Emmy-nominated documentary BUILDING THE AMERICAN DREAM exposes construction industry injustices: A conversation with filmmaker Chelsea Hernandez

Emmy-nominated documentary BUILDING THE AMERICAN DREAM exposes construction industry injustices: A conversation with filmmaker Chelsea Hernandez

Filmmaker Chelsea Hernandez sits down with GOOD DOCS Intern Tricia Sarmiento to discuss her film BUILDING THE AMERICAN DREAM

What about this issue made you feel the urge to make a film about it?

I grew up in Texas, and I was going to school at the University of Texas back in 2009. I had lived in New York for a little bit, and I came back home, and the skyline had changed immensely over the years. I became numb to the construction that was around me daily. It wasn’t until a scaffold accident with some construction workers and those three workers died, all of them Latino workers. That hit home to me because it was such a horrible accident, and it was shocking. I had some friends at that time who were upset with the accident as well. They started volunteering for the Workers Defense Project, an organization that helps immigrant construction workers fight for their rights, protects them, gets them legal work, and provides services like English classes and Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) classes. They were kind of the only place with certain facts, like that Texas has the deadliest construction industry in the country. That was shocking to me, especially living in a place like Austin, which is a very progressive town, or so it seems to be. Yet, this injustice was happening amongst all of us in broad daylight, but nobody was doing anything about it. That’s when I thought to myself that this is an issue that needs to be discussed. I had spoken to a lot of friends about it as well, and they too didn’t know that this was happening. They were shocked learning these statistics of half the workforce remains undocumented and that Texas is the deadliest state- and so that prompted me to get working and to reach out to workers and to film them for years and make this film so people can learn from it and are encouraged to take action. 

I love that you took action. Similar to how workers are fearful of speaking about the working conditions because of their undocumented status, did you find that individuals were hesitant to speak to you?

Yeah! We started filming in 2014, and we ended around 2018. Things were fine around 2014-2015, but when 2016 happened, it was Donald Trump’s election. Raids were happening in the Dallas area and with immigrants who were just going for their regular check ins at ICE. That became scary for the undocumented community and individuals like me because now I was concerned for the people in my film about their safety and showing their face and their names. I would film classes at Workers Defense Project and rallies. Some people would come up and say they didn’t want their faces to be shown and didn’t want to be filmed. We had some frank conversations with people who were covered in the film and their safety. Ultimately, they just believed in the cause, and they wanted to inspire other workers to come out. They were tired of being fearful, and they knew others needed to be inspired to come out to fight for their rights. They knew that telling their stories could potentially help others.

How did you gain these workers’ trust to share their stories and expose the harm being done to them and their community?

It took a while. I started filming in 2014, but I had been researching for about a year before. Going to Workers Defense Project and sitting in classes and meeting people. Going to rallies, doing some research on other companies, and meeting new people just trying to understand the situation. I knew nothing about construction, and I wanted to understand how the industry worked and what issues within the industry were affecting undocumented workers the most. That’s how I also came about choosing the people who were featured in the film, like Claudia, Christian, and the Graniello family because they all touch on various parts of the industry that showcased what was wrong with the industry. Ultimately, it was just being there with them, talking with them, and just filming constantly with them. I remember my first conversation with Claudia. I let her know, “Hey, this is a film, and we are probably going to take a few years to work on it, so we might be bugging you for years behind the camera.” Just having these conversations with what the process is with the film, how long it’s going to take, and the importance of following a story that takes place over years so that people can understand how it works. With Claudia, too, it was also showcasing her multiple check-ins. She had to check-in every three months, and every three months, it boils up again. We wanted to make sure to be able to capture these moments where people can understand this is an ongoing situation that workers had to deal with.

As the film points out, these tragic stories are all too common. What made you choose these specific subjects? 

