The American Dream must begin with a life that isn't a dream, a life with rough edges and ragged moments, where the future lies in wait like a robber, ready to steal hope. Juan Zaragoza was 4 years old when he first heard about the American Dream. His parents were leaving Guzman, a city in the Mexican state of Jalisco. One day, they promised, they would send for him. He didn't know it would be seven years before they did.

Stay with your grandparents and be patient, they said. We are going to this town in America to work hard and to build a future for you, your two brothers and your two sisters.

What did Juan Zaragoza know about patience? He was 4 years old. Four-year-old kids live in the present, and the present for him was working his grandfather's farm. Milk the cows at 5 in the morning. Feed the pigs and chickens. Ride a horse for 40 minutes to the fields to help Teodoro, his grandpa, extract pulque from agave plants. Pulque is a milky-white liquid that is consumed as an alcoholic beverage after fermentation.

"I felt we were rich," said Zaragoza, 36, a Sonoma County resident since 1989. "When you live on a farm, you never go hungry."

Zaragoza kept those long hours when he wasn't in school until Teodoro needed Zaragoza full-time, year-round. Zaragoza quit school to help Teodoro and his grandma, Maria. At the age of 11, Zaragoza's parents sent for him.

"I had my little suitcase," he said. "I started crying. It's common when Mexicans leave to go to America, they forget the people they leave behind. I never wanted to do that. My grandparents were very special to me."

Zaragoza crossed the border near Tijuana.

He knew 10 English words: "I'm a tourist ... Yes, I am American ... Thank you ... Bye."

"I dressed nice," Zaragoza said, "and was told to say 'I'm a tourist' if anyone stopped to ask me what I was doing. No one did."

Juan joined Rosa and Benjamin Zaragoza, who had settled in Sonoma. Benjamin had steady work in construction. Rosa was a house cleaner. They were carving out their American Dream, one day at a time. They were making money. And in the narrative that everyone wants to read about those who acquire the American Dream, this would be the perfect time to write: Zaragoza made it. He left all the hard work behind in Mexico.

Reality, however, is rarely perfect. Yes, Zaragoza does have his own business. He is owner and operator of Sonoma Valley Fitness. He has a wife, three kids. He became a naturalized citizen in 1996. Zaragoza has been a certified personal trainer for the past 20 years. He is a champion bodybuilder. So where's the bump in any ofthat? All of it seems so nice and tidy.

"If you don't straighten out," Benjamin told his son, "you'll have to go back to Mexico."

After going to El Verano and Flowery elementary schools, Zaragoza was expelled from Sonoma Valley High School when he was a sophomore. He estimated he got into six or seven fights. He felt challenged and he needed to respond. That didn't fly with his dad. Juan, your mother and I worked hard to make a life in America. We didn't do all this so you could be a troublemaker. Change your attitude otherwiseor we'll have to send you back to Jalisco.

"I felt like I had disappointed them," said Zaragoza. In that family, for a kid to disappoint Rosa and Benjamin, it was like committing a crime. What to do? Zaragoza always liked working hard; grandpa Teodoro taught him the value of that. Zaragoza also was impressed with how Teodoro's body looked after all that hard work: Grandpa was 6-foot-3, 260 pounds and a chiseled brick.

Zaragoza liked the respect granted Teodoro. People didn't mess with Teodoro. That's all Zaragoza ever wanted, and still wants, in his life. Respect. A man with a muscular build, with a forthright and direct personality, Zaragoza liked the image. He saw the future. He hit the weights. He didn't get any taller — 5-foot-8 — but he went from 137 pounds to 205.

He worked as a dishwasher, a retriever of golf balls on a driving range. He got his GED in 1998. With some financial help from his parents Zaragoza bought all the gym equipment in 2007 and began Sonoma Valley Fitness. He built his body, his image. He now and lives in Sonoma County with all his relatives, even grandpa and grandma, and he knows how everyone made it.

Sweat equity has been Zaragoza's lifelong partner and friend. With great pride and characteristic candor, Zaragoza addresses the issue of immigration through those terms.:

"If you come to this country to do good, welcome," he said. "If you come to this country to help America grow, welcome. But if you come to this country to make trouble, you are not welcome. Don't come to America. Don't take the spot of someone who wants to work hard, to make something of themselves. There will be someone out there who is hungry, who wants to put food on the table and wants to work for it. They should be given a chance."

Without apology, Zaragoza said, he is proud to have worked on that farm, planted those corn and bean crops, milked those cows, fed those chicken and pigs, worked those days that began at 5 a.m. and ended at 9:30 p.m.

"I am not ashamed or embarrassed by any of that," he said.

As much as he was caring for that farm, the farm was caring for Zaragoza, feeding him what he would need as an adult.

That would be the ability to stand on his own two feet, either here or in Mexico.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.