Students build their futures with brick and mortar

HARLINGEN — The sounds of scraping and grinding filled the air as Elias Herrera scooped mortar and smoothed it on a layer of brick.

The calm demeanor with which the Harlingen High School senior worked underplayed the major success he had just achieved this past weekend at the District 13 Leadership and Skills Conference.

The event at Texas State Technical College was part of SkillsUSA Texas. The organization is a partnership of students, teachers and industry working together to ensure America has a skilled work force.

Elias and four other students of Victor Santillan placed at the contest.

“I worked better and better to get ready for the competition,” said Elias, 17. “I just practiced every day. I worked on speed.”

Santillan, masonry instructor, was proud of his students. In his 28 years of teaching, 14 of his students have won the state competition. He’s looking forward to taking this year’s selection to the state competition April 6 in Corpus Christi.

“We have one of the finest masonry programs in the Valley,” he said.

While the course is masonry, its technical term is “Construction Technology,” the same name of the class in which the students competed Saturday. Other events included auto body, computer maintenance, graphic arts and media tech.

The masonry part of the competition was actually held at Santillan’s shop. Masonry contestants had four hours to complete a project. Those entries, small structures of brick and mortar, had to be level and straight, among other criteria.

He picked up a level and stood it next to Elias’s structure and across the top. The bubble in the level sat suspended perfectly in the middle.

To the untrained eye, the projects looked the same. However, upon close examination by expert judges, details revealed imperfections that could prove disastrous.

So conscious was Jackie Medina of these details she actually tore down her project after laying two courses — or layers — of brick and started over — this while under the pressure of finishing everything in four hours.

So diligent was Jackie, 18, on the quality of her work that judges initially tied her with Elias’s work.

“The third judge made the difference and broke the tie,” Santillan said.

He gestured toward Elias and added, “He got it.”

Second isn’t so bad. She’s still going to state. Quite an accomplishment in any case, especially so when you consider she stumbled onto the craft by accident. She needed an elective and masonry popped up out of nowhere.

“The counselor gave it to me,” said Jackie, a junior.

She looked at her project, pride sweeping into her eyes. She’s thinking of pursuing the trade as a profession.

“I didn’t think I was going to be that good,” she said. “I am a really hands-on person.”