‘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.”

Glass ceiling

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.”

Parallel stories

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.

“I'm not American, I can't be, I wasn't born here,” said Diego in the video.

In June 2012, the Obama administration enacted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy, which granted undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children temporary status. DACA changed everything for Diego, but now under a new presidential administration everything could change again.

“I don't believe people should live in constant fear, especially when they are contributing so much,” said Robledo. “We have to recognize the system is broken and we have to come up with a solution together, and the only way I think that's going to happen is through media because that's the only way we're going to create change.”

Robledo noted the use of media like the My American Dream project's short videos is critical to changing the social conversation.

“What happens if you hear something long enough, whether positive or negative, is that you believe it's true even if it's not factual,” said Robledo. “If you look at a lot of media you see immigrants shown as criminals and gang members and that is not factual.”

Passed on to daughter

The value of media is just one of the things she has passed on to her daughter, who is a freshman film major at the University of Colorado-Denver. Included in that is a long-term vision of hope and unity.

“I want her to work toward making a great impact of creating unity in our country,” said Robledo. “She wants to be a filmmaker - I think she has the right idea of wanting to do that through storytelling.”

Her ability to balance motherhood, a career and passionate community work is part of Robledo's appeal.

“Vanessa is this mix of daughter, mother, friend and supporter,” said Claudia Mendoza-Caruth, owner of MC2 Multicultural Communications and a community outreach volunteer who works with Robledo on a regular basis. “She built a new path in life after leaving her family business, and is doing a fabulous job working toward this new cause.”

It's a cause Mendoz-Caruth says Robledo has thrown herself into.

“When the drama and urgency hit the immigration community over these past few months, she took what she saw personally and completely engaged herself in learning legislation to understand the topic better,” said Mendoza-Caruth. “She is devoted to this cause, sometimes I'll even receive emails from her at 2 a.m. because she's been up late working on these issues.”

Trump plan

Recent events like the controversial immigration ban by the Trump administration has caused festering wounds on both sides of the lingering question of immigration to surface yet again.

“I understand many of them [interested in closing the border] have concerns about their jobs being taken away from them and I would love to learn more about their concerns,” said Robledo.

“Unless we understand what the other side is thinking, we can never move forward and I believe we should have open, respectful dialogue.”

Robledo argues the missing pieces of the conversation includes not only how immigrants are giving back to their local communities, but also the subtle unwillingness of some to take on hard labor in the vineyards.

“If they want to come work in the vineyards, we have a job for them, but unfortunately often the only people willing to do that are the Mexican people,” said Robledo. “There's a misconception that people are just flowing into California, but there is actually a huge decline in the labor force of people coming from Mexico for harvest.”

For Kersoky, adding Robledo to the My American Dreams project's team came at a flashpoint for the topic of immigration and meant the urgency to tell immigrant's stories only grew.

“We want to continue to make films telling the stories of immigrants, undocumented and deported,” said Kersoky. “There's a lot of potential to tell a powerful story, how immigrants can benefit from a chance at reform and just the opposite when a family gets torn apart.”

Robledo believes the erasing of misconceptions and the finding of common ground is what will bring communities across the nation together to help one another, and it's something she plans on her doing in her role with My American Dreams.

“If we as Americans, no matter what color we are, can all respect we have a common immigrant history here, then we can empower and understand each other,” she said. “I think this country has so much potential and my vision for the future would be instead of looking at what divides us, let's look at what unites us.”

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette