The Texas construction industry is often compared to the Wild West, a relatively lawless space with few regulations and repercussions yet a place where opportunities abound for those tough enough to cut their teeth in the rough-and-tumble environment. In a city like Austin, with an ever-changing skyline and construction site around every corner, it’s hard not to think about the lives lost in pursuit of economic growth.
The documentary “Building The American Dream,” makes its PBS debut (cable and online streaming) 9 p.m. CT, September 15. The one-hour film spotlights the lives lost (one every 2.5 days) in the Texas construction industry as well as the people on the frontlines of the movement to fight for proper protection and equal rights for those responsible for building our cities.
Directed by Austin filmmaker Chelsea Hernandez, the documentary follows three immigrant families as they join the state-wide and national fight for equal rights for construction workers. Among them are a Salvadorian electrician battling a contractor for thousands of dollars of unpaid wages and a family that recently experienced the loss of a loved one because of heat exhaustion on a work site.
Though “Building The American Dream” has been on the film festival circuit since since it premiered at SXSW 2019, the film is particularly poignant today as conversations around the country are refueled around issues of equity, safe working conditions, and giving proper due to social justice issues.
I recently spoke with Hernandez about the making of the film, the state of these issues during the pandemic, and more.
Mary K. Cantrell: What is the origin story of the documentary? When did you realize this was a topic that needed to be covered and what has the timeline been like?
Chelsea Hernandez: Well, the idea for the story actually came back to me in 2009. I was attending UT and there was a scaffold collapse at some luxury student condominium that was being built on campus and three workers had fallen to their death. So that kind of sparked a flame within me to see what was actually happening to Austin, and growing up in Austin and the skyline changing and just the whole town expanding over the past 20 years. It made me realize that the people who were building my hometown were being injured and dying on the job.
I heard about the Workers Defense Project and what they were doing at that time and then I didn’t start really gathering a team and making it a real project until around 2014 when we got our first Austin Film Society grant, and then I filmed and worked on the project for the next five years. It was released in 2019. We premiered at South by Southwest Film Festival, and then did a year of film festival screenings and community screenings.
MC: Can you tell me a little bit about how you found the main subjects and families you followed? I’m always interested to hear about the process of finding those people and then negotiating access with them and getting to know them through the years.
CH: Yeah, so I heard about the Workers Defense Project through some friends who were volunteering at the time in 2011. I believe there was a large protest down Congress Avenue to the capitol where people marched with life-size coffins to commemorate the 138 construction workers that died that year in Texas. I visited the organization and me and my producer actually sat in a few of the member meetings to just kind of understand what workers were facing, what they were doing to organize, and to get a sense of what was happening in the industry. From there, we met Christian, who was working for the Workers Defense Project. He was really involved with organizing workers as well.
Then when we were filming, we had been filming a lot of rallies and we had gone to a water strike that a whole bunch of organizations were putting on, workers and community groups in Dallas. They were fighting for a rest break ordinance. And that’s where we met the Granillo family who had just lost their son a couple months before and were on the front lines helping in the fight for a rest break ordinance in Dallas. Through there, we also met Claudia (the electrician from El Salvador), while we were in Dallas as well. We approached everyone about filming them and filmed them for a long time and got to know them over the years.
MC: I thought the data you gathered was really interesting too and played a big role in driving home the key points of the story. I was wondering if it was hard to find data on these deaths/unpaid wages/etc. and what it was like researching that.
CH: No, it was very difficult to find data. The University of Texas had done a giant study back in 2013. This was really the major study that showcased these numbers, because unions and the Labor Department didn’t really have this sort of context. And as we were researching to figure out well, what’s the current statistic from last year, or even this year, like how many deaths and even that is really difficult to determine. Even with the study that was done, a lot of experts think that numbers are still low because there are a lot of workers who don’t report wage theft, who might not report injury, because they are fearful of being fired or being retaliated against, being deported. So, we don’t know if potentially those numbers are higher because of the worker statuses. There’s been more studies done across the south as well, from other organizations, and compiling all that and coming up with a brief overview of the status of the industry was what we ended up going with.
MC: I think this documentary is particularly interesting right now, too, with the whole Coronavirus pandemic and things being closed down. I think at the beginning construction sites were not allowed to be operating, but it seemed like really they never stopped. So, yeah, even in these times, like who is still working and whose safety is being valued is still an issue and I’m sure this coming out now is really timely for the audience that hasn’t seen it yet.
CH: That was our biggest concern when the coronavirus hit was how are construction workers going to continue to work safely if they didn’t have the correct safety precautions before the pandemic? A lot of workers, independent workers, are supposed to bring their own tools and their own equipment and that’s really expensive. A lot of workers don’t have the proper masks or gloves or goggles to protect themselves normally. So how are they going to get the correct PPE that they need on site to protect them from the coronavirus? Early on construction workers were then deemed essential and were called back to work. So they didn’t really have a shutdown as long as other businesses. And now they’re one of the clusters of COVID patients that we’re seeing now along with healthcare workers. I think, hopefully, this film will open people’s eyes to see that construction workers are valuable and we need them and they weren’t provided the most basic safety precaution of a 10 minute rest break before so, how can we protect them now, not only against COVID, but also in the other day to day dangers that they face.
