This Is What It’s Like To Be A Latina Ironworker Living In New York

credit: Ambra Melendez / Facebook

Ambra Melendez works in a field largely dominated by men. On any given day, the ironworker whose father came from Puerto Rico can be found amidst a blaze of sparks and steel working side by side with men in hard hats who, like her, grind away at a trade that she’s fallen in love with. In her eleven year career as an ironworker, Melendez has worked on massive projects like the World Trade Center Transportation Hub and the Gowanus Expressway. When I call her up on a Wednesday evening, the Queens, New York-native has just gotten back from a long shift working on a man bridge that will cross the Long Island railroad.

In spite of the laborious work, and in part because of it, Melendez says even though it’s tiring she loves her job. At least, most days.

CREDIT: Ambra Melendez / Facebook

“There are days that I hate it. Where I’m in pain or my boss is being a jerk or I’m just not having a good day,” Melendez says her voice a bit fatigued. “But for the most part, I love what I do. I really do. I wish that I was easier and it that there weren’t so [personalities] that get in the way you know but I love it. I don’t think I would do anything else.”

Melendez has been doing ironwork since she was 27 years old. It was a career that she had been drawn to six years earlier when she was close to turning 21. At the time, she had just given birth to her daughter and her mother, a Masters graduate from Colombia University, wanted Melendez to get her act lined up. “My mom gave me six months to kind of get my stuff together, so at the time I was looking into trade school because that was a quick way to do it,” Melendez explains with a matter-of-factness. In the years leading up to her decision, Melendez had tried her best to go the conventional job route. She worked a desk job, tried to be a receptionist, but it just didn’t stick.

“I did get a desk job, it wasn’t for a lack of trying,” She says with a laugh. “I tried to do what they say you’re supposed to do. In high school, I was in a program where you worked one week and the other week you went to school. For my last year, I was working in an office and I was wearing dress pants, suits, things like that to work so I knew what the atmosphere was about and it never really worked for me.”

Twenty-one, a new mother, and pressed to meet her own mother’s deadline, Melendez surveyed her options and quickly found a 6-month welding program at a trade school in New York. Soon after she finished, she started working construction and eventually found her way into welding and ironwork. Both are trades that have led her to a career that she takes very seriously. Even if, oftentimes, she feels the men on her jobs fail to lend her work a similar regard or respect.

In every job that she has had as an ironworker, Melendez says she is mostly surrounded by men.

CREDIT: Ambra Melendez / Facebook

On her current project of building a man bridge, Melendez is one woman in a crew of four guys. It’s assignments like this, where she’s largely outnumbered by men and machismo behaviors that she itches for a more balanced field. “It’s really nice to have more women. I feel like when you have more women in the field the men behave a little better. They’re a little more decent. It shifts a little bit when it’s not just one woman. You kind of get power by being there together,” Melendez admits before recalling moments at worksites that ranged from inappropriate to abusive.

“I was talking to somebody today — some guy asked about me or somebody was speaking out me and some other guys said ‘oh she slept with this guy’ and mind you I never even ever but… every time like you spend more time with someone or they mentor you or you partner with them and have lunch with them, the guys sort of say oh she’s screwing him or something,” She says with exasperation. “There’s things like that… that sort of happen, it’s not okay but no one is standing up and standing up about it.”

Melendez says that the gender disparity on job sites is one of the greatest drawbacks of her work.

CREDIT: Ambra Melendez / Facebook

Melendez says that oftentimes women in her field are faced with basic issues that male managers of sites never consider because the solutions, which have been geared towards men, are already there for the majority of the team. Issues, Melendez says, can be as simple as having access to bathrooms and full body harnesses but are often turned into full-blown problems. Particularly when job site managers refuse to provide accommodations.

“I’m not trying to be special but all women need [certain accommodations]. All women need it and from the minute they get on the job site every woman should have it even if there’s only one woman. Don’t say ‘there’s only one woman on the job she doesn’t need [special treatment] Yes she does she needs someplace else to change. She shouldn’t have to walk in on a guy changing and see his penis. That happened to me. That should never happen and I should never have to share a [private space] with guys.”

Still, despite the frustrations of the job, Melendez says she could not imagine herself doing anything else.

“You have to be really resilient you have to be able to deal with things changing every day every minute every second and you have to be able to solve the problems and it’s not necessarily about lifting and being all brawny. It’s not. It’s not anything like that. It’s about ‘how smart are you?’ and ‘how can you figure out a way to do this so that it doesn’t kill anybody in a way that doesn’t cost a whole lot of money to do it?’ and ‘can you get it done willingly?’ To be a fierce ironworker I like to say that I’m a problem solver I’m a leader.”


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