‘Without them it couldn’t happen:’ North Bay's Latino workforce a crucial part of local construction crews

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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.”

Alejandro Carradas, 33, of Santa Rosa also works for R&R Framing, an APM Homes subcontractor. Carradas, who has a wife and two children, 11 and 6, has worked for APM for about four years and has lived in Santa Rosa for 18.

He said R&R Framing has so far erected 52 homes in burned neighborhoods. Like the Calderon brothers, Carradas said there’s something different about rebuilding as opposed to new construction. There’s a sense of urgency.

“The difference is this is a place where there were already people,” he said, speaking in Spanish. “The faster you build the better, because families can get back into their homes.”

It’s unclear exactly how many Latino construction workers are involved in the rebuild effort.

Allen said Latinos comprise about 80 percent of APM Homes’ workforce. Keith Woods, CEO of North Coast Builders Exchange, said he’s heard local contractors put the overall share of Latinos in the rebuild at about 70 percent.

All agree Latinos play an outsized role in the housing recovery for Sonoma County, where 27 percent of the county’s 504,000 residents are Latino, according to U.S. Census estimates.

The concentration of Latinos in the construction industry is the result of recent demographic changes taking place in Sonoma County, said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. Latinos tend to be a younger cohort than the general population.

During the recession, many longtime construction workers either retired or moved away for opportunities elsewhere, Stone said. Some went into other fields, such as the tech industry, he said.

The Latino workforce, he said, is a “critical component for homebuilding.”

Woods said the construction industry has become highly dependent on the Latino community for workers.

“I hear constantly from our Builders Exchange members that the work ethic and willingness to learn new skills that their Latino workers display make them a critical part of the industry’s present and future,” Woods said in an email.

As recently as the late 1990s, most workers in the local home building industry were white, said Allen, whose father was a construction superintendent for Condiotti Enterprises, the “grandparent company” of APM Homes. The shift toward more Latinos occurred with the change in the county’s overall demographics, he said.

“There’s really no difference, whether its white or Hispanic,” he said. “All people in general, they want to be happy and prosperous. ... If you actually sit down and talk to people, all of us are pretty much the same.”

The vast majority of Latino workers in the rebuild are not unionized, according to local labor and economic justice advocates. Marty Bennett, labor co-chair with North Bay Jobs with Justice, estimates that no more than 30 percent of the hours worked at rebuild sites are union labor.

Union organizers would like to change that. The North Bay Labor Council is promoting a 120-hour pre-apprenticeship program to train a new generation of union construction workers. The North Bay Trades Introduction Program makes apprenticeships in the trades more accessible to people without related work experience or a union connection, said Christy Lubin, director of the Graton Day Labor Center, which is affiliated with the North Bay Labor Council. Priority is given to women, people from disadvantaged backgrounds and veterans.

Back at the job site last Wednesday, Joel Calderon and his two-person crew take a lunch break shortly after noon, sitting on the porch of the home on Kerry Lane. His brother, Eliseo, opens a blue cooler and pulls out burritos made of egg chilaquiles, beans and rice. Joel himself cooks a daily lunch for the crew.

The Calderons speak proudly of their deepening roots in Sonoma County. Their father, Antonio Calderon, was a “brazero,” or laborer, who for years during the 1960s and early 1970s traveled between Sonoma County and his parents’ small town of Tlazazalca, in the north of the Mexican state of Michoacán.

When the elder Calderon grew weary of traveling back and forth, he decided to bring his wife and eight children to Sebastopol, where he was a foreman at an apple orchard.

“He said, ‘You know what, I’m bringing everyone.’ Back then it was an easy procedure,” Joel Calderon said, referring to the county’s immigration process.

He said that his father applied for legal residency for his wife and children in January 1973 and it was granted by May of the same year. The Calderon brothers were 14 at the time and by the late 1980s both had become journeymen carpenters.

Joel Calderon, who owns a rental home in Santa Rosa, now lives with his family in another home in Windsor. He said Sonoma County is more a home than his native Mexico, which he hasn’t visited since his father died 18 years ago.

“All of us siblings are here now,” he said, adding that his brother, Victor Calderon, is the owner of La Hacienda Mexican Restaurant in Cloverdale.

When the Tubbs fire roared through northern Santa Rosa, Calderon knew there would be a lot of work rebuilding homes. But like many others, his first reaction was one of horror.

“I thought of evacuating but I didn’t want to clog the highways,” he said. “I wanted to leave the roads to those who really needed to use them.”

Calderon said he feels a great deal of pride and satisfaction to see homes rising in burned areas like Coffey Park. The owners often come around to see the work being done. They get to know the workers, he said.

“It’s beautiful to give them the keys to their house,” he said. “I think next week we’ll hand over another two homes.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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