Off rushes a red truck down a suburban Texas street. The camera pans past freshly built home and peers over soon to be completed wooden frames. In comes ringing a 911 Emergency call. Roendy Granillo: “a Mexican…a…a….worker” as the caller identifies him — is dead. Here begins Chelsea Hernandez‘s documentary Building the American Dream.
Hernandez’s film examines the mostly undocumented workers who have fueled The Texas Miracle: A building boom within the Lone Star state where 4 of the 5 cities are the fastest growing in America. The construction workers are an exploited workforce, ready-made victims of unscrupulous employers who commit wage theft. Two of those victims: Claudia and Alex — are two of the subjects in Hernandez’s documentary.
The other subjects, are those who literally fall prey to unsafe working environments. Those like Roendy. In a state whose summers can routinely top over 100 degrees, there are no timed or paid work breaks for construction workers. Those who don’t feel completely healthy have zero recourse, but death. If I told you this was a scene from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, you’d believe that before accepting this was happening in modern America.
Hernandez also presents a third leg to this triangle, the activists and inspectors who realize and demand change. They include, Roendy’s father Gustavo and his sister, and Cristina Tzintzún of the Workers Defense Project, Stan Marek, and Christian. All are fighting for workers who are too afraid to speak out because of the consequences they might face. They know that 1 in 5 workers are denied payment, every 2 1/2 days a worker dies, and 50% of construction workers are undocumented.
In Building the American Dream, the American “dream” is never too far from view. For every shot of a construction worker, in the background looms the beautiful and opulent homes they’re building for someone else. Hernandez gains critical juxtapositions throughout the film, especially when a tour is given for a $3 million condo. As the camera catches views high above the city, with a violin-accompanied score, one can’t but think there are undocumented and underpaid workers still building stories below.
Much of Hernandez’s film is a demonstration of will: Claudia and Alex struggle to be paid back-pay after their employer (Aldi Supermarket) refused to compensate them and accused them of theft and called the police (they still have the police report). There’s also Roendy’s family and many others who are fighting for a Rest Break Ordinance: A law to demand that employers allow 10-15 minute break.
Their multi-year battles through bureaucracy, and borderline corruption, invites inconsolable anger on the part of the viewer. Because as Roendy’s father so eloquently says without saying it, as we peer through his son’s former room and remaining belongings, he’s more than just “a…a…worker,” he’s a human. And Hernandez’s pursuit of those human moments, elicits crucial empathy: from ensuring subtitles appear for both Spanish and English speakers to the events she focuses on.
With the sun setting and a gleeful Claudia and Alex — one naturally framed by the chains of a swing, the other by holding the string to a piñata— celebrating their child’s birthday, Hernandez demonstrates why undocumented workers survive the travails of their careers and work: A safe and happy family, their true American dream. And when the sharp right comes of Claudia coming under threat from ICE to be deported, as she prepares Alex for the worst by giving him important phone numbers, we’re truly brought face-to-face with these men and women’s everyday predicaments. At that moment, for anyone with a heart, the idea of opposing a 15-minute break becomes petty.
The film essentially concludes with a vote at city council for a Paid Rest Ordinance. The editing during the city council scene is wonderful and gripping. With a rising score, the camera cuts from face to face of the council members, then to the picture of Roendy, then to his family members. And when the reappropriation of Obama’s “Yes, we can” to “Yes, we could” by the activists and family members ring and reverberates — nearly causing the sound to clip — we are greeted to a triumphant and deserving moment. A moment years in the making, much like this film. Hernandez’s resounding and authentic Building the American Dream isn’t just a fight for the underdog. It’s a fight for what’s right.
An official selection of SXSW 2019