A Conversation with Chelsea Hernandez (BUILDING THE AMERICAN DREAM)
I met with director Chelsea Hernandez on Sunday, March 10, at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival, with my Fog of Truth podcast colleague Bart Weiss joining me for the conversation. We discussed her documentary Building the American Dream (which I also reviewed), a film that examines the lack of protections for the undocumented laborers who work in the Texas construction industry. The booming (or is it?) economy of that state has long been fueled by exploitation of a group of people simultaneously cherished and demonized, as well as abused. For all the modern-day rhetoric (more like vitriol) about the need to expel those who are here illegally, the fact remains that the same business leaders who are held up as pillars of the community reap enormous profits off the backs of the undocumented. Hernandez exposes this hypocrisy while also celebrating the humanity of the workers and offering them a platform to make their case. At the center of the movie is the attempt, in Dallas, to enact legislation that would ensure a 10-minute break for every 4 hours of labor. Imagine that … Here is a condensed digest of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Hammer to Nail: Chelsea, what first drew you to the subject?
Chelsea Hernandez: Well, I’m a native Texan, born and raised here. I grew up in Austin, and I just became numb to the expansion of the city over the past decade. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the skyline has changed rapidly…
HtN: In Austin and in Dallas…incredibly so.
CH: This incredible boom! I was going to school at the University of Texas in 2009, and there was a scaffold collapse where three Latino workers fell to their death while building a student luxury condominium on campus. That piqued my interest and I realized that there were lives involved in every new highrise in the skyline. I wanted to figure out who these construction workers were. We’re surrounded by construction. You probably passed a construction site on your way here. We don’t really think about who those people are, and when I was doing some research, I found the Workers Defense Project through some friends who were volunteering for the organization. I just learned about these devastating statistics where half of the million-person workforce in the construction industry here is undocumented. One in five workers experience wage theft. A worker dies every two and a half days in this state.
HtN: That’s insane. Wow. Well, your film definitely brings their plight to life, so thank you for that.
Bart Weiss: You know, the film’s really great, and by the way, I love the drone shots in there, which is ironic because I am constantly complaining about films that have unnecessary drone shots…
CH: I tried not to overdo it.
BW: That’s exactly right. You tried not to overdo it. Most producers and directors don’t have that level of restraint.
HtN: But here you need to see from overhead a lot of times…
HtN: …because you’re talking about the changing cityscape.
BW: It is absolutely important in seeing and understand the film, the sort of context that’s really going on about it.
CH: One of the other reasons we wanted to have some drone shots was to see the height at which people are working.
CH: If it’s 105 degrees and you’re working 20 stories up, I mean, you’re going to get dizzy. You’re going to get nauseous. Your life is totally on the line up there.
HtN: So, since your subjects are all, except for the one DACA young man, undocumented, were there any concerns on the part of these people that being on camera might further jeopardize their situation?
CH: Yeah, we had talked about that very early on when we were filming to let them know what the risks were, but they were just very much involved and fighting for other workers as a whole, as a community, as an organization. They knew it was their duty to come out of the shadows to speak on behalf of immigrants in hopes that they could encourage other immigrants to also speak out. They had also previously been on the news, speaking about their stories, so I think they understood a little bit about what the power of the camera holds for people’s stories, and I guess they just didn’t understand how long I was going to follow them, and I kept sticking around for a few years. But after seeing the film, they totally understand what we were doing and are very grateful for it.
BW: One of the bosses in the film…what’s that guy’s name?
CH: Stan Marek.
BW: I felt kind of…it was awkward for him being there. I thought it was good that he would agree to be there, but there seemed this kind of like, “Who are you?” from the workers. “Oh, I’m the boss here.” It didn’t seem like maybe that was something he does every day, so it just seemed he was somewhat inauthentic in his caring about that, but at least he showed he was caring…Why did you decide to put him in the film?
CH: Yeah. Stan Marek has been a very vocal general contractor in the Texas construction industry. We reached out to a lot of developers and a lot of contractors to get the other side of the story and it was very hard…we would email them, we would try to call them, and we would tell them what the story was about and then they wouldn’t call us back. Stan, however, writes op-eds in the Houston Chronicle about immigration. He was for immigration reform during the Obama administration and understands that we need some sort of reform to really save this industry in general. He was willing to speak to us.
He is a very complex person, a Republican, a CEO of one of the biggest general contractors in the South. He’s also in Atlanta. He’s in other states down here in the South and yeah…I think it was an interesting take on the industry because I think many people want to find a villain within this issue, but really, this should be a bipartisan conversation with both sides of the aisle, and Stan Marek was that person to talk about it.
HtN: I would say, however, that your film does have a villain.
CH: That’s true. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
HtN: His name is Lee Kleinman.
CH: Yes. (to Bart) In your town.
HtN: Boy, is that guy a piece of work. So, did you get a sense that Stan Marek’s work sites…I mean, it’s one thing to be vocal, but did you get a sense that they are safer? Beyond his geniality, walking around, did you get a sense that his sites are safer?
