Originally Published in Forbes
Toni Fitzgerald - September 28, 2020
When filmmaker Chelsea Hernandez attended the University of Texas in 2009, a scaffolding collapse in Austin made headlines. She remembers hearing about several workers who died in that accident while constructing student condominiums near campus.
“It was a wakeup call to me,” she says. “I realized the people who were building in my hometown, who were changing the skyline and look of the town and helping it grow, were being injured on the job.”
She had friends who volunteered for the Workers Defense Project, a Texas-based organization fighting for the rights of low-income workers. “I learned that Texas was the deadliest state for construction workers, and nearly half the workforce is undocumented,” Hernandez says. “I was still a budding college student at the time, but I knew it was an important story to tell.”
Now, finally, Hernandez has the chance to tell it. Her documentary on the dire circumstances faced by immigrant construction workers, “Building the American Dream,” debuted on PBS earlier this month and is available to stream on PBS.com.
Hernandez highlights the difficulties faced by workers, focusing on several whose plights reflect the greater construction issues in Texas.
The film tells the story of the Granillo family, whose son died from heat-related issues on a construction site, as they campaign for mandatory 10-minute breaks for every four hours a worker labors. It highlights the Salvadoran couple who are owed thousands in backpay for electrical work they performed. And it profiles Christian, a son who lost his father on a construction site, a preventable loss all too familiar to others who have loved ones working in construction in Texas.
“Then it just made sense why this work in Texas was so deadly. It made me really upset and inspired me to push through and make the film,” Hernandez says. She and her producer sat in on Workers Defense project meetings, where they connected with many of those profiled in the film. They filmed at rallies and protests related to working conditions.
Hernandez named the film with intent. She says the dual meaning behind “building” the American dream—a pursuit often presented as central to the immigrant experience—should give viewers pause.
“It was important to showcase this so that people could think about the hands that built their houses or the school they take their children to or their workplace or even just the streets we drive on every day,” she says. “I think people in major cities are always passing construction sites, and I want them to look at those workers differently and think about the struggles they go through, how hard it is.”