Exposing Inequality via Striking Juxtaposition in Documentary 'Building the American Dream'
By Danielle Alexis Orozco
Crickets whistle as a red pick-up trucks glides down a quiet suburban street against a cloudy sky. Pristine and colorful houses with white trim dot the avenue amidst new houses that are in various stages of construction. The sound of a telephone ring breaks the music of the crickets, and one can hear the audio of a 911 call where a woman reports that a Latinx worker has fallen ill and requires immediate medical attention. Meanwhile, the viewer continues to watch homes and buildings being built by construction workers—laborers who, with plastic water bottles in their back pockets, wipe the sweat from their brow as they adjust their hats underneath a glaring sun in the heat of the day.
Moments later, viewers hear the audio of a local newscaster who reports on the death of 25-year-old Roendy Granillo, a construction worker who collapsed due to heat while working in Melissa, Texas. An image of a promotional ad for a new hotel follows shortly thereafter, with a banner reading: “Progress is always a worthwhile journey.”
These scenes open the new documentary Building the American Dream (2019) directed and produced by Chelsea Hernandez. Released through Panda Bear Films, the documentary debuted at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March and continues to make its way through the festival circuit. Providing detailed insight into the issues that made both national and local headlines, from The Washington Post to Dallas News, the film sheds light on the conditions of immigrant workers in Texas who face extreme conditions in the construction industry.
While the film’s opening scenes provide images of prestige, safety, and power vis-à-vis the rows of manicured homes and clean-cut high-rise buildings, the phone call alludes to the more insidious pitfalls of the construction industry. In effect, the hotel banner invites the viewer to consider the consequences of an industry where workers can fall ill due to lack of drinking water, sanctioned breaks, and shelter from the Texas heat. The film’s opening scenes highlight Hernandez’s careful attention to divulging the contradictions of an economic system that values material products over the lives of workers.
These introductory moments of the film effectively set the stage for the documentary, imploring the viewer to interrogate images of progress and reflect on who has access to such ideals in a stratified economy. What is, indeed, the price for progress in an economic system that deprivileges the contributions of immigrant workers, not only in Texas but nationwide? What does the “American Dream” look like for construction workers who live and work under the current economic climate and political administration?
In a state that is home to 4 out of 5 of the fastest growing cities in the US, the “Texas Miracle” is an economic phenomenon, whereby policy makers have lured companies into the state with the promise of lower property taxes and lighter regulations. While some have seen the investment in Texas as a positive influence, in that it creates jobs and attracts businesses from around the country, half of the workforce in the construction industry is undocumented.
Employers have enormous potential to exploit individuals, since immigrant workers have no mandated rights or workplace protections. In such cases, construction workers can fall victim to wage theft or face deportation if they confront their employer or go to the police with their concerns. According to Cristina Tzintzún of Workers Defense Project, the abuse is widespread, with at least 1 in 5 workers being denied payment across the state.
Without access to rights that establish equal pay and work breaks for construction workers who labor in the unrelenting heat of Texas, they continue to suffer, even perish under unsafe working conditions. By naming those like Angel Garcia, Armando Juarez, Jesus Chuy Moreno, and Salvador Guillen in an emotional montage before the opening title, the film gives visibility to a workforce that has seen and experienced the exploits of such an industry, revealing to the viewer that these tragedies can and do happen on a daily basis.
Following an organization called the Workers Defense Project (WDP), of which Tzintzún is the co-founder and former executive director, the documentary explores how the community-based coalition was created 10 years ago, with the express purpose of improving the conditions for immigrant and undocumented workers. WDP and other such agencies provide case workers and site monitors who organize, facilitate workshops, and educate Latinx immigrant communities on labor laws and civil rights.
Framed by the important work of the Workers Defense Project, the documentary centers around three families whose narratives have intertwined while working in the corporate construction industry in Texas. The film documents the passionate efforts of Roendy Granillo’s surviving family to change public policy within the Dallas City Council to reflect a 10-minute rest break for every 4 hours of work, while also following the story of an electrician named Claudia who immigrated from El Salvador as a refugee.
In the documentary, Claudia and her family seek compensation after a case of wage theft which left her and her husband Alex dispossessed of $11,062. The experience impacted their daily lives, leaving them in a situation of housing insecurity where they struggled to make ends meet for their family. Nevertheless, they were able to obtain support from the WDP, who opened a case on their behalf so they could seek payment from their previous employers.
The film also explores the story of Christian, a young man who has worked for the WDP as a site monitor. As a recipient of DACA, he was able to obtain a work permit and a social security number so he could apply for jobs and earn a livable wage. After his father perished in a wrongful construction accident, Christian sought to educate people about the labor laws that can help them, regardless of their status. Though he encounters workers who are hesitant to speak up about their conditions out of fear of retaliation from their employer, he provides resources for community members who organize as a form of solidarity against discriminatory workplace treatment.
While we hear moving commentaries from family members of construction workers throughout the documentary, the film also provides a diverse array of testimonies from individuals and experts around the community,including news and labor reporters, real estate agents, and legislators. Public policy representatives such as Sharon Block (Head of Policy of the U.S. Department of Labor since 2013) as well as David Michaels (Assistant Secretary of OSHA from 2009-2016) share their perspectives, attesting to the lack of regulations and reach of exploitation that large corporations can have regarding immigrant workers. Even CEOs like Stan Marek of Marek Companies recognize the struggle that workers face in the construction industry, acknowledging that current systems of labor lack sustainability.
With an impressive original musical score composed by Gil Talmi that flows, swelling to the imagery of the documentary, the film’s use of editing and juxtaposition evokes a deep pathos with pensive moments that invite reflection. At one point in the film, Roendy’s father, Gustavo, watches his daughter Jasmine happily play basketball with a friend. He smiles as he takes a video on his phone while he simultaneously narrates the loss of his son. If the American Dream, as Claudia posits later in the film, is about the safety and well-being of her family, the viewer is encouraged to consider the cruel irony of these promising pursuits in an unforgiving economy.
In another scene towards the end of the film, Gustavo and Jasmine travel to Baltimore, Maryland to share their experiences organizing workers in Dallas and accept an award on behalf of the National Conference on Worker Safety and Health. Afterwards, the two tour around Washington D.C., passing monuments like the Capitol Building, White House, and the Washington Monument. Jasmine remains optimistic, stating that she hopes people will remember her brother as “a person who died for workers…I want people to think of him as a hero.”
While the film’s conclusion is filled with hope, this is stifled by uncertainty, as people like Christian reflect on the uncertainties that face DACA recipients and undocumented immigrants. Having overcome a harrowing experience with ICE, Claudia is seen celebrating with her family at Christmas as Talmi’s music crescendos. The documentary’s final shot—an aerial view of homes both complete and under construction, coupled with the chanting of labor organizers as the film’s credits roll—suggests a futurity imagining that the struggle for justice and inequality is far from over.
In association with Just Films Ford Foundation, Latino Public Broadcasting, Firelight Changing the Story, Adaptive Studios, Seed&Spark, and the Tribeca Film Institute, Building the American Dream is poignant, timely, and emotional at its core. As a documentary that is community-focused, it is a necessary film that bears witness to injustice while advocating for change, despite the fear and silence that permeate the construction industry in Texas. Hernandez’s powerful juxtaposition via editing, a diverse array of first-hand testimonies, and compelling music highlight the lives and families of construction workers, representing the difficult yet hopeful journeys of those who seek justice for workers everywhere. In the words of Claudia, “Si estamos organizados, todo es más fácil. Nos escuchan. Nosotros tenemos poder. Si se puede!”