Houston

Identification: Largest and most cosmopolitan city in Texas

Significance: Often thought of as a “boomtown” of recent origin, Houston is actually comparatively old by American urban standards. It has become a major economic center of the United States and sports a panoply of communities reflecting trends in immigration throughout American history, from a large and longstanding Hispanic presence to new arrivals from West Africa. Houston is in the top five of American cities in regard to the number of businesses owned and run by Hispanics.

The fourth most populous city in the United States, Houston was home to roughly 2,200,000 people in 2009. Of these, approximately 38 percent were Hispanic, mostly people of Mexican origin. Because Texas shares a long frontier with Mexico and was once part of that country, Houstonians of Mexican background, as with Texans in general, may be either recent immigrants, the descendents of people who fled north during periods of political unrest or financial instability in Mexico during the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, or members of families who have resided in the area for centuries. In addition to Hispanics of Mexican background, some Hispanics in Houston are of Cuban, Puerto Rican, and South American descent. Almost onehalf million illegal immigrants are estimated to live in the Houston area. Most of them are of Hispanic background, but many are of Asian origin.

Much smaller in numbers than the Hispanic presence, though certainly prominent and vital, is the Asian community of Houston. The first Asians to come to Houston were the Chinese, who arrived during the early 1870’s to work on local railroad lines. The number of Chinese in the city remained small until the 1960’s, when political upheavals in China—from the Cultural Revolution of that decade on the mainland to the return of Hong Kong to the Beijing government in the late 1990’s—led to increased emigration from China.

By the year 2000, almost 25,000 people of Chinese descent lived in Houston. A complexity of immigrant ethnic identity is highlighted by the use of the term “Chinatown” in Houston. Two different regions of the city have been labeled, both officially and unofficially, as “Chinatowns.” The more important of these is a long strip along Bellaire Boulevard where many Chinese businesses, shops, churches, and homes are found. However, the American concept of “Chinatown,” derived both from examples in other cities and from popular culture such as films, tends to be one of a tightly defined ethnic enclave in which Chinese Americans both live and work. The Bellaire strip in Houston contradicts this concept in significant ways: First, although there are some homes along the Chinatown strip, businesses predominate there. Second, a number of these businesses are owned and operated by both non-Asians and Asians of other ethnicities, such as Indians, Koreans, Japanese, and Vietnamese. These latter ethnic groups are also prominent in Houston, especially Indians and Vietnamese. In fact, Houston has the third-largest Vietnamese community in the United States, with approximately 33,000 residents at the turn of the twenty-first century.

A small but growing immigrant group in Houston is that of Nigerians. The city’s Nigerian community, estimated at 40,000 residents, is one of the largest in the United States. In 2003, the largenumbers of Nigerians in Houston who were involved in energy-related enterprises prompted Lee Brown in 2003 to visit West Africa to establish closer ties between that region’s petroleum industries and those in Houston.

Thomas Du Bose

Further Reading

  • Borjas, George J. Mexican Immigration to the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 
  • Powell, William Dylan. Houston Then and Now. San Diego, Calif.: Thunder Bay Press, 2003. 
  • Siegel, Stanley. Houston: A Chronicle of the Bayou City. Sun Valley, Calif.: American Historical Press, 2005. 

See also: African immigrants; Asian immigrants; Chinese immigrants; Dallas; Empresario land grants in Texas; Illegal immigration; Mexican immigrants; Texas; Vietnamese immigrants.

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