Editor's note: In this continuation of Construction Dive's series examining racism in construction, we share the stories of people of color who have built prosperous careers in the industry despite hurdles put in their way.
Leon Araiza fought his way into the construction industry. A Native American, Araiza’s lineage includes the Apache and Azteka peoples on his mother’s side, as well as Southern Paiute and Yaqui ancestors on his father’s.
Araiza said it was around the third grade that he noticed his skin was different from the other students.
“I don't like this part of it, but I remember I would scrub myself in the shower extra hard, thinking that maybe if I washed up, I would someday look like my friends,” Araiza said. “I didn’t understand that I was different.
He initially liked school until the unit on American frontier history. “I did really well up until the time where I was being taught that early settlers got here and were met by savages, murderers, rapists and thieves,” Araiza said.
That’s around the time he started getting in fights, which eventually led him to boxing, which turned out to be his entry into the construction trades. One of his boxing coaches was a carpenter, who took him under his wing to start teaching him the craft.
Later, during his apprenticeship, the journeymen who were supposed to be mentoring him instead threatened to throw his “Indian ass” off a roof for not moving fast enough. He was subjected to derogatory terms on the job such as “prairie n----r” and “wagon burner.”
After he launched his own business, he said a White tradesman on a school jobsite told two of his Native American employees that they should have learned to “scalp better” while ripping the wig off a mannequin in a display case.
Today, Araiza is the owner of Advanced Tribal, LLC, and self-performs concrete, rough carpentry and finish carpentry, as well as specialty work including building bike racks and lockers in commercial education construction. He’s been certified as a Minority Business Enterprise as well as a small disadvantaged business under the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) program.
He said he’s been subjected to his share of racist discrimination in the trades, including unconscious bias when inspectors come to his jobsites and initially reach out to his White employees to announce their presence, instead of him as the owner.
But he’s also passionate to emphasize that he doesn’t apply a victim mentality to his business or his life.
“I try real hard not to fall into that psychological or mental state, because the more you allow yourself to feel like a victim, the more that becomes your energy, and you become that,” Araiza said. “At the end of the day, you can’t prove a lot of it, so where does that get you?”
Araiza shares a perspective that many people of color expressed for this series: That it’s challenging for White Americans to truly understand what it is like to be discriminated against for the color of one’s skin.
“It’s like talking to someone who was born blind, and trying to explain to them what a sunset looks like,” Araiza said. “They have nothing to compare it to. So how well can you communicate that?”
He said to combat racism in construction, there needs to be a cultural shift in society at large, because people don’t stop being who they are when they clock out of the job, and racism is pervasive. But he also said it's up to all people, White and those of color, to stand up to do something about it.
"Any racism on the jobsite goes further than jobsite activity," Araiza said. "We're all in this journey together to try to figure out how to make this a better place."