Mexican Food

Feasting with Construction Workers in Mexico City

On Día del albañil—Construction Workers' Day—I shared tacos with laborers while they got a much-needed break.

by Memo Bautista
30 May 2016, 1:00pm

Felix and Mario have strong, muscled arms. Carrying around concrete and sandbags, along with all the other activities related to construction work, has really helped strengthen their bodies. However, that strength is not present when they eat their tacos: they place their hands down delicately, as if they were to caress them, making sure their contents don't spill out from their sides.

It's not often that they get the chance to eat like this, though, without having to rush back to work at the construction site of the new condos located in the Colonia Condesa neighborhood in Mexico City. Today the lunch is on the company, and they are being treated to barbacoa, consome, and carnitas tacos. It's May 3, also known as Día del albañil or "Construction Worker's Day" in Mexico.

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Carnitas and barbacoa tacos to celebrate Construction Worker's Day in Mexico. All photos by the author.

"We usually just have a barbecue," Ricardo Perez tells me. "We get steaks, sausages, nopales and just eat here. People come over and serve themselves."

I remember when I was a kid and they were putting the roof up on my aunt's house. The construction workers got all the wood used at the site and started a fire with it. They would then put a grill on top of it and carefully cook chiles and onions with a pinch of salt and pepper. Another one was in charge of cutting potatoes and getting some pulque to share. Another one was in charge of making the tortillas. Once the onions started to look transparent, they'd add the sliced sausages and the pork ribs. Once the meat was ready, each of the workers got a tortilla, and made their taco with sausage, potatoes, and caramelized onions. I still remember the smoky aroma coming from the combination of the oil, sweet onions, meat, and wood.

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Contruction Worker's Day being celebrated at a condominium construction site in the Condasa neighborhood of Mexico City.

Ricardo recalls a different version of this day: "Usually a lot of people bring something to share. Anyone can come in and get anything they feel like eating, like chicharron or potatoes, or bean and egg tacos. Then you can try the food coming from different families. Some of them like spices; others like more simple kinds of food. Some bring ham; others, cheese."

However, these kind of gatherings are no longer that common, at least not at the biggest job sites. Because of safety measures, they no longer allow to start fires inside the construction sites, and the workers are generally assigned an area to eat, like a makeshift cafeteria that's later dismantled once the work there is done.

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Don Mario in the makeshift cafeteria of the construction site.
albañil-4 A crucifix used for the Holy Cross day—or Construction Worker's Day—made by the workers with leftover materials.

Outside of the cafeteria where Ricardo works with 50 other people, including architects, engineers, topographers, machine operators, and construction workers, there's a small, improvised altar with three wooden crucifixes and few plastic flower pots made out of leftover plastic bottles.

"That crucifix over there is the oldest one," Ricardo tells me, showing me one that's around 50 centimeters long and made out of wood. "That one it's been with us in, like, four other construction sites. It's a tradition. People say: 'It give us good luck, it's a blessing for our work, we haven't had any accidents for a while.' You need to remain faithful, and that's what the crucifix is for."

What usually happens is that the construction workers make a crucifix out of the leftover materials from their workplace—which is either wood or steel rods. Sometimes it depends on the skills of each particular worker—carpenters will use wood, steel workers use steel—and then they hang it in a special place where they can go to pray during their workday. Sometimes someone brings it back home or takes it with them to their next job.

There are many legends and stories that explain the special relationship between these craft crucifixes and the construction workers that make them. One of them says that Empress Elena, mother of Emperor Constantine during the Roman Empire, wanted to find the cross where Jesus Christ died. She then took a few construction workers with her to Mount Calvary to build a pagan temple. It's said that they finally found the relic under some debris on May 3, 292. This episode was considered a miracle and turned the Empress into a saint, who is now known as Saint Elena of the Holy Cross.

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Before sitting to eat, the workers go to get their blessing at a ceremony conducted by a priest.

It's important to notice that this holiday is only celebrated in Mexico. It was during colonial times that Friar Pedro de Gante promoted the cult of the Holy Cross among construction workers. However, Heriberto Ramirez Dueñas, a historian with the National Institute of Anthropology and History, says that this holiday has its roots in a ritual that pre-Hispanic people performed to celebrate the agricultural cycle. They celebrated it in May to ask the gods for rain and for good harvests. In 1958, Pope John XXIII removed the holiday from the Catholic calendar, but the Mexican episcopate asked to keep it because construction workers in Mexico were still following this tradition.

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The vicar offers his blessing during the celebration.
albañil-9 Workers give thanks to the Holy Cross for their work and lack of accidents.

Around 1 PM, a skinny 30-year-old priest arrives and all the workers gather around him.

Once the ceremony comes to an end, they step into the cafeteria. They sit around the plastic tables. For a moment, it seems as if we are in one of those Mexican roadside restaurants where truck drivers stop to eat quesadillas, gorditas, and mushroom soup or baked chamorro.

Since today is Construction Worker's Day, the bosses are the ones serving the dishes. They brought some barbecue from a street stall that's usually on the corner of Veracruz and Pachuca streets on the weekends. This is not just any meat, though; it comes from Capulhuac, the barbecue kingdom of Mexico State.

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Barbecued meat to celebrate Construction Worker's Day.

The party starts. "Don't take my picture while I'm serving or else my wife is going to complain that I don't do the same at home," jokes one of the supervisors. They are serving generous portions and the flavors are simply amazing. You can get any one of the ingredients in your first bite, from the hoja santa to the maguey. However, the main prize goes to the pork belly and the spiced grilled entrails. The fat coming out of it and sliding down your face is what makes your mouth water even before you take the first bite. They are so tasty; you don't even need to add any salt to these.

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Barbecue tacos.
albañil-2 Félix, sitting in the makeshift cafeteria.

"It's a bit tricky to cook pork belly," young Felix tells me. "You probably won't believe me, but I sometimes bring the water all the way from my house to cook it. It's seems simple but the water influences the flavor a lot. I also drink it sometimes, but the only thing that really quenches my thirst is this," he says while pointing at a glass filled with Coca-Cola.

One would think that Don Mario is the one with the most experience, but as it turns out, Felix is the one who started to work in construction ten years ago. "My dad is also a construction worker. He taught me everything and since I didn't want to study, I started to work with him. I like it because it's a profession that's been around since the very beginning of human history." The kid really seems to know what he's talking about. He doesn't hesitate and pronounces each word with great clarity. "It's also something that will always be around. Men are always building, always making new things, coming up with new buildings, and remodeling old ones. And I really like all of this."

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The cafeteria during the Holy Cross celebration.

All of a sudden Don Mario gets up from the table. He rushes to get his helmet and starts to go in the direction of the construction site. A life in the army really seems to have shaped his habits. One of the topographers asks him where he's going. Felix doesn't stand up but manages to stop him with a good point: "Get some time to rest and digest the food first. I always tell my wife: 'I like to sit down and have a normal meal.' To sit like we are now. I don't like eating standing up at a food stall."

And he does really have a point. They don't often have the chance to stay for a while and talk after lunchtime. Besides, today is Construction Worker's Day and they're getting their afternoon off.

This article originally appeared in Spanish on MUNCHIES ES.