We chose these specific participants in the film because they touched on a particular issue within the industry, so we thought they would be the best to showcase wage theft, unsafe working conditions, and the dreamer. When we met Claudia, she was in the process of dealing with wage theft, and she had just been pulled over by ICE. We kind of came at the beginning of what was happening with her and were able to follow her getting her first check from the wage claim, and on top of that, she was dealing with immigration as well. Of course, because this is a story about immigrants, we wanted to make sure to bring in that story so it was visible with Claudia. And then, with the Granillo family, we came upon them at a rally that we were filming. We didn’t anticipate meeting them, but they had just lost their son to a heat stroke on the job. This was a month before we had met them, so they were in the thick of things. There was some transformation that was happening, with the daughter and sister Jazmine Granillo who came out to stand out for her family and fight for workers and to go against the Dallas City Council, one of the biggest cities in the country. It was compelling to see them transform into these powerful figures standing up to fight for all workers. To witness the pushback they had from politicians; was something I wasn’t expecting to see publicly. It was emblematic of the construction industry, so we knew we had to keep that in the film. 

I know exactly what you are talking about! That scene at the council after Jasmine gives her speech, and the council member said how it wasn’t worth it when all they were asking for was a break, which was crazy to me! I love that you showed that.

I was the only one filming from our crew, in the back where the media was, and I wasn’t hiding. I had a giant camera. These politicians started talking, and I was stunned. I did not go in expecting this, and the family was sitting right there, and they were saying these awful things right in front of them. It helped me continue working on the film and to showcase why this story is significant. Although it is a microcosm of what’s happening in life, it showcases the pettiness within the industry and politicians. The Granillo family did such a good job in fighting and standing up. I am grateful that they allowed me to go and film with them for so long. I think they also understood that their story was important. This was something that they could do to remember their son.

What would you say to those who firmly believe in the American Dream?

I think we all have a right to seek the American dream, including undocumented individuals and including immigrants. This country has been formed on that dream. I think we should think about the history of this country and how it was built on the backs of immigrants and think about the dreams that immigrants are trying to seek. It’s not equal, and I think there can be more done to fix immigrants’ inequalities, especially those in construction. I think that the American dream is something that can be obtained, but not for everyone. We should continue to analyze that and think about those seeking it and try to help others.

The regulations that these workers are pushing for, such as breaks, seem to be extremely small requests that are essential to their health and safety, yet they’re still met with staunch resistance from some politicians and individuals. Where do you think this apathy towards these communities who build our homes, cities, roads derives from?  

Ultimately, it’s greed. This issue has been happening for a long time. We were filming in 2016, and many people wanted the Trump administration to be somehow included in the film. Ultimately we didn’t find that we needed it because the issue has been happening for decades before, and it didn’t matter if there was a Democrat or Republican in the white house. This was a culture the industry was thriving on. I think you could argue for many reasons why Texas is the deadliest state for construction. When you have a state acting like the wild west, people will get hurt. The industry has built this culture based on the disposability of immigrant workers. It worked for a long time for the people on the top, and that’s where this lack of regulations comes from and this apathy towards immigrants because they know that they are disposable. They know if they get hurt on the job, they can throw them off at the hospital, drop them off at their house, and wipe their hands and go off and find more workers. I hope the film uncovers and showcases that. That’s what we see with the Dallas city council. You can see the greed there from these politicians.  

 How can we generate more understanding and compassion for these essential workers?

Sharing the film opens up many eyes and looks at what workers are facing daily. Hopefully, people can watch the film and share it with others, and share resources. A great way to help workers is to get involved or donate to organizations that help immigrant workers. Workers Defense Project is just one project in the south, but there are many others across the country. We have a website called buildingtheamericandream.com, and we have a link there with a bunch of resources in various states for workers and employers. Employers can share this film with their employees, have tough conversations about worker safety, and try to help their workers have a safe work environment. 

BUILDING THE AMERICAN DREAM captures an issue I think many have been struggling with on various issues: the argument to protect these workers roots in compassion and concern for their well-being, while the opposing argument is rooted in profit, increased production, and deregulation. How do you reason with an argument that seemingly has little regard for empathy and humanity?

