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The Surprising Intermingling of a Catholic Holiday with a Workers’ Celebration

Trabajadores

Ricardo Luna

By Jesus Aguado

In México, May 3 is a double holiday, a mix of the religious and the secular. Catholics celebrate it as Día de la Santa Cruz, but construction workers also celebrate it as Día del Albañil (Masonry Day)—not a legally-binding holiday, but one frequently observed in the construction industry with food, beverages, and entertainment provided by bosses, sometimes with extravagant outings for workers and their families.

In Catholicism, the day marks the date on which the Empress Elena of Constantinople, also known as St Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine and a Christian convert, is said to have found and excavated the cross the ancient Romans used to crucify Jesus Christ at Calvary.

In México’s secular life, May 3 is also the day dedicated to plumbers, carpenter, painters, and others who contribute in some form to construction projects. But even Dia del Albañil celebrations are to some degree infused in Catholic ritual. General contractors, architects, or foremen on construction sites typically build a large wooden cross, in imitation of the Holy Cross.

San Miguel de Allende is known because of its real state services. Property sale and rent is booming and also construction, and most of the construction workers come from one community: Alcocer.

A “seed community” for builders

Ricardo Luna, 28 years old and is from Alcocer, said that for him, this job is medium-sized, but he has been part of other sites that have had up to 120 workers per day. The medium sized jobs are the most interesting, he says, because everyone knows each other, coexists peacefully, and becomes friends.

Just like in the white-collar world, he said, the construction worker culture has everything to do with connections.

“We are all connected. If someone loses a job, we always know someone who needs help on some other construction site,” he said.

Luna, who was preparing the hydraulic installation of Quebrada 12B’s¾where a three-level condominium building is being constructed¾fountain, said that he learned “about everything” to do with construction jobs after he was given an opportunity, which he greatly appreciates. However, a job at the events rental site Hacienda los Picachos, where he built a greenhouse and then stayed on cultivating organic products, forever impacted him: his dream is to one day retire from construction and dedicate himself to organic farming. For now, he simply waits for the May 3 holiday, he says.

Día del Albañil

Even tough we may think both celebrations are mere coincidence in the dates, we can find its roots in the times of the conquest, when between the rural communities the Holy Cross was worshiped. Campesinos ask for miracles and gave thanks after the harvest. With the time the campesinos started working in construction but never lost they tradition to celebrate the Holy Cross.

In celebration of this worker’s holiday, masons often make visits to churches and give thanks for the work that occupies them. The cross is brought to Mass, where a priest blesses it, and then it is placed on the construction site at the highest point, or sometimes on façade of the building in progress. Then the party begins.

 

Food, drinks, mingling, partying, and entertainment mark the rest of the holiday’s celebrations, since it’s a day of rest. Activities vary, depending on the size of the construction job and the number of workers involved. Some rent out a resort at the thermal waters or a spa and provide food and beverages for the workers and their families.

Not all comply with the holiday, however, as it is not legally obligatory. Some general contractors—depending on their sense of empathy with those “below” and their beliefs, customs, and traditions—give neither a party to workers, nor even a day of rest.

Albañiles building dreams

To mark Día del Albañil, we sent our reporter, Jesús Aguado, to a site at Quebrada 12B, where a three-level condominium building is being constructed. From the terrace, it is easy to see the common patio on the first floor, where albañiles Rodrigo, Carlos, Jacinto, Juan, Carlos, and Julio were designing the floor and a hydraulic system for a fountain.

Our reporter spoke not only with the site’s architect, real estate agent Cristi Agundis, but also with some of the employees who constructed the building from the ground up, those who have asked themselves, “Will it look attractive to the buyer or will it look strange to them? Will it look like the design or what we have seen in photos?” One penthouse condo in the building has already been sold, slated to be delivered next week, but workers continued to build the other units as they gave interviews.

They told us that they await May 3 with curiosity, saying they don’t know what Agundis or Ramiro, the foreman, has planned to mark the holiday.

