The Houston area is home to a vibrant and diverse Latino population that has made it one of the most successful and interesting regions in the country. From artists and activists to academics and authors, Houston is full of Latinos at the top of their fields who don’t get the same daily recognition as politicians and athletes.
For Hispanic Heritage Month, the Houston Chronicle is profiling 10 of these extraordinary individuals, and will continue to focus on Latinos who are making a difference in our community throughout the year.
Nicolás Kanellos, founder of Arte Público Press; professor at the University of Houston
What, for you, does it mean to be Hispanic?
It’s not a racial identity. Being Hispanic or Latino is a blend of cultural backgrounds and perspectives of the many peoples brought together by the Spanish empire, beginning in the 15th century. All of these diverse peoples, who speak Spanish and now English as well, have forged a cultural cohesion and, here in the United States, faced racism and discrimination in the past and the present.
What is authentic and enduring about Hispanic or Latino identity cannot be melted down into questions on the U.S. Census nor into one “typical” physical appearance. What is authentic and enduring about Hispanic people is the openness to blending and consolidating diverse cultures.
How do Hispanics enrich the American culture?
There is so much in American culture that was incorporated from our ancestors… These things include the introduction of such crops as cotton, the founding of the cattle industry and mining, building railroads up to the Midwest and to California. It includes innovations in city planning, architecture and even a strong influence on country-western music as well as jazz – just think of the Spanish guitar and the congas.
So (the Hispanic heritage) is in the layouts of our cities in the Southwest, in the music we listen to and the food we eat. Mexican food is the most popular ethnic cuisine and salsa the most popular condiment!
You were a pioneer in publishing Latino authors such as Sandra Cisneros decades ago, while most publishers were not paying attention to Hispanic and minority writers. How do you see diversity in the publishing industry moving forward?
Despite lip service and the forming of diversity committees, more than 95 percent of the books published and authors published are not minority books or authors.
So the question is not what the publishing industry is doing, but what we can do to produce minority and specifically Hispanic or Latino culture and history in print and eBooks.
We need more publishers like Arte Público Press, because we need to be mediators and promoters of our own culture and its place in American life. We do not need to filter our arts and history through the colander of multinational corporations whose mission is the homogenization of peoples around the world into one identity to be exploited in publishing, film, television and online.
We need to produce, control and distribute our own images and make sure they become part of the education of all Americans, because ours is a quintessential American story.
Mari Carmen Ramírez, curator of Latin American Art at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston
You have brought attention to Latin American artists and movements that were barely known in the U.S. before. How has your work contributed to changing perceptions about that art?
The idea of organizing a permanent collection of 20th and 21st century Latin American and Latino art in a major encyclopedic museum such as the MFAH represented, in 2001, an unedited, challenging, if not daunting enterprise. Most of the artists from Latin America who contributed to international Modernism were not only unknown in the United States, but their work had been ignored or left out of the canonic histories of Modernism. As a result, this production had relatively little market presence or value. The kernel of the collection-building effort focused on key exponents of the avant-garde in Latin America who set out to push art’s limits through innovative, experimental approaches and programmatic texts…Our intention was to introduce new values to the U.S. mainstream. (We introduced) many artists who are now in great demand.
Has your Puerto Rican and Latino heritage played a role in inspiring or strengthening your goals?
Yes, indeed. Even though I left the Island decades ago, I still consider myself an authentic isleña (islander). Being a fully-bilingual colonial subject provided me with an outsider-insider perspective that has been the foundation of my work. It placed me in a transnational, transcultural position, an in-between vantage point that I call “con un pie entre dos aguas” (with a foot between two oceans).
(Puerto Rico went from being a Spanish colony to a U.S. one when the latter invaded the island in 1898. It hasn’t been either sovereign or fully integrated into the United States, a status that many Puerto Ricans and scholars consider a form of colonization.)
How do you see Latinos like yourself shaping Houston’s future?
As we know, Latino cultural institutions in Houston are lacking in resources to carry out their mission of exhibiting and projecting this outstanding art. We need to change that. I am convinced Houston can indeed become an important center for Latino art.
Richard Tapia, Rice University professor; director of the Tapia Center for Excellence and Equity
What inspired you to seek a STEM career decades ago when there weren’t Hispanic role models to follow?
The part of Los Angeles where I was raised was not Latino at all… I never heard the word Mexican used in a positive sense by white people. (But) in every school year from the first grade to the 12th grade, I was clearly the best math student in the class, or even the school. Both the teachers and the students had to learn to accept that the best math student in school was Mexican. My parents taught me to take great pride in having Mexican heritage.
Later at UCLA, it did bother me that all the Latino STEM faculty were from other countries. While I did not have role models, I did encounter supportive faculty. Most mathematicians don’t worry about ethnicity, they just care if you can do good math, and that I could do.
Why is diversity in STEM so important to you?
The U.S. cannot maintain its economic and scientific health when such a large part of its population is left out of America’s mainstream activity of science and engineering. We cannot have racial justice without educational justice, and we cannot have educational justice without educational integration. Underrepresented minorities must be equitably represented at universities of high prestige. I believe that the best way to view STEM underrepresentation is as a phenomenon that endangers the health of the nation far more than it endangers the health of the various scientific disciplines.
What have you done to mitigate such underrepresentation?
Working through the Rice Tapia Center for Excellence and Equity in Education, I have built strong support programs for both undergraduate and graduate underrepresented minority STEM students. I have directed more women and minority doctoral students in mathematics than probably anyone else in the country.
Tell us about your journey to becoming one of the most successful lawyers and community advocates in Houston.
I immigrated to the United States when I was 8 with my parents and my four siblings. We arrived in Boston with 14 suitcases, speaking little to no English, and moved later to Houston. In pursuit of the American Dream, my parents raised all five children to follow the family tradition of post-graduate careers in either medicine or law; all five of us are practicing physicians or attorneys in Houston.
I took educational opportunities with full academic scholarships at Rice University and the University of Houston Law Center. Bringing my journey full circle, I returned to Boston to Harvard Business School in 2006 as a 40-year-old practicing lawyer and mother of three young children. Those years were challenging, but it paid off. I was selected as the U.S. representative and U.S. keynote speaker for my graduating class. I was the first woman ever serving in those roles in that executive education program.
What worries you and what moves you as a human being?
These are the most sobering of times, unprecedented, with, in essence, a social, economic and health global pandemic. In times of such crisis, we have to pivot, putting people first. There truly is a premium on bold, authentic, empathetic leadership as well as decisive, bold orchestrated actions. Houston and our Hispanic and Latino community do this daily.
Throughout my life, I have crossed cultural lines to inspire and mentor. What moves me is about the relentless pursuit, seeking to empower others and pursuing a legacy of excellence and public service as the labyrinth of life continues.
What is justice for you? Have you considered becoming a judge?
Being a lawyer has been most fulfilling. Serving as a member of the judiciary would truly be reaching the summit of my professional goals. After taking the oath of citizenship from a federal judge 32 years ago, and the oath as an officer of the court as a member of the Texas bar 29 years ago, having the opportunity to serve through the formidable privilege and commensurate responsibility of the role of a judge would be the culmination of my American dream.
Angélica Razo, 27, Texas director of Mi Familia Vota
What drove you from your origins to leading an organization at the state level?
I grew up in a mixed-status family with seven children, three born in Mexico and four in the United States. My family mainly worked in landscaping and any other odd jobs that you could think of to make ends meet. Like many immigrant families, if we weren’t at school, we were helping our parents, mainly with landscaping work, sometimes cleaning houses.
What I do is more than work to me. It’s my way of challenging the way we value immigrants. In immigrant households like mine, there’s an unspoken agreement that our parents will have to endure hardships without much reward. My generation is where we can maybe begin to thrive economically and in leadership spaces.
How do you work to civically engage Latinos and what’s your leadership goal?
The Latino community has been historically regarded as the “sleeping giant,” but I refuse to accept that. Democracy was just not built to include us and in Texas, it’s intentionally created barriers that prevent us from participating.
As an organization, we confront every systemic challenge and invest the necessary time and resources to ensure that our community is empowered to participate in civic life. Since 2010, we’ve registered over 50,000 Hispanic individuals in Texas. We lead by providing a space for people to tell their stories and we share ours too. Then we connect our stories to issues, decision-makers, elected officials and elections.
I voted for the first time in college and am proud to say that I am the first person in my family to vote. But I was alone, confused by the process, and felt defeated by the long ballot with strange names that I had never seen before. Voting, and any civic activity, should be about celebrating our power. I love sharing that joy with others who need to be reminded that they are important to our democracy.
Some people describe you as a powerful young leader with outstanding strategic intelligence, but not looking for the spotlight. Is that accurate?
I consider myself a social introvert or “ambivert.” My instinct is to not draw attention to myself, but I crave being in social settings where I can listen, learn from others, and share my own thoughts.
It’s hard to prove yourself when you’re shying away from the spotlight. Being more soft-spoken has taught me that I do have to assert myself through action, and I think that goes a long way when you’re still trying to find your footing in your sector.
Ruth N. López Turley, 47, director of Houston Education Research Consortium; associate director for the Rice Kinder Institute
What kind of role did your heritage and upbringing play in your decision to pursue this field of study?
Growing up in Laredo, I saw many injustices firsthand. For example, people like my mother worked extremely hard for so little. She didn’t have benefits, never went on a vacation, got paid extremely low wages, and that was not a unique story for her, it’s so common for people without an education. People were suffering not only because they didn’t have an education, but also that the opportunities for education weren’t even there.
I just needed to get that sense that there are things we can do to solve this, and I felt a sense of great responsibility for playing a role in that because of how I had grown up and the unique opportunity that I had been given.
Why is education so important for communities to grow? What barriers to education remain for Latinos?
We have a long way to go in terms of education especially for Latinos because aside from the potential language barriers, college is a foreign world for many. It’s still very much a barrier having to navigate these systems.
Education is our ticket out of poverty, I still believe in that. As a sociologist, I recognize that the systems are not perfect by any means, but they’re still intended to give opportunities for upward social mobility. I want that ticket to be accessible to everybody.
What are some key takeaways in your research regarding Latinos’ access to education, and how have you used your platform to help?
I want the City of Houston to know that it’s in everybody’s interest to support Latinos in education because they are such a large portion of our population and growing rapidly. If we want Houston to be successful, we have to include Latinos. It’s not just for Latinos’ sake, it’s for everybody’s sake. We need to do everything in our power to make sure that educational opportunities are accessible and equitable, because they’re not right now.
Laura Murillo, president of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
How has your upbringing shaped the way you approach your work?
I feel that coming from the background that I did — with my parents who came here as immigrants having a daughter who’s been named one of the most powerful and influential women in Texas — that nothing has been done on my own. It’s been through the support and encouragement and doors that were opened for me that I’ve been able to obtain that recognition, and hopefully serve as an inspiration to others, Hispanic or not.
Why is it important for Latinos to have a strong foothold in the business world?
We represent 42% of the population and in Houston, our consumer spending is $55 billion. The decision makers in corporate America benefit from our contributions, not only to society but to the economy. So we are a driving force in the economy in terms of our consumption but also in terms of the workforce that we are providing. While we make many of those contributions, less than 2% of all corporate board seats across the country are filled by Latinos, and I’m here to say that we’re here. We have the experience, we have the education and we represent a large part of the market. Data and research have all shown that performance and revenue increase when you have women and minorities on public boards.
You’ve said you “visualize things not for what they are but what they can be.” What does that vision look like?
We are the model city for diversity, equity and inclusion. People are watching what we do and the choices we make, and the caliber of people who have come here from all over the world and have gone on to be successful, affluent, wealthy, influential and powerful. It is something that is attainable even if you grew up in Houston’s East End, in Magnolia Park, one of the oldest barrios in the city. It is an absolute possibility that if someone like me — who has now had private meetings with eight presidents from across the globe and led a variety of different initiatives — can do it, then it is certainly attainable.
