Celebrating a rich past, present, and future

As the largest ethnic group in the region, Houston’s Hispanic community has left an indelible impression in our communities — both past and present. From indigenous roots spanning the Americas and those with African ancestry, to early Spanish-speaking settlers and present-day community pillars, Houstonians who identify as Hispanic/Latino have shaped our region in fundamental and invaluable ways.

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we’ll explore Houston’s multifaceted Hispanic/Latino community through data, history and what current leaders are doing to keep the community’s legacy thriving throughout our region.

To me, Houston is the most dynamic city for Latinos in Texas. Not only have they been present since the city’s founding, but the community is constantly being strengthened by new arrivals who bring fresh energy, skills and perspectives. Hispanics in Houston introduce vibrant foods, music and cultural scenes. They integrate quickly into the economy and interact daily with other racial and ethnic groups. While many inequalities and challenges persist, this is a place where Latinos come to set roots, to grow, and to thrive.

– Dr. Cecilia Ballí, an anthropologist and Visiting Scholar at the University of Houston’s Center for Mexican American Studies

The Hispanic/Latino population in Houston

Greater Houston is home to one of the nation’s largest Hispanic populations, numbering more than 2.3 million people (38%) throughout the region. 

Hispanics are most likely to live in Harris County, where they comprise 42% of the population. In 1980, only 41 years ago, Hispanics made up only 15% of the county’s population. Both in Greater Houston and throughout the state, the Hispanic population is projected to continue growing. According to the Texas Demographic Center, the Hispanic/Latino1 population in Texas is projected to reach 12.3 million by 2022 — becoming the largest ethnic group in the state. By 2030, the population is expected to reach 14.5 million. Let’s take a look at how the Hispanic/Latino community has shaped —and will continue to shape — the Houston we know and love. 

Houston’s Latino community is diverse

Because the general terms “Hispanic” or ”Latino” are used to describe a group of people who originate from a wide variety of Spanish-speaking or Latin American countries, and who understand their identity in different ways, the diversity within that broad group can often go unnoticed. Houston’s Hispanic/Latino population is not a monolith and can trace its heritage to many different countries and indigenous tribes. 

Moreover, many people whose ancestors identified as Hispanic/Latino, may not describe themselves that way. According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanic self-identification varies across immigrant generations. Among people who report Hispanic ancestry, almost all the foreign born identify as Hispanic, whereas only half of those who are fourth generation Hispanic/Latino Americans or higher do.

While a majority of Houston’s Hispanic population originates from Mexico, we find incredible diversity among all residents of Hispanic/Latino origin as well as among those with Mexican and Indigenous ancestry. As such, Mexican Texans, also known as “Tejanos,” have a long history in the state and in our region. 

Dr. Jesus Jesse Esparza, an Assistant Professor of History at Texas Southern University, showcases the past and present of Houston’s Mexican American community in his piece La Colonia Mexicana: A History of Mexican Americans in Houston

The end of the Texas Revolution in the mid-1830s marked a significant turning point in Mexican-American settlement in Houston and the booming economy and culture we celebrate today. Areas of early settlement, including Segundo Barrio in the Second Ward and Magnolia Park Neighborhood in the East End, quickly became hotspots for the community to grow. 

Magnolia Park in particular –– named after the beautiful magnolia trees that line the neighborhood –– became the city’s largest Mexican-American community and was given the nickname “Little Mexico.” Mexican-American residents of the Magnolia Barrio, as it was called, worked on dredging the Houston Ship Channel in the early 1910’s. The important role Mexican Americans played in deepening the Channel allowed larger cargo ships to enter the port, which is why the Port of Houston is consistently the largest in the nation (measured by domestic and foreign waterborne tonnage) and contributes an estimated $339 billion in economic value to the state of Texas.

Houston’s Mexican-American population established a variety of social, cultural, religious, and political organizations that advocated for the community and paved the way for its residents to thrive. From the Second Ward came Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, the first Mexican-American church in Houston and the first religious institution to offer services in Spanish. This church also ran one of the earliest schools for Mexican-American children in the region and provided food and shelter to those in the community.

From even before Houston’s founding to today, Mexican Americans have been and continue to be the largest Hispanic group in our region, and cultural staples such as civil rights organizations, theatre companies, and art exhibits that were established around the 1980s still exist and thrive in present-day Houston.

