Roberto Juarez has eyes that smile. He’s well-liked, with an infectious laugh that comes often. At 38, he’s a husband, a father and a vineyard manager who came to Napa as a young immigrant and built for himself what many others have also come here for. A better life. Today, Napa is his home.
For a long time though, it didn’t feel that way. A wall of words kept him from understanding his adopted home and it from understanding him.
There’s little left of that wall for him now, and speaking on a recent summer afternoon, he wields English with poise, rarely grasping for the right words through our interview as he tells me his story, his second language reaching to meet my first and only.
He’s born into a large family in Guanajuato, Mexico, where it’s hot and dry most of the year. A rainy season lasts from June to September and from November to April it’s windy, with gusts that often change direction.
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His town is small, home to maybe 5,000 people. His family, like most, work in the fields, growing corn, sorghum and tomatoes. Growing up, he goes with his father to a lake used for irrigation and fishing, one a little smaller than Lake Berryessa. They catch tilapia.
He has a vegetable garden and there are fruit-bearing cacti. He meets a girl in school named Adriana. One day they’ll marry. Every Sunday, his friends and family go to the park downtown.
As soon as he can, he starts helping his family in the fields after school, seeding and fertilizing by hand. The pay there is very little and things like medical issues are hard to afford.
“But it’s good because you are free,” he says. “The life over there,” and he trails off, “…it’s a lot different than over here.”
Growing up, he wants to be a lot of things; perhaps something in agriculture, some kind of consultant maybe. A concrete vision of his future escapes him then, but he never hesitates when he wants to learn.
He finishes high school in his town, but if he wants to go to college he’ll have to move to a city. It will be expensive, the kind of money his family doesn’t have.
He doesn’t know how far back his ancestors began looking for a life beyond Mexico. He knows his grandfather came to the United States through the Bracero Program in the 1940s. “My whole life they have been here,” he says. “It’s generations, you know?”
Weighing his future from Guanajuato, he decides he’ll be among the next to come, taking his chances in another country far from home.
“We wanted to continue that. So we decided to come and have new opportunities here.”
At some point, his mother’s uncles had moved to Napa and raised their families here. Some worked for the county, and she had come here before to visit them. So, when he makes the trip with a handful of siblings, cousins and friends, taking first a plane and then a bus, there is already some family here waiting for him.
It’s 1998. He’s 17 and doesn’t speak or understand English.
There’s a lot to be intimidated by in the new country. But more than anything, he says, “First the language. It was the most difficult thing to start living here.”
He moves in with a cousin and starts looking for a job with only Spanish at his disposal.
Things are slow in the vineyards. That year it rains into the summer. He doesn’t know how the grapes are faring, he just wants to work.
He only finds something in landscaping and the pay is disappointing. But $6.25 an hour is still a step up from what can be earned in Guanajuato. And then, sending back what he can to Mexico, he remembers, “It made a lot of difference.”
In taking the plane and the bus to get here, he has also arrived without wheels. To get around he has to ask for rides, take the bus or ride his bike. Thankfully, the landscaping job is close.
For many who come here without a vehicle, finding transportation is a big problem, he says. Many like him rely on rides from others to get back and forth. And then, even if you can drive yourself, there’s still the language gap. “You don’t know what the signs mean.”
With a place to live and a job where his pay starts to climb, he has some footing. But English is still a ways off.
They live with two others at his cousin’s place near downtown Napa. On Fridays in the summer they go to the Chefs’ Market where there is food and music and dancing, like those Sundays in Guanajuato. Two families from Guanajuato live across the street and there are many others from Mexico living nearby, doing what he’s doing, trying to build that better life.
“It was like home,” he recalls, “because in that neighborhood there were mostly Mexicans around there.”
In his house, they split chores among themselves week to week, which includes walking a few blocks to shop at La Chiquita, now La Tapatia Market, on Brown Street. Back then, the store was more like Vallergas, he remembers, and had everything they needed.
But beyond the neighborhood and Juarez’s social circle, a sense of isolation persists in his new town and his new country. “Before I learned English,” he says, “I felt like I wasn’t part of this community.”
Even going on those weekly walks down the street for groceries, he remembers, “It’s hard when you don’t know anything.”
Some years go by. He goes back and forth to Guanajuato a few times. One of those times, he and Adriana marry.
They come back to Napa together. He keeps up his work in landscaping but takes on a restaurant job and other work on the side to make ends meet.
Bits of English come here and there. At the landscaping job, he gets approached from time to time by English speakers asking for extra help moving or fixing things. He tells them he doesn’t understand. But he always listens and tries to memorize. He asks what the words mean and if the request comes again the next time, he knows what’s being asked of him. It’s the same at the restaurant, where English is rampant.
