Listen to Austin 360 Radio

SXSW: 'Building the American Dream' reveals dark side of 'Texas Miracle'

Matthew Odam
"Building the American Dream" portrays undocumented immigrants working with dignity and little protection. [Contributed]

A proliferation of cranes, master-planned communities popping up like rapidly growing Chia plants, lanes of roads blocked off for truck passage … you can not avoid the signs of growth across Texas. The state is home to four of the fastest growing cities in the country. And while politicians are quick to point to limited regulation and low taxes as the drivers of the economic boom known as “the Texas Miracle,” there is something much more sinister and sad at work. Filmmaker Chelsea Hernandez's documentary “Building the American Dream” pulls back the curtain on the widespread mistreatment of the thousands of undocumented workers who are helping grow Texas into a global economic force.

Undocumented workers account for about 50 percent of the million-person construction workforce in Texas, according to the film, which made its world premiere Sunday at South by Southwest. Lack of regulations combined with fear of deportation and lack of empowerment contributes to poor working conditions and outright economic fraud. Twenty percent of those undocumented workers have been cheated out of rightfully earned money as part of this system of intimidation and exploitation.

The doc follows the stories of several families who have been victimized by the system, including the Granillo family of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, who lost their son to a heat-related medical crisis, as he worked without breaks through the hottest summer in Texas. Roendy Granillo’s was one death in a year that saw about three construction worker deaths a week.

“Building” follows the Granillo family as it works through its grief, bonding together to press an initially unsympathetic Dallas City Council to adopt mandatory breaks for these at-risk construction workers. The callous, business-first response from several council members shows not just the struggle of the Granillo family but the entire construction community.

El Salvador native Claudia has worked as an electrician with her husband for years, and when they are not paid their owed wages of $11,000 from a subcontractor, they turn to the Workers Defense Fund to help make a claim with the Texas Workforce Commission.

Claudia and her husband fight coalesces around fellow workers’ rights and immigrants’ rights activists that depict the uphill battle at hand. These individual stories are set against the larger shifting narrative around immigration, and Claudia’s concerns become heightened beyond finances, as the federal government announces its planned conclusion of DACA.

The tight and moving but not emotionally exploitative film smoothly navigates the complicated waters is the immigration debate by focusing not on every aspect of immigration but on the specific story of these workers who are contributing to building the state while being shortchanged by business, government and regulators. The families portrayed respond to their tragedies and crises with dignity, nobility and a fierce sense of familial and community love. For a group of people who have contributed so much to so many others’ dreams, it certainly seems like they are asking for only the minimal human compassion in response.

"Building the American Dream" screens again at 6 p.m. Thursday at AFS Cinema, and I imagine individual tickets would not be hard to purchase.