Grant Wood’s 1930s painting, “American Gothic” – the one with the somber-looking farmer holding a pitchfork, and his equally somber-looking wife standing beside him – is considered iconic.
For Austin-based filmmaker Chelsea Hernandez, today’s version of “American Gothic” would depict married construction workers – a man holding a long, pipe-bending tool, his wife in a hard hat and tool belt, standing in front of a pickup truck. Hernandez sought to bring that image to life in her new film, “Building the American Dream.”
She told Texas Standard that the film is about people who build homes, businesses and towns. Many are immigrants, often working in the United States without authorization. She said that while many come to the country to build better lives for themselves, many also face exploitation at work.
“A lot of these workers are being paid less than minimum wage, and they’re building homes that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions of dollars,” Hernandez said. “And it’s something they probably will never be able to afford.”
Many also work in difficult conditions like extreme heat, which can be dangerous.
“When there is no state or federal law that mandates construction companies to give their workers a rest break, a lot of these workers are left in the dust. And so a lot of times, especially undocumented immigrants, are prone not to report when they can’t get a break, or when they’re being exploited,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez became aware of the issue when she started college at the University of Texas at Austin in 2009. Three workers fell to their death while building a high-rise student apartment building.
“To me, it really hit home, knowing that people were dying, were being injured on the job, for these new buildings that were popping up, and really changing the landscape of my hometown of Austin,” she said.
In her current project, Hernandez – who often tells women’s stories through her films – said she was drawn to Claudia, a female electrician from El Salvador. Claudia appears in the promotional photo for the film.
“It was just really empowering to see her learn her rights, fight back, even though she was facing some really harsh conditions,” Hernandez said.
“Building the American Dream” airs on PBS stations starting Sept. 15.