The American Dream is built on a singular premise: hard work and determination deliver success and prosperity. It’s the simple calculus of the country’s foundation, an uncomplicated and easily comprehensible cause and effect, a promise made to every citizen, every immigrant, every dreamer who lives here.
But in Sonoma, the American Dream can be hard to grab hold of. In a city where the median home sells for $679,000, where rents have increased by nearly 50 percent since 2012, where low-income housing is extremely difficult to secure, the American Dream can feel like a mirage.
Take Juliana, 24, single mother of two – and, no, that’s not her real name. She’s a native Sonoman employed full-time with a major Valley nonprofit and makes $16.60 per hour. With an income of $2,600 per month and the average apartment renting for $1,792, Juliana can’t begin to make ends meet in Sonoma.
Economists — and landlords — recommend that housing consume no more than 30 percent of an individual’s monthly budget. Juliana would be spending nearly 60 percent of her income sheltering her family, if she could find something to rent in the first place.
“I’ve looked in Napa, Santa Rosa and Petaluma,” she said. “In Sonoma it is really hard to find a place that’s affordable.” So Juliana and her children live in a carport in Boyes Hot Springs, with a cement floor, a corrugated plastic roof and the occasional rat.
“It gets cold at night, and the roof leaks when it rains,” she said quietly.
Juliana was — by her own admission — a difficult adolescent. When her parents couldn’t curb her behavior at 14, they sent her to her ancestral home of Mexico, instead.
“They told me I was going on a two-week vacation. But then after a week they called me and said, ‘No, you’re not coming back, you’re staying there until you’re fixed. It was a one-way ticket,” she said.
For two years Juliana worked the avocado groves with her grandmother, and alongside her aunt, bagging soil for trees. There was no school, no playtime, no Mom and Dad, just work. The plan was to grind the willfulness out of Juliana and plant obeisance in its place. But the plan didn’t work, not at all.
Juliana is a U.S. citizen, but her parents are undocumented. They’ve lived a difficult, hard-scrabble life. Their two-bedroom rental in the Springs is wall-to-wall.
“The dining room that was converted to a bedroom is rented out to an older male cousin,” Juliana explained. “The garage has a roof and a small kitchen and sink, and is also being rented out to another male cousin. The living room is rented out to two male cousins, and my parents have one bedroom and my sister the other.”
By the time Juliana was 16, she didn’t seem to fit anywhere. And the misbehaviors that had previously earned her a one-way ticket to Mexico escalated.
Mercifully, the mistakes of adolescence are generally benign: blown curfews, beer-pong disasters, a mysterious dent in the family sedan. Others can root perniciously in a young person’s life, and change its trajectory entirely.
Juliana got pregnant at 17, and dropped out of high school shortly after. “I made a lot of mistakes,” Juliana admits. “I was doing a lot of things that I shouldn’t be doing.”