“Houston is so blessed with the richness of our Hispanic Heritage and our multifaceted cultures. This vast Texas city of opportunity coupled with warm Texas hospitality, kindness and charm make Houston, in my opinion, the greatest city in the world. Our fusion of flavor, color, music, and art are the spice that makes Houston so desirable and unique.
In one family gathering, which because of our heritage are quite often, we easily represented Cuban, Mexican, Panamanian, Nicaraguan, Argentinean, Costa Rican, Dutch and Spanish cultures—and this is just the beginning. Our people, history, warmth and love are the greatest assets to our city and to our future.”

– Mayte Sera Weitzman, 2021 President and Board Chair, Institute of Hispanic Culture of Houston

Houston’s Latino community has supported our economy for decades

The passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 established a new immigration policy based on reuniting immigrant families and attracting skilled labor to the United States. This policy change enabled thousands of people from Latin American, Asian, and African countries to move into the Houston region, causing a population boom that has propelled our economy into one of the largest in the nation today. As sociologist Stephen Klineberg has written, “No city has benefited more from immigration than Houston, Texas.” This population boom also paved the way for our metropolitan area to be one of the most ethnically diverse places in the nation and one of only four with a Latino plurality.2 

“As a life-long resident of the greater Houston area, I have seen a tremendous amount of impact from our Latino population. But it hasn’t always been easy for Latinos. Everything I do today, including in my community work around housing and education, is in remembrance of the role models my parents were. They were extremely humble but extremely loving. They worked hard to instill a strong work ethic and to provide for our family and my education. They loved life despite the hardships. My parents are my inspiration, but so many successful Houston Latinos continue to lead the way as well and should absolutely be celebrated. I’m proud of my heritage and culture and aspire to relay that to the younger generation.”

Laura Jaramillo, Greater Houston Community Foundation Board Member

While immigration is central to the story of Houston, some make the mistake of believing that most people of Hispanic origin are recent immigrants or newcomers. In fact, as of 2019, the majority of Hispanic/Latino residents in our region were born in the U.S. (61%). And, about half of Hispanic residents that were born outside the U.S. have been in the country since before the year 2000. Only about 20-26% entered the U.S. in 2010 or after.

Hispanic/Latino workers are integral to Houston’s workforce and economic growth. In addition to participating in the labor force at higher rates than the overall region3, Hispanic workers continue to fill critical workforce gaps in labor-short industries such as agriculture, construction, and healthcare, according to bipartisan research from New American Economy

Latinos comprise 35% of the Houston metro-area labor force, but hold 62% of jobs in construction, extraction and maintenance, 47% in service, and 45% in production and transportation, according to research from the University of Houston’s Center for Mexican American Studies (CMAS). These jobs tend to pay less than the regional average and were among the sectors hit the hardest during the pandemic. It is not surprising then that Hispanic households have experienced the highest rates of job and income loss since COVID-19 forced shutdowns.

Educating the region’s future workforce

Educational attainment rates for Latinos as a whole tend to lag that of other groups, despite recent improvements. The share of Latino adults in the region with at least a high school diploma has increased from 44% in 2000 to 63% in 2017. More recent data shows that nearly two-thirds of Latino adults have at least a high school diploma or equivalent in 2019.

There are differences in the levels of education between Latinos who are foreign born versus native born, and even among the foreign born as well. For example, 12% of Hispanic immigrants in the three-county region have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 20% of Hispanic adults born in the U.S. 4 Research from CMAS found that recent Latino immigrants are more likely to be better educated than those who arrived before them. For example, 27% of immigrants who have arrived in the last five years have a bachelor’s degree or higher. For those who have been here for at least 11 years, that drops to less than 10%.

Access to quality education is critical to maintaining a skilled workforce in our knowledge-based economy. However, nationally and locally, Hispanic students are five times more likely to attend a high-poverty school than white students, resulting in very unequal educational experiences. Given the fact that more than 575,000 Hispanic students are enrolled in the three-county region’s public schools (52%), our collective future success depends on the investments we make today. 

The civic and cultural contributions of Houston’s Hispanic/Latino community

Full citizenship is something one possesses as well as what one does. And, they are not mutually exclusive. While certainly not the only way, one of the most fundamental ways to exercise one’s citizenship is to vote. Hispanic voters are increasingly making up a larger share of the Texas electorate. Nearly 17 million adults in Texas were registered to vote in 2020, and the Census Bureau estimates about 30% of those are Hispanic/Latino. About 60% of Hispanic citizens in the Houston Metro Area were registered to vote in the 2020 Presidential election.

“Voting is learned through example, in the family and the community, and as larger numbers of Hispanics feel empowered to go to the polls, our share of the electorate will grow to properly represent our demographic size.”