What I would say to someone who is not empathetic towards these workers is that when one worker is unsafe on the job, everyone is unsafe on the job. When you get a worker who is not abiding by safe working conditions or who is not given the proper equipment, they’re putting other workers at risk as well. It’s really simple. It doesn’t take much to provide safety equipment or provide education to workers not to have any job accidents. No employer wants a suit on their hands. They don’t want to stop work because of an accident. They don’t want to come and have OSHA investigate, which will delay them as well. Why not prevent that and provide safe working conditions for all your workers? But also, I think many individuals are more conservative and fight against protection for immigrants. They don’t realize that they are the ones who are keeping these construction companies afloat. Almost a year into the pandemic in the US and the construction industry is considered essential. Construction has not stopped. Now they’re calling construction workers essential when they’ve always been essential. So, why not protect these workers so the economy can continue to thrive? 

With a new administration, the immigration and workers’ protection laws may change. What do you hope to see for the future of this fight with a new president and new officials? Do you believe much will change?

I’m excited for a change in 2021. I don’t think this is an issue that can be solved overnight, but I hope that it will provide conversations and deep discussions about what workers mean to the industry. Hopefully, there will be some good brainstorming on how to protect workers. As you saw with Texas, where there are very few regulations, things run kind of rampant here. With the change of a new administration, I think it will at least provide better rhetoric about the industry, about immigrants, and hopefully go back to the idea that immigrants are helping us. They have been vilified for the past four years in such a public space, and I think it’s time that we end that chapter. Also, I think there’s a lot of work to be done for a pathway towards citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people in this country. I think the construction industry is a great pathway. You have workers who are skilled and who are business owners. It really is an entity. In making this film, I didn’t want to say how terrible the industry was. Ultimately, it is an industry where individuals can thrive. You can work your way up into a foreman, into owning your own company. It’s a really valuable industry, and everyone needs construction. I hope the new administration has these deep and valuable conversations and hope this is one of them. How can we build a pathway to citizenship through the workforce, especially for undocumented workers in the construction industry who have been breaking their backs to help the economy?

Have there been any recent developments to their efforts to improve workers’ protections since you last filmed?

There have been new sick leave policies! In San Antonio and Austin, workers are provided sick leave, which is a great victory for workers, especially during a pandemic. However, there haven’t been any major developments on a state rest break law, which the Granillo family tried to fight for. When the film came out in 2019, the Texas legislature was in session, and they were trying to strike down local ordinances like the rest break ordinance that would impede on private companies. Luckily, that bill was struck down and didn’t go forward. There continues to be work on trying to broaden that ordinance to the state, although I do not think it will happen soon. Claudia and Alex were able to apply for a new visa. They have had that paperwork in for a few years, but at least that provides them with a little bit of safety. Claudia also doesn’t have to check in every two years, which was a great victory for her as well.

What did you learn from the Granillo family and the other individuals that appeared in the film? 

From the Granillo family and all the other individuals in the film, I have learned the resilience that the immigrant community has, and it makes me proud to be able to share their voices with others. They have been through so much, especially the Granillo family, losing their son, and they continue to persevere. With the help of the community and local unions and organizations, they were able to fight for a law that will now protect hundreds if not thousands of construction workers in Dallas. That brought me a lot of pride in the community and Latinos in general for really persevering. I hope people can appreciate that and uplift them in their work and their cities.

What do you want viewers to take from this film? What response would you like to see?

I hope viewers will recognize the need for workers, especially immigrant workers, and I hope that people will find an organization or group. I hope this film opens up some eyes and people think of construction workers as human beings and as who they are. I think many people don’t think about the families behind those workers or the pain they endure every day working on the site. We should appreciate them by showing our support for the laws or protections these workers deserve. I hope viewers take away the need for safe working conditions in the construction industry.

How would you like educators to use BUILDING THE AMERICAN DREAM as an education tool?

I hope educators can use this film as a tool to talk about what immigrants mean to this country, their contributions, and to also speak about the construction industry and what it means to everyday citizens. Someone’s hand has built the house that we’re living in or the apartment we’re living in, and the school we go to. We should think about what kind of inequalities are linked to the construction industry and the immigrant community. I think if we can fight these inequalities, we can have a better place to live in.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I will just say one thing. The reason behind titling this film BUILDING THE AMERICAN DREAM was to play off the idea of what the American dream is and how it is only available to a few. Here are these workers building the American dream for many individuals, yet they are left out. I hope people recognize that and think about who has access to that American dream.