‘Without them it couldn’t happen:’ North Bay's Latino workforce a crucial part of local construction crews
Ranchera music fills the air in Coffey Park, where a boombox blasting inside a half-built home sends a traditional Mexican folk tune echoing down the street of a neighborhood rapidly taking shape in northwest Santa Rosa.
The wailing vocals and Latin beats are punctuated by hammer blows, screeching circular saws and the successive pat, pat, pat of nail guns that are bringing this former ash-heap back to life.
In one home on Kerry Lane, Joel Calderon, 59, cuts white baseboard for the living room while his crew, twin brothers Eliseo and Juan Gallardo, 33, install baseboards, shelves, door molding and other finish work.
Since September, the three-man crew has been doing nonstop work in Santa Rosa fire zones, mostly in Coffey Park. They are part of a small army of construction workers assembled to rebuild Sonoma County, where wind-driven wildfires destroyed 5,334 homes a year ago.
The nails and screws they sink, the measurements they take, the baseboards and cabinets they skillfully cut and fit, is the same work the crew has been doing for years. But the new homes in Santa Rosa’s burned neighborhoods are unlike any they’ve worked on, said Calderon.
“It’s a very emotional thing to see the expression of gratitude on the owner’s face when you hand them the keys,” said Calderon, speaking in Spanish.
Calderon, who has been working construction in Sonoma County for 32 years, is part of a crucial Latino workforce — or as he puts it, “mano de obra” — that is rebuilding neighborhoods leveled during last year’s historic wildfires.
As many as 80 percent of the construction workers involved in the rebuild are Latino, according to building officials familiar with the reconstruction underway.
“Without them it couldn’t happen,” said John Allen, chief operations officer and vice president of APM Homes of Santa Rosa. He compares the outsized role Latino construction workers play in the rebuild to the critical part they play in the state’s agricultural industry.
“In this case, the crop that we’re harvesting is hope, resiliency and love. It’s a labor of love,” he said.
APM Homes is currently constructing 67 homes in Coffey Park and three in Fountaingrove. It has sold 17 brand new homes in east Santa Rosa’s Skyhawk neighborhood to fire survivors.
Allen said that every builder and subcontractor, whether they’re coming from Santa Rosa, Sacramento or anywhere else, have seen the devastation and been moved by it.
“It affects,” he said. “You’re not just building a new home.”
Saul Diaz, a 42-year-old framer from the Sacramento area, moved to Sonoma County shortly after the fire with the hope of taking part in the rebuild effort. Diaz, who works for R&R Framing of Rancho Cordova, landed some condominium construction work the company was doing in Petaluma.
He found an apartment in Rohnert Park, brought his family to town and enrolled his 11-year-old son into school. He quickly became attached to his new community, and has been deeply moved by the gratitude of homeowners who watched their houses rise in an array of framing studs and plywood sheathing.
“I don’t want to leave now,” he said. “I like it here and the schools are good.”