A new documentary premiering Sept. 15 on PBS will ensure that you never look at construction the same way again.
Produced and directed by Texas filmmaker Chelsea Hernandez, Building the American Dream tells the story of Texas’ deadly construction industry through the tragedies and triumphs of immigrant and mixed-status families, some of whom lost loved ones on the job. Viewers learn about the toxic stew brewing in Texas—its anti-union lawmakers, desperation to attract business, and limited regulations—that puts undocumented workers in the crosshairs, forcing them to battle harsh working conditions with almost no workplace protections.
Hernandez started kicking around the idea for the documentary when she returned to her hometown of Austin in 2009 after living in New York for a few years. Austin was unrecognizable, she said, with new high-rise buildings marking the skyline and a never-ending stream of construction. While attending the University of Texas, a scaffold collapsed and three workers fell to their deaths while building a luxury condominium near campus. All three of the workers who died had Latino-sounding names, and that’s when it hit Hernandez: Immigrants are dying constructing the buildings going up all over Texas.
“Once you know that, you can’t unsee it or unthink it. It was a wake-up call, especially because Austin is thought of as this very liberal bubble in Texas that fights for justice, but there were these grave injustices literally all around us,” Hernandez said. The result of her wake-up call is Building the American Dream. In anticipation of the nationwide screening on PBS, which will include bilingual subtitles, the filmmaker talked to Prism about workers organizing in Texas, the conditions they face, and the ways they are fighting back. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Tina Vasquez: I’m really curious about the activism that sprouted up in response to workers’ deaths. Was there activism happening around 2009 when you started to pay closer attention to this issue?
Chelsea Hernandez: Activism was starting to ramp up. I still remember this big rally commemorating construction workers who died. People marched downtown to the state capitol with life-sized coffins. I filmed some of that event and I just knew that this story needed to be told. But I was still young at the time and didn’t have too much experience in the documentary world, so I went out into the field and developed more experience working on documentaries as an associate producer and assistant editor. Then in 2013, The New York Times published a giant article about the Workers Defense Project and how deadly construction was in Texas and I feel like that really jump-started people’s awareness. We were all surrounded by this construction in Texas and didn’t know these deaths were happening. More construction accidents started to pop up on the news, and that’s when I realized I couldn’t let it go. In 2014, I decided I needed to get to work on a documentary about this and that’s what I worked on for the next five years.
Vasquez: There are a lot of upsetting scenes in the documentary. One particularly hard scene to watch is one in which former Dallas City Council member Rickey Callahan gets very animated addressing workers who came to a city council meeting to advocate for a citywide ordinance that would give construction workers a 10-minute break every four hours. He called them “charlatans” and implied they were fronting for unions. He also said that giving construction workers a 10-minute break was bad for business. Callhan said all of this in front of the family of Roendy Granillo, a 25-year-old construction worker who got sick on the job and later died from heat exhaustion. The undocumented workers in your film are not union members, but they are learning to advocate for themselves because of non-union worker centers like Austin’s Workers Defense Project. Talk to me about the importance of these centers, which can be found nationwide.
Hernandez: Texas is a right-to-work state. There is a misconception that if you live in a right-to-work state you cannot unionize. That’s not true, but those states try very hard to disempower unions and it’s much harder for unions or labor groups to organize within companies. It really puts power in the hands of private companies and the state of Texas really pushes the false idea that having no regulations or fewer regulations is better for workers because it means more companies will be drawn to the state. The idea being that because a state like Texas doesn’t require certain permits or regulations, more local workers will get hired. The lack of those regulations, like work breaks, are exactly what hurts workers, especially undocumented workers.
An environment has been created where companies can totally take advantage of undocumented workers, and this is why worker centers have become so important. They are a safe space where undocumented workers can talk about their working conditions and get legal help to advocate for themselves. It’s where they learn they do have rights and no one can withhold their pay, even if they are undocumented. It’s a nationwide problem, but because of the construction boom in Texas, you see so clearly what these companies get away with—they underpay workers or withhold pay. It’s not uncommon that when workers sue a company for this stuff, the company just closes up their business and starts another one under a different name. When Steven Greenhouse reported in The New York Times that the construction industry in Texas is like the wild west, he wasn’t joking.
The family of Roendy Granillo, a 25-year-old construction worker who collapsed on the job in July 2015 and later died.
Vasquez: Talk to me more about the conditions this creates, especially around training. We learn in your film that some workers are thrown into jobs for which they have no training.
Hernandez: I mean, if you get hired as a cashier at a coffee shop, you get trained on how to use the cash register. These construction workers are handling dangerous equipment and not being trained or even given breaks in many cases. These workers also work in extreme weather conditions, whether it’s heat, freezing snow, or rain. They have to battle all of this and for a long time, there was no one helping to look out for them. The Workers Defense Project was only founded in 2002. When the organization partnered with the University of Texas, it led to some of the most important understandings that we have about this workforce in Texas, including that half the [construction] workforce is undocumented and that Texas is the deadliest state for construction.
