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“Building the American Dream” at NBFF Puts a Human Face on the Plight of Immigrant Workers

While attending school in Texas, Chelsea Hernandez discovered that three Latino construction workers fell to their deaths during the building of a student luxury condominium. Hernandez later found out through the Workers Defense Project that Texas is the deadliest state for construction workers and nearly half of the workforce is undocumented. Hernandez began making a film about three immigrant workers and families who are trying to get by in America, which resulted in “Building the American Dream,” her first feature film, which was chosen as a featured documentary for the 2019 Newport Beach Film Festival (NBFF).

According to Hernandez, the film began production in 2014, followed by five years of off-and-on filming, followed by 18 months of editing. “I honestly thought I would be done by 2016, but then the election happened and I had to keep filming to see how the administration would impact the immigrants lives,” Hernandez says. Prior to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory, Hernandez recalls that the immigrant workers trusted her, wanted to be on camera and they were all willing to speak out. However, after the election,  it proved to be a challenge to get faces on camera to speak to her.  One of the main people in the film, Claudia, an electrician from El Salvador, has to do regular ICE check-ins. According to Hernandez, there was always a fear that any moment could be Claudia’s last time seeing her family.

“There is a scene in the film where we see Claudia on the morning before her ICE check in and she is giving him notes and the papers to prepare for him in case she gets deported,” Hernandez. “That moment was when I had just arrived when they had just started the conversation and I realized and quickly put my camera together. They had this very intimate and intense conversation without recognizing I was there and I think they just forget about me being there. I could really feel the fear from both of them.”

Claudia is an electrician from El Salvador and a mother of two.  Credit: Moyo Oyelola

Hernandez is a fifth generation Mexican American and she believes that being apart of the Latino community and knowing the culture helped those in the film open up to her and accept her into their lives even if she didn’t know the struggle of being a first generation.

Through the film, Hernandez, a fifth-generation Mexican American, hopes to encourage better workplaces for all workers, but especially Latino and other immigrant workers.

“I hope that after people watch the film, they understand that it is immigrants who are building this country and they deserve the respect and dignity of every American citizen because of the hard work they go through and that this country depends on them,” Hernandez says. “They are building the cities, schools, roadways and our homes.”

After “Building the American Dream” played at SXSW 2019,  the NBFF reached out to Hernandez and asked for a sneak peak of the film. The film’s emotional depiction of the struggle faced by immigrant workers clearly resonated with the festival’s selection committee. “As far as expectations go I think people should be ready with some Kleenex because it’s a little intense,” Hernandez says. “But I hope it helps people realize what workers and immigrant workers go through every single day and that they are just trying to return home alive.”

“Building the American Dream,” is Hernandez’s first film in the Newport Beach Film Festival and it is her first feature film. The film will be playing on April 30 at Edwards Big Newport Four at 5:45 p.m.