MC: It was just crazy in the film seeing the Dallas city council discussion on mandating one rest break, and the main opposers of getting the breaks instituted, council members Rickey Callahan and Lee Kleinman. You can’t humanly understand why someone is arguing against this.
CH: And they were on the record [laughs]. To me, it was really shocking. I had no idea that was actually going to happen. We didn’t have anybody talking publicly against it. I was the one filming that city council hearing and went in as media to shoot and then they just started spewing off that language and the Granillo family was sitting right there. That was, to me, really symbolic of how the industry and the government work to protect each other to keep business going rather than protecting the little guys who are actually doing all the heavy lifting…When we released the film last year, during SXSW, there was a bill that was actually trying to get rid of local ordinances like the rest break in Dallas that was “impeding on like construction.” Thankfully that didn’t go all the way and it died. But who knows? What will happen next year? Next session. So, yeah, it’s a constant uphill battle.
MC: Obviously this is a really big topic and I’m sure you could have gotten into many more facets of these issues, can you tell me about adjacent topics or details you weren’t able to fit into the film or chose not to include but are still following?
CH: There was a lot of stuff. We just touched on the surface, I feel like, with the issues within the construction industry in Texas. Texas is the only state that doesn’t require workers compensation for contractors. There were stories we heard from workers about just being dropped off at the hospital when they were injured on the job and never hearing from their boss again. And that is the typical story with many workers and many undocumented folks. So there’s a major healthcare crisis happening among workers that we didn’t get to go into more in depth. So yeah, that could totally be a whole hour by itself. I think the film brings up the issue of a rest break ordinance, but one thing we talked to audience members about, when we could show this publicly, was just the fact that global warming is a major issue here in Texas and these hot summers are only going to get hotter and last longer and so if we don’t have any protection now for workers statewide, what’s it going to look like when temperatures get even worse than what they are now?
MC: It was interesting to see the data on how much more prevalent heat exhaustion is becoming for people in general and especially people’s job whose it is to work outside.
CH: Yeah, and that’s the thing, too, it’s all outdoor workers, landscapers, valet workers, that go without detection. I think there’s probably a lot more heat exhaustion that goes unrecorded as well. We don’t have all the data on that. What we have recorded are the instances where the heat illness has gotten to a point of medical attention that causes those workers to then go to the hospital. But there are other forms of heat exhaustion that don’t hit as hard. And we don’t have those numbers, but I’m sure it affects many, many workers.
MC: I found the storyline of Claudia the female electrician in the documentary affected me the most. It was really cool to see a woman in the business who’s successful and even taught her husband how to do electrical work alongside her. Then with the ICE events that unfolded, that just like brought a whole new level onto it, so if you just talk about her story and what that brought to the film that would be great.
CH: I met Claudia at a protest as well and was just enthralled with how strong she was, being this very vocal person out on the frontlines. Knowing how dangerous electrical work can be, that she found her career in that. I had approached her and talked to her about filming her and letting her know that we’d like to film for a while, like a few years. But she was just really vocal about worker rights and, at the time, was also going through the process of doing her wage theft claim. We were definitely following that and then she was having these ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] check-ins and the thought of those check-ins, knowing that she could potentially get deported, was even more scary.
We just wanted to capture that constant insecurity of immigrant workers’ lives that they have to face. Not only the unsafe working conditions, but also the fear of being deported at any moment. And having a family go through the fear with you. She’s a really strong individual and her story with her husband, they were just so cute that they were a pair working together. I love the moment of them talking to each other on ladders while they’re up in the ceiling [laughs], that’s their life and they both fight for worker’s rights together. I was just really drawn to her power and wanted to make sure to showcase workers being empowered, learning, and helping other workers, so just kind of showcasing the movement as well.
MC: Can you talk about the movement for worker’s rights and whether or not through making the film you felt like this was a subject adequately covered by the media? Or any comments you have about the public awareness of these issues?
CH: The Workers Defense Project and other local union organizations, Texas AFL-CIO and LIUNA have done a good job of putting this out to the public and bringing people out. I think their ability to empower workers and create a space to have workers come and make claims or to voice their complaints about what’s happening on the job site has allowed them to bring out these moments to the public and be on the streets and march. Every February they always have some sort of protest called Day Of The Fallen, which is the march I had gone to in 2011. I think having those active rallies and calls for action are really important.
But that was in 2011 and we’re still hearing about these accidents. The majority of these accidents are preventable. Falls are a huge workplace accident and are completely preventable. So, yes, local news is reporting about when accidents happen. The Texas Tribune did a four part series on workplace safety and what construction workers were going through back in like 2014. The New York Times had a large article about the Workers Defense Project and the Texas industry talking about workers centers and how important they are, but the stuff continues to happen.
That was my goal with the film is to be able to show the issue in a very intimate way to showcase specific workers and follow them so that people can connect to their personal stories and their humanity. These workers are treated as disposable and they’re human beings like any one of us who have families who work. But also, they’re being demonized. I wanted to show their hard work as well, they’re building everything around us, our houses, our schools, our libraries, our workplaces and hopefully people can see the injustices they face.
I also wanted to make sure this film was a film for workers. It was important to me to showcase their uprise, that they weren’t just victims that they were fighting back. And not only fighting for just themselves, but they’re fighting for worker’s rights that help protect all workers regardless of their status. So that was really important for me to showcase that as well.