Cristina Tzintzún

For supporting the safety and dignity of Texas’ undocumented workers. Essay by Jose Antonio Vargas

The daughter of a Mexican immigrant and the granddaughter of a Bracero (so named for a guest worker program in the United States from 1942 to 1964), Cristina Tzintzún, 31, is an American citizen who sees the impact of immigrant rights as an issue close to home: Her younger stepsister is one of the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. As a result, she is a voice and a force addressing a civil rights issue that’s particularly relevant to the South today.

“The truth is, Texas and other states heavily rely on undocumented labor,” says Tzintzún. The Lone Star State, where she moved 10 years ago, is home to the second-largest undocumented population in the country, second to California. Many take construction jobs, and in a state that accounted for 16% of construction permits in the U.S. in 2011 (more than Florida and California combined), this work force is desperately needed. Still, half of the state’s nearly 1 million construction workers have no papers.

Fighting for compassion and awareness, Tzintzún leads the Austin, Texas-based Workers Defense Project (WDP), one  of the most established worker centers in the South. Founded in 2002, WDP is a nonprofit organization devoted to improving the working conditions of low-income and undocumented workers.

Through education and advocacy, Tzintzún, who is also a member of FuturoFund, an Austin-based philanthropic group that serves the Latino community, seeks to protect these workers. In addition to offering basic classes (English, computer literacy, leadership development), Tzintzún and the WDP are helping laborers fight for their paychecks (one in four undocumented workers experiences wage theft) and informing them about their right to safe conditions in the workplace. According to the WDP-University of Texas study “Building Austin, Building Injustice,” Texas is ranked the most deadly place to work in construction in the country.

Thanks to these largely unsung efforts, Tzintzún is one of the necessary heroines of the New South. “We need to protect the hardworking immigrants who are helping build our country,” she says. “It’s a matter of dignity for all workers.”

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the founder of DefineAmerican.com, Vargas is also the writer and director of Documented, a personal documentary on immigration.