‘My American Dreams’ project documents aspirations of young Sonoma County immigrants
Dreams aren't supposed to have an expiration date. But for many undocumented immigrants, dreaming is something being done silently, behind closed doors and laced with the fear of deportation.
Vanessa Robledo wants to change that.
The 39-year-old freshly minted executive director of the Sonoma County-based My American Dreams project is fighting for a day when dreams don't expire.
“We live in a country of immigrants and founded by immigrants,” said Robledo. “We don't want (immigrants) to live in fear. We want them to continue to thrive and reach their American dream just like our ancestors did.”
The My American Dreams project started out creating videos documenting the stories of local immigrants, which now air nationally on PBS. The project also leads forums and workshops which include pro bono legal counsel informing undocumented immigrants of their rights.
“(Vanessa's) voice on this subject is particularly compelling,” said Chris Kerosky, a Santa Rosa-based immigration lawyer who founded the My American Dream project in early 2016.
“She has a credibility because she knows the community and knows their struggles.”
Robledo is the granddaughter of an immigrant - Everardo Robledo - who came to the U.S. during World War II with the Bracero program, the largest foreign worker program in U.S. history. It brought manual laborers into the U.S. to assist with the agricultural labor shortage created during the war. It was extended several times under several different names before coming to an end in 1962.
“My great-grandfather and grandfather came into the U.S. for work during the Bracero program,” said Robledo. “Their resumes were the calluses of their hands and the muscle mass on their body.”
Within the context of her family's story, Robledo's new role with My American Dreams is one close to her heart.
“She's been able to add so much to our project and our movement,” said Kerosky.
Her grandfather, a master grafter, settled in the Napa area. His son Reynaldo and wife Maria began their own vineyards, and Vanessa grew up working in her family's vineyard along with her seven brothers and a sister.
“We worked in the vineyards with our grandfather; he was a quiet man and never complained, but I knew his life was not easy,” said Robledo. “The history of how he built himself up is the immigrant story.”
Robledo's own childhood was not without its struggles. Growing up as the youngest daughter of a family centered around very traditional and conservative cultural expectations left her fighting against a glass ceiling many young women in America are unfamiliar with.
“It was not expected I would go past high school,” said Robledo. “When I did began to take classes at Napa Valley Community College, one of my brothers had to accompany me. If I traveled for business, one of my brothers had to accompany me.”
Robledo didn't let it change her aspirations. At 24, she became the president of her family's winery. This led to a career in the wine industry, which created connections and laid the ground for her work in philanthropy - both with immigration issues and rights for vineyard workers.
Her first major philanthropic project involved funding for a pre-kindergarten program for Latino children.
“For Latino kids there's often a culture shock in kindergarten and they can get behind without proper language preparation,” said Robledo. “Without support, they're just going to be passed on with each grade.”
Robledo's efforts led to the project's funding by the Bates Foundation for two years, after which another foundation took over the funding. A mutual friend then introduced her to Kersoky, who needed additional voices for the My American Dreams project and saw the potential for a partnership.
“I became passionate about the project because it promotes social change for our immigrant community, which I felt was being challenged during the period of the last election,” said Robledo. “We are country of immigrants. My ancestors really came from nothing - they came from small villages in Mexico and they had a dedication and passion to build their American dream.”
One of the videos put out by My American Dreams tells the parallel stories of Diego and Giovanni, children of immigrants who grew up in Sonoma County and attended the same schools from elementary through high school, but one is a citizen and one is not.
“I just happened to be born here, and he didn't,” Giovanni says in the video.
Diego came to the U.S. with his family when he was just a toddler, but it wasn't until he was older that he began to understand the ramifications of it.