Jose Gabriel Hernández, a worker onsite whose enthusiasm attracted our attention, is 20 years old. He does have shoes with steel toe protectors, but he carries no tape measure on his belt. He carries a pencil in the hood of his worn green sweatshirt. He’s originally from Alcocer, a small community in the city’s highlands with 1,200 residents, many of them young workers with skills in construction, painting, ironwork, and carpentry. Hernández is a high school graduate, but he found upon finishing high school that he had no interest in higher education. “It didn’t work for me,” he said with a laugh.

Before getting into construction, he worked at a vineyard at age 16, but then he realized the pay wasn’t enough. He went in search of work as a construction helper and found a job in the Mexiquito neighborhood. It was a strange experience at first, he said, because he didn’t even know how to mix cement. He learned as he worked.

What he most likes about the work is the fact that, with such a big and diverse team onsite, he can slowly witness dreams on paper becoming a reality. Hernández dreams big: he doesn’t want to stay as a helper all his life, he says. His ambition is to become a master builder and then a foreman. He likes the idea of being a supervisor and going from job to job.

Many construction workers here in San Miguel migrate north to the US to work on jobs—often illegally—for they see no legal way to do so. Texas is a reasonably close destination from San Miguel, and construction work in the US pays well enough—even to undocumented workers without legal papers—that it’s a way to make easy money to send home or to save up enough to get a bit ahead by living a life in the US with few luxuries.

Gabriel’s dreams are different. He says he probably wants to travel to the US, like everyone around him does, but he wants to do it legally. To do otherwise “is complicated,” he said.

A Raise from 1,600 to 2,800 pesos

We found Daniel Alberto Aguilar, 32, also from Alcocer, working on the construction site’s second floor. He spoke with us while installing 50-centimeter-square tiles. With a red construction worker’s pencil over his right ear—a tool needed to mark the floor—he wore the typical attire of a master tiler: a long-sleeved shirt, denim pants, and brown boots scratched by water and cement. On his belt, he carried a tape measure.

For half of his life, he has been involved in building construction in San Miguel. A complete builder, he knows about painting, electricity, plumbing, and working with bricks, flooring, and plaster. He began as a construction helper when he was 14. By 18, he was in the US, working in Austin, Texas, at what he knew—construction.

Two years later, his family convinced him to return to México. He got married here and now has two children.

Even though he loves construction work, and has improved his skills over time, he would like higher education opportunities for his children. He refers to construction work as noble and honest but also hard and tiring. He would not want his children to have to do the same work. True to his description, none of the workers we observed during our three-hour visit to this site ever took a break, perhaps because competition for jobs is fierce. While we spoke to Aguilar, someone showed up onsite, begging for paid work installing the building’s cantera (a type of volcanic rock used in Mexico for carving and cutting).

Aguilar is clear on one thing: he prefers to work for a daily wage rather than get paid by the job. When he was being paid by the job, “I was pressured and stressed, and things didn’t come out right. When you work per day, you do it at your rhythm and to perfection,” he said.

When Aguilar married his wife, he decided that he needed to learn more, and to move from helper to master of the craft. “One always needs to improve,” he said. “I needed money. A helper gets an average of 1,600 to 1,800 pesos per week; a builder with the responsibility to make sure everything goes well makes around 3,000 pesos.”

The Holy Cross

We asked Agundis about this day and she told us that Día de la Santa Cruz is a tradition brought over by Spanish Catholics during the colonial period, she said. Agundis believes the celebration of workers on this day grew in importance because of so much building going on during this era. The Catholic website ACI Prensa states that on May 3, 326, Saint Helena found the wooden cross on which Jesus was crucified.

“She identified the cross of the Lord by placing the body of a dead worker on it, and he resuscitated,” says the site. “After this discovery, pieces of the cross were taken all over the world.”

However, there are other speculations as well. Some say that the mixing of the two holidays goes back to the sixteenth century, when Captain Juan de Gijalva named Cozumel “la Isla de la Santa Cruz”.” The builders are said to have taken the celebration on as their own because of a legend about people in Tabasco who held a procession with a cross that always miraculously returned to its point of origin.

 

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