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Houston Chronicle (KRTBN)

Shift Seen in Houston's Hispanic Growth

By Lori Rodriguez, Houston Chronicle

August 17, 2003
Copyright ©2003 KRTBN Knight Ridder Tribune Business News. All rights reserved.

A changing of the guard at Houston's Hispanic Chamber of Commerce mirrors a profound demographic shift recorded by the last census as the Latino community here becomes increasingly international and foreign-born.

Longtime president and chief executive officer Richard Torres, a third-generation Mexican-American who reflects the historical chamber membership, has stepped down. In his place, the chamber board has named Carlos Lara, a former commercial attache for the Mexican government in Washington, D.C., as interim president; Lara could assume the permanent post.

Both men say the transition tracks the shifting demographics of the city's Hispanic community as the Mexican-American core rapidly broadens to include newcomers from across Latin America. These include not just the stereotypical poor immigrants, but an expanding cadre of wealthy, ambitious, well-educated and highly skilled entrepreneurs.

The new immigrants are rocking the economic and political status quo, and not without tension.

"Symbolically, if you look at Carlos Lara, he's a reflection of the new Hispanic business community in Houston," Torres says.

Two levels of immigrants are pumping new economic life into the central-city and suburban barrios as well as the mainstream, upper-echelon business establishment.

"There are those people who are very well educated in the United States or the good universities in their own countries, and they see the opportunities that we've been able to create through minority participation agreements and those kinds of things but also just through the North American Free Trade Agreement," Torres says.

"The second level are the mom-and-pop businesses. Typically these people know how to work very hard and are very enterprising, but they don't have as high a level of education as someone like Carlos Lara. It's the classic example of all new immigrants being able to see the opportunity here from a different perspective. That is really good for the city."

The growth and diversification of the "other Hispanics," or non-Mexican Hispanics, emerged as one of the major stories in the 2000 Census, and the trend continues unabated.

Between 1900 and 2000, the non-Mexican proportion of the state's Hispanic population more than doubled, from 10.3 percent to 24 percent. In Harris County, the number of Hispanics of both Mexican and non-Mexican origin both grew, but the proportion of Mexican Hispanics shrank from 80 percent to less than 73 percent, a drop mirrored across the area.

In Brazoria County, the proportion of "other Hispanics" jumped during the decade from less than 10 percent to nearly 23 percent; in Fort Bend County, from 16.3 percent to more than 31 percent; in Waller County, from 7.7 percent to 17.5 percent.

Mexican-origin Hispanics still dominate in Texas. But especially in the immigrant gateway urban centers such as Houston and Dallas, the growing Latino diversity promises dramatic changes for the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority.

Even as the newcomers have revitalized the traditional Hispanic community with their drive and the political capital of their numbers, a noticeable divide exists between the new immigrants and multigenerational Latinos.

A case in point: A few years ago, a group of immigrant businessmen who own carnicerias, taquerias and other storefront enterprises in the city's old and new barrios were being plagued by robberies. They appealed for help to the Hispanic chamber, which had nothing to offer. They then approached retired Houston Police Department Assistant Chief Art Contreras, and security measures were taken.

Comerciantes Latinos Unidos, or United Latino Merchants, was born and since has functioned as a sort of parallel chamber for immigrant-owned enterprises catering mainly to other new immigrants. Hispanic chamber meetings are conducted in English; Latinos Unidos meetings are in rapid-fire, first-generation Spanish.

There is some cross-pollination between the two groups; a few members belong to both and serve on both boards. But the spontaneous rise of Latinos Unidos speaks to the gap between the traditional Hispanic business community and the immigrant enterprises that have the greatest potential for growth.

In Houston, where Hispanics have supplanted Anglos as the largest ethnic group, the proportion of non-Mexican Hispanics jumped from 20.4 percent in 1990 to nearly 28 percent in 2000. In Austin, the percent of non-Mexican Hispanics nearly doubled during the last decade, to 23.3 percent from 12.7 percent; in Dallas, it grew to 17 percent from 12 percent.

"What's significant is that Hispanics have been in the 90 percent of Mexican origin for decades, and now we're seeing an abrupt shift and increasing diversification," said state demographer Steve Murdock of Texas A&M University. "These newcomers may have much more in common with other new immigrants than with Hispanics who have been here for generations."

Torres, who has served at the helm of the Hispanic chamber for 6 1/2 years, says he is stepping down from the high-pressure post to pursue new opportunities; a personal life would also be good, he adds. Others say there has been friction between Torres and the board over the chamber's direction.

The chamber was launched in 1976. On Torres' watch, its Political Action Committee, chaired by Puerto Rico-born attorney Edgar Colon, has become increasingly aggressive and high-profile; it endorsed Cuban-American Orlando Sanchez in the last mayoral election at a decidedly heated meeting.

Sanchez went on to take 75 percent of the Hispanic vote and is making another bid for the city's top job this fall. Mexican-American Democrats already are stirring against him.

Torres brought a decidedly political bent to the chamber table. A Texas A&M graduate who once served as chief of staff for Houston's first Hispanic councilman, Ben T. Reyes, Torres has been at the forefront of securing minority participation agreements in major public spending programs such as the new sports venues.

Since February, Torres has been assisting Lara in a radical transformation of the organization.

"It's really about looking into the future and determining how we can maintain the growth and stability of the chamber but also incorporate the needs of future members," Torres says. "It's kind of like knowing who your customers are. We had to really take a look at who those businesses are and where the future lies."

Newcomers such as Lara seem to be it. An urbane Mexico City native from a wealthy family, Lara has lived in the United States for 13 years, the last three in Houston. For nearly four years, he was Mexico's commercial attache at the Washington embassy and was instrumental in the 1993 passage of NAFTA. Before that, he had been dispatched by the Mexican government to promote U.S.-Mexico trade to members of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, especially chambers in urban gateway cities. Torres has known him for more than a decade.

Three years ago, Lara moved here to start an Internet portal about U.S.-Mexico business. Lara has been on the Hispanic chamber board for two years; he stepped down when the group hired him as a consultant for a revamping aimed at intensely stepping up the promotion and advocacy of Hispanic businesses.

"We also want to make sure that all the promotion, advocacy and other activities are creating a chamber that will be the premier resource for the Hispanic business community," Lara says. "If you care to understand what the Hispanic business community is about and care to learn the information, we want to make sure you have a way to do that."

Lara is upfront about the need to reach out to include the new immigrant-owned businesses, from the slick, top-tier corporations to the rawest taquerias.

"I represent every single one of the 41,000 Hispanic-owned businesses in this city," Lara says."As an organization, we have to be part of this transition. It's what we're living as a population."

"The same applies to the political scenario here. Hispanic politicians need to change their ways of operating and their ways of doing business. We're not just about language. We're talking about really taking care of the needs, the challenges and the opportunities that we, as a growingly diverse community, represent."

Since the chamber launched its ambitious agenda in February, the member ranks have swelled dramatically; that is one of the major goals. The transition will continue for about six more months and includes a major revamping of the chamber Web site.

Torres lasted longer in the position than most chamber chief executives, here and nationally. He and Lara insist it has been an amicable parting of the ways, but others say Torres had come under criticism.

"The chamber had been stagnant for a number of years. There was no movement. There wasn't anything new," says Hector Carreno, a Cuban-born partner in Carreno, McCune and Co., a public relations firm.

"The Hispanic community, especially the Hispanic business community, has changed dramatically. There are totally new players in town -- a lot of highly successful Hispanic businessmen who are not multigenerational natives but who moved here from other parts of the U.S. or Latin America. Some of them might have come rich and some of them just came with a lot of background and ideas. The good thing about the U.S. and Texas is that they welcome everyone into their arms."

Within two years of opening a branch here of the Chicago-based Carreno-Miranda public relations, Carreno's Houston office was out-billing the home office 2-to-1. Four years ago, Carreno spun off Carreno, McCune and Co.

"That just spoke to all the opportunities that are down here," says Carreno, a former board member of the Hispanic chamber PAC.

"Everyone perceives that the Hispanic community is very established, but there's a lot of ebb and flow to it. There's a lot of growth, and it's not stagnant as it is in other markets. For public relations and marketing in San Antonio, for instance, there's a small but competitive group of Hispanic firms. Here, I learned there was just Henry de La Garza's public relations. It's wide open."

As a former executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Carreno is sympathetic to Torres. Working with the boards can be demanding, miscommunications abound and the CEO's job is stressful.

"But we're changing drastically, and maybe the change from Richard to Carlos is part of that change," Carreno says. "Richard took us to heights that we never thought we could go, and maybe Carlos will take us even further, maybe even internationally."

Carreno, meanwhile, is riding the crest. Carreno, McCune and Co. will open a Washington, D.C., office next month with a major client, Pollo Campero. The Guatemalan fried chicken sensation, which opened its first outlet on Bellaire last December and will soon kick off another on Long Point, is honing in on the new immigrant community in the nation's capital.

"Everywhere they open in the U.S., they've had lines that have lasted six or more hours," Carreno says.

"The people who own these companies are all first-generation immigrants. They see a consumer community that's not being served."

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