He goes to adult school for a while, but there he has to choose. Work or study?
The bills always win out. Fluency will have to wait.
Only he’s living on Old Sonoma Road then, and he and his family are near the families of his brothers and cousins. He feels at home again. “It was like living in Mexico all together.”
Life is good. “Relaxing.” The pressure to learn English wanes.
In time, his landscaping work takes him to a property on Dry Creek Road with a small vineyard and he comes back every Monday to the place, called Moulds Family Vineyard. There, both English and Spanish are spoken side by side. He begins to pick it up again.
His learning reignited, the owners, Steve and Betsy Moulds ask Juarez if he wants to take classes.
The Napa Valley Grapegrowers, where the Mouldses are members, have begun offering courses in English and Juarez takes them up on the offer. Doors begin to open.
“Once I started to learn more English, I felt like this was my home too,” he says. “I started to be more social with people here that did not speak Spanish.”
After a few years of Monday landscaping, the offer comes for a fulltime spot at the property working in the vineyard. “But,” he laughs, “I said ‘I don’t know anything about vineyards.’”
No problem. He just has to learn. He works with Regusci Vineyard Management for a year learning about the vines and how to take care of them. Then the job is his.
He gets his ‘brown card’ from the county Agricultural Commissioner to apply pesticides and goes to all the Grapegrowers’ classes on viticulture.
Today, as manager of the property’s 10 vineyard acres, he lives for harvest.
“When you see the whole process, you know, the year. Because every year is a challenge, is different. You don’t know what you’re gonna get until the last berry goes out.” Then, he sighs, “I’m done for this year.”
After a few years with the new job, he and his family move again, this time to their own house in Napa. “It’s a lot different,” he says. “More quiet.”
He walks his children, a daughter of 8 and a son of 10, to school. If he wants, he can ride his bike to work again. A church is close and they’re able to play in the park nearby. Adriana also knows English, but at home they speak to their children in their native language.
At one point before his daughter starts school, she insists to him, “I know English.” He laughs his infectious laugh, remembering, “But she didn’t.”
After some time in school though, his children try to speak only English.
He and Adriana worry. He notices that children in Napa like his, born to Mexican parents, “some of them, they don’t know Spanish.” He supposes it’s because their parents don’t ask them to hold onto their ancestral language.
“For us it’s very important to keep both,” he says. “You have more opportunities to get a job or help people. Like me, I have more, better opportunities.”
His children use both interchangeably today, though his daughter still tends to speak more English. He and Adriana are starting to encourage them to read books in Spanish, hoping they’ll be able to read and write in the language as well.
So far, his children have never seen Guanajuato, where his parents still live. He remembers himself at their ages. In Napa, there is support should medical issues ever come up, a safety net he never had in Mexico. Then there are the opportunities.
His son works with LEGOs today, but wants to be a builder, he says. Maybe he’ll be an architect, Juarez ventures. His daughter likes animals. “She says sometimes, ‘I’m gonna be a doctor because I want to take care of animals.’”
He knows they’ll go far. “There’s more vision here to try to encourage them to be better than us.”
Their extended family is still here too. With his cousins and brothers and their families, “I feel like I’m at home,” he says. At parties, sometimes there are up to 40 friends and family from Guanajuato.
“Mostly everybody has family here too,” he adds, pointing out that his story is not unlike those of the many others who have tried to make a new life here. Although lately, he says, it’s unclear if another generation of immigrants will get to build their lives around a similar narrative.
Today, he notices there are not many new arrivals from his town, despite the opportunities for work. With the ongoing labor shortage affecting all of California’s agricultural industries, he sees vineyard companies in Napa often bringing in workers from Lodi and elsewhere in the state.
“Whatever we are here,” he says, “we are established.” At least from Guanajuato, those who are here continue to go back and forth. “They have their own jobs, they have their own houses already.”
For those without roots in both countries, the problem isn’t finding work. It’s finding shelter. “Housing is the most difficult,” he says. “You have to earn very good money to be able to afford a house.”
In his house, it’s only his family. In others, he says, multiple families will live together to afford it. Napa needs the workforce, but on its end, he says, housing assistance is more important than ever. Ultimately, the way of life that has coursed through his family for generations, today faces an uncertain future.
But apart from the harsh economics these days, what still impedes the path to a better life as much as ever, he stresses again, is communication. “It’s a big wall if you don’t know the language.”
It’s a wall that persists for many, though efforts like his are slowly chipping away at it. Today, beyond having broken it down enough with his family to build up that better life for themselves, he’s also managing to lower the wall between himself and those like me, who have yet to learn their neighbors’ words and understand their stories.