CH: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know all the ins and outs of what you’re supposed to wear while you’re onsite, but I will say there was water everywhere. There were fans. It was…they were very much trying to keep people cool and we just walked into that site, so nobody was expecting us, honestly. So it was, from my eyes, it was good working conditions while we were there. But he hadn’t been to a work site in a very, very long time so I think that’s what you were…
BW: So, he was authentic, but it was awkward because he just hasn’t been there for a while.
HtN: And in his defense, I mean, he’s a CEO. And any CEO of a company doesn’t necessarily walk around everywhere, so…
HtN: But it’s one thing to talk the talk. Does he walk the walk?
BW: It sounds like he does.
HtN: Or at least more than others.
BW: His opinions are genuine. They’re not maybe as deep as we would want them to, but they are genuine, non-fabricated for the film.
HtN: You have to start somewhere.
CH: I think that’s what you see when you see him on the work site with the worker that we go up to who doesn’t speak English, and he asks him, “How long have you been here?” and it’s only been four months, and that’s the first time he’s meeting the CEO. It’s this awkward moment and I think…and then we hear Stan talk about it…as long as there are labor brokers in business, he can get workers because there is a shortage of construction workers in Texas. We need immigrants to build up the economy.
HtN: Yeah, I mean aside from the inhumane policies that have recently been put in place, which certainly were never perfect before, the problems with undocumented workers are worse, economically, for the very people who seem to claim that they like these policies. It doesn’t make sense, either, because it doesn’t appear that non-immigrants or non-undocumented laborers are willing to take these jobs, so there’s just a lot of reason, even beyond the most important ones, which are the humane ones, to improve the system.
CH: Yeah, and we see that, too, in the scene when we hear one of his workers get paid $12.50 an hour. I mean, I don’t know if you know about Bucky’s in Texas?
CH: …but I think cashiers there get paid more than that and they’re in the A/C and at a cash register. Here, it’s hard work and it’s not a lot of money.
HtN: It’s not a lot of money, yeah.
BW: And some of them get paid and some of them really don’t. Another really interesting thing is that this film, at its heart, is dealing with immigration, which is a national issue and while you don’t get into the national politics, we definitely get into the local politics and you spend a lot of time in my city council with some people that are very bad, but they do actually pass the resolutions. My city councilman voted for it…
HtN: OK. So, he’s not the villain of the movie.
CH: Not the mayor. The mayor didn’t vote for it.
HtN: No, Mayor Rawlings voted against it…
BW: Actually, of all the things that shock me in the film, that was one of the ones that really did because he mostly votes on progressive issues and it was really odd that he didn’t. I mean, it’s a very humanitarian thing. It’s very hard when those people are there telling you their stories to…
HtN: 10 minutes every 4 hours
HtN: It’s not even that much…
BW: From their point of view, you give them that and they’re going to want something else, and then something else, and that’s what they preach on Fox every day. You can’t let them have a small thing. It’s what the whole NRA thing is: you do this, then all of a sudden…
HtN: You ban bump stocks and then who knows what happens next?
CH: Right, right.
HtN: I was interested to see, in the screener that I watched of the film…I haven’t seen it in a theater… that you had both English and Spanish subtitles. Is that the plan for the release, as well?
CH: Yep. We wanted to make a bilingual film so that we can bring Spanish-speaking individuals into theaters at SXSW; bring them into these festivals where so often, they are either not invited or don’t know about them, so we wanted to be a really welcoming film and bring English speakers, Spanish speakers, everyone from both sides of the aisle to create that conversation around the issues.
HtN: Great, great.
BW: I think it’s really important to have them in Spanish. There aren’t enough films that are meant for both communities and particularly, say, we’re at SXSW and how many films here are welcoming to non-English speakers? I think it’s really important for you to do, and I think it also means that it can be seen in different contexts in different ways, so I really applaud you for that.
CH: Thank you.
HtN: What crew size did you generally work with? You’re in such intimate spaces sometimes.
CH: Yeah, a lot of times…I would say maybe about 40% of the movie, it’s just me with a camera and either a producer or an associate producer who was helping translate. And I think that’s how we were able to capture some really intimate moments. When we see Claudia’s talk with her husband, Alex, before she checks into ICE. I was with my associate producer. We just popped in, and she was giving these instructions, and it was like, let’s just go.
HtN: I mean, you gain by having other people help you when you have a larger crew, but you really do lose that intimacy.
CH: Exactly. Yeah. It was also just a trust-building exercise, too. I wanted to just spend time with them, get them used to me.
BW: It’s also, again, that sense of you’re undocumented, you really have to trust somebody, and if it’s just you there, it’s pretty easy to feel good about that.
CH: Yeah, exactly.
HtN: Well, I really enjoyed the film. I think you did a wonderful job. I think it’s such an important film. Thank you for making it and I hope it travels far and wide.
CH: Thank you so much.
BW: Thank you.
CH: It was great talking with you.