– Dr. Cecilia Ballí, an anthropologist and Visiting Scholar at the University of Houston’s Center for Mexican American Studies  

Hispanic Houstonians have a strong history in civic leadership, whether leading the third-most-populous county in the nation, working toward educational equity, fighting for social and political justice, to promoting cultural food, music, and arts, their contributions enrich our community. Read about eleven Hispanic community leaders who are making a difference by visiting our Hispanic Heritage Month 2020 blog.

One notable Hispanic leader in the Greater Houston area is Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a native Colombian who moved to Houston at the age of 15. Judge Hidalgo is the first woman and the first Latina to be elected County Judge and the second to be elected to the Commissioners Court. For some time in 2019 and part of 2020, the Harris County Judge (Lina Hidalgo), Houston Police Chief (Art Acevedo), and Harris County Sheriff (Ed Gonzalez) were all Latino. 

“In 1955, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Council 60-members purchased a building on an odd-shaped parcel of land that became their “clubhouse” and the de facto national headquarters for LULAC until 1996. This clubhouse served as a launchpad for creating  transformational social programs for Houston’s Hispanic community in education, workforce development and housing.”

– Jesus Davila, Founder at Landing Advisors

Latinos have also played an instrumental part in building Houston’s strong reputation for incredible food and culture. The Original Ninfa’s was started as a small taco stand by Maria Ninfa Rodríguez Laurenzo, a Mexican-American woman, in 1973. “Mama Ninfa” is widely credited with popularizing fajitas among Houstonians. Chefs and restaurateurs, David and Michael Cordúa elevated the profile of Latin American cuisine in Houston through famous establishments like Américas and Churrascos. Irma Galvan and Hugo Ortega, helped put Houston on the culinary map with Irma’s and Hugo’s, Caracol and Xochi. On the art scene, Colombian-American, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, became Houston’s first Latino music director for the Houston Symphony in 2014, and Venezuelan Karina Gonzalez is Houston’s first Latina Principal Ballerina.

In addition to notable leaders, incredible organizations in the region work to preserve the culture, history and language of Hispanic communities, particularly the collaborative effort to establish a major Latino cultural center in our region.

The Institute of Hispanic Culture of Houston is a local nonprofit organization that serves the Hispanic community through educational, cultural, and networking activities in collaboration with other Houston organizations and universities to keep the vibrant culture alive. Located in the East End, Talento Bilingüe de Houston is a bilingual, non-profit cultural center that strives to enhance Houston’s Latino arts experience through collaboration, education. and preservation. Not only do they provide workshops and exhibits to enrich the Hispanic/Latino community, but they aim to spread their passions with the rest of the Greater Houston area.

One of the largest cultural organizations in Houston, the Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts, or MECA, still exists today thanks to the vision, passion, and dedication to community and youth of Alice Valdez. Read more about her decades of impact. 

Casa Ramirez Folkart Gallery is not just a gallery. This vibrant shop on 19th Street showcases Mexican and Latin folk and art works, sells books on cooking, culture, and language for children, and is a community pillar for teaching cultural traditions. 

Finally, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston showcases the Latin American Art collection that hosts a vast collection of modern and contemporary art with more than 550 works from Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and works by Latino artists in the United States.

Celebrating a rich past, present, and future 

In no uncertain terms, the greater Houston region would not be where it is today without the presence, perspectives and contributions of members from our Hispanic/Latino community. As a vital part of our region’s history and future, Latinos in Houston continue to enrich and better our region in countless ways that we celebrate today. 

Check out special events from Hispanic Houston, Institute of Hispanic Culture of Houston, and attend a free special Fiesta Sinfónica concert at Jones Hall on October 2. Read about the nominees of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s 2021 Hispanic Heritage Awards and hear more from notable leaders themselves. Happy Hispanic Heritage Month!

Photo credit: The Heritage Society

References:

1Understanding Houston utilizes the U.S. Census term, “Hispanic,” “Latino” or “Hispanic/Latino” when referring to the overall population. For the purposes of this article, we will use these terms interchangeably depending on the nomenclature used in our cited sources.

2Understanding Houston analysis of the 20 most populous Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA) from the U.S. Census Bureau, 2019 American Community Survey data. Other MSAs with a Latino plurality include (in descending order): Riverside MSA, Miami MSA, and Los Angeles MSA. Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX (MSA) is a region that includes the following counties: Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Montgomery, and Waller.

3Analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 2019 American Community Survey.

4Understanding Houston analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 2019 American Community Survey, 5-year estimates, Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) for the population 25 years and older.

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