illegal immigration and immigrants in general. People familiar with the hardships that drive many immigrants to leave home aren’t likely to laugh at the image on a T-shirt, said Jorge Mariscal, director of the Chicano studies program at UCSD. Yet, for others, the desperate action the image depicts is so far removed from their own reality that it is incomprehensible, and the characters become mere cartoons.

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