Vasquez: In the film, we are introduced to the couple Claudia and Alex, who work together as electricians. They completed a big job for a grocery store and were owed thousands of dollars for their labor, but they weren’t paid. At one point the man who owes them money agrees to meet with them and pay them, but instead he calls the police on them. As a journalist who covers immigration and workers’ rights, it’s clear that so many companies weaponize people’s immigration status against them as a way of keeping them in line. Companies violate workers’ rights and rob them, but undocumented workers are afraid to speak out because the don’t want to experience retaliation or have Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) called. Did you see a lot of this in your five years filming?
Hernandez: There were so many workers who wouldn’t speak out because they were afraid of retaliation or losing their job; because they thought they wouldn’t get paid or that ICE would pick them up if they filed any sort of complaint. This is why we ended up following the specific individuals that we did, mainly because people like Claudia were willing to speak out and tell their stories in hopes that it would help other workers and inspire them to seek help. But yes, this was a constant thing, especially after the 2016 election. Before the election, people were totally fine being on camera and sharing their stories. After the election, that really changed. I had one person come up to me and say, “Please don’t film me. I don’t want immigration to know I’m here.”
Those fears are totally valid. I was filming a short film at the same time as this documentary and the husband of one of the women featured called me one day and said his coworker got picked up by ICE. He was a construction worker who went to get food on his lunch break and he was taken. Our country depends on these people to build our towns, our schools, our places of work, our police departments, and we treat them with so much disrespect and disregard.
Claudia and Alex work as electricians in Texas. During the filming of Building the American Dream, an employer robs them of thousands of dollars in wages and Claudia is targeted for deportation.
Vasquez: Whenever I write about undocumented workers in any industry, the question that is always lingering is: How is this legal? We have constructed our laws to criminalize undocumented workers and make it illegal to hire them, yet private companies and entire industries thrive because of undocumented labor. The journalist Noy Thrupkaew urged me to always look at the machinery that allows for these conditions. When reporting, she told me to ask myself: What is the machine that did this to this community or this person? How would you even start to explain the machinery in Texas that leads to this widespread exploitation of workers?
Hernandez: I actually had that in my mind when I made this documentary. At first, we had some history in the film that talked about [the North American Free Trade Agreement] because of what it did to Mexican workers and how it led to migration. I was thinking about history a lot because there are so many families here in Texas who have been here for decades because they were braceros. The country flips-flops so much with immigrant laborers—kicking them out, bringing them back, kicking them out. These policies are part of the machinery that got us where we are today. We also have to look at the leadership of Republicans in Texas, who have been in power for a very long time and have advocated for no regulations, business over people, and keeping things private, which has turned Texas into a horrible place for workers. We also don’t require an employer to have workers’ compensation coverage in Texas.
Vasquez: All of this is so backwards and deeply harmful.
Hernandez: The companies and the contractors and the politicians are incredibly backwards. All of them have the resources to do more and better and yet choose not to. At the start of the film, we meet Christian, whose father was a worker killed on the job. His dad’s boss said he would pay for the full funeral expenses and when the family tried to set it up, they never heard from the guy again. In the film, we play the 911 call that came in when Roendy Granillo collapsed on the job. The call was made by a woman who lived across the street from the worksite. Workers went over and told her to call 911 and then they left. Roendy was left lying at this house alone, dying. Workers are treated as disposable.
Vasquez: For me, one of the most powerful parts about being a journalist who covers immigration and workers’ rights is that I get to watch in real time as some workers who are unprotected or feel disempowered tap into their communities and collective organizing. It’s a beautiful thing to see unfold, and it’s something I really loved about your film. We watch women like Claudia become more empowered, we watch Roendy’s family fight for change and eventually they are successful in getting the work break ordinance passed in Dallas. Why was it important to you to highlight resilience in this way?
Hernandez: When we first started filming, we sat in for a few of the Workers Defense Project’s meetings, just to see what was going on and to understand what these workers were facing. One of the first meetings we went to was a know-your-rights training if you get pulled over. It was this whole theater play with a three-act structure; they acted out what you should say to the police and what happens at court—the whole process. There was this energy in the room, there was so much empowerment in what people were learning that day. I knew then that resilience had to be a big part of the story.
So many of the stories about immigrants in the U.S. paint them as victims and it seems like that structure really works for making a connection with a white audience, but I wanted to reach the workers and to showcase their empowerment. Before the film was released, we showed the film to each of the families who are in it. Claudia, who experienced wage theft and was targeted by ICE during the course of filming, told me that when we filmed her, she was going through the worst period of her life. She told me she didn’t think she was going to make it, but then she saw herself getting through it in the film and it made her feel joyful to see how powerful she really is. That was the best compliment I could have received.