Gonzo247/Mario Enrique Figueroa Jr., 49, leader of Aerosol Warfare, artist
How do you express your upbringing in your art? Do you see yourself as fitting into the larger tradition of Mexican muralism?
As a kid, as soon as you cross the [Mexico] border there’s all this instant change of culture. Growing up, I guess I took it for granted because I was so familiar with it, but I absorbed it all.
I don’t know how my life would have been any different if someone who knew I was interested in art would have said, “Yo, check out David Alfaro Siquieros,” or “Yo, check out Diego Rivera.” Hip-hop, thankfully, showed me graffiti, which was on trains and then evolved to be on walls, and so I just naturally gravitated toward painting on walls. I do work on a lot of walls and exterior surfaces, and that lines up with my heritage. But where I’m at now, I want to push the art form and the genre so that I can create something that will inspire younger people.
How do you use your platform to support Latinos in the arts?
I’ve spent most of my career helping other people. We’ve done lectures in schools, from elementary to high school, just to give back that message that it’s possible.
Growing up, there was never an artist or someone who saw what I was doing and said, “Let me help you out and give you some advice.” There wasn’t anyone that looked like me that came to school and said, “Hey man, you can do something with your life.” I just try to show them that yeah, I didn’t come from a wealthy background, I didn’t have the best grades or go off to a four-year college, but I was able to do something with myself and I was able to find something that I love to do. I never kid anybody and say it was easy, I never kid anybody and say it’s going to happen overnight. You have to put in the work.
Why is it important for Latino communities to have vibrant, visible arts scenes?
Having something on the ground level that’s accessible to everybody is critical. Growing up in my neighborhood, I only knew of one mural — “The Rebirth of Our Nationality” by Leo Tanguma — and it changed my life. Looking back on that, I think what would two murals have done? 10? 100? As a kid, I was the passenger in a car and we didn’t have iPhones to distract us, so I had to just look out the window. And every time we drove by, I just can’t tell you how important that was to me.
My parents, no discredit to them, were working hard to pay the rent and put food on the table, so time was a luxury. They didn’t know about the Museum of Fine Art or the galleries, it just wasn’t a priority. It wasn’t like “Let’s take you somewhere to see art.” But if there’s art everywhere as you’re driving and experiencing the city and you see it, then it’s readily available.
Raúl Orlando Edwards, 55, director of Strictly Street Salsa dance studio and Flamart; creator of Houston’s Afro-Latin Fest
What gaps were you trying to fill when you opened Houston’s first Latin salsa studio?
When I started teaching, I was renting a space in a ballroom and the director asked me if she could train me to teach for them. And in that training, I saw that nothing they were teaching had anything to do with the culture. It was completely artificial, so I felt offended by the fact that they were monetizing the culture with no respect for it. So, I decided I was not going to be a complainer, and that’s when I decided to launch Strictly Street Salsa. The purpose of the name was to tell the person “we’re going to teach you how Latin people actually dance.”
How do you use your platform to uplift Latino arts in Houston?
When I started with salsa, a lot of people would call me a snob because they’d be doing some kind of a promo at a club, and I’d say “I don’t dance in clubs.” If I’m going to rehearse for hours and spend money on a nice outfit, why should I go to a club where people are not going to pay attention? In that process, I realized that our art was being presented in the wrong places, and that was sending the message that our art wasn’t good enough to be in a theater.
For example, “Salsa y Salud” is presented on the same platform where the Houston Symphony presents, where the Houston ballet presents, where the Grand Opera presents, and all these reputable and highly esteemed groups. I thought that’s one of the ways we can begin to present Latin American art forms, by saying it, too, belongs on this stage.
How can Houston continue to grow the arts within the city’s Latino community?
We can celebrate the diversity within Latino culture. I was at a program for Hispanic Heritage Month once, and this lady was offended, saying “Yo no puedo creer lo que está haciendo esta ciudad con el programa. ¿Cómo se les ocurre presentar un danzón* para el Hispanic Heritage Month? (I can’t believe what the city is doing with this program. How can they present a danzon during Hispanic Heritage Month?)” And I was like, “You know danzón is from Cuba, right?” Even within our communities, education is needed. When people don’t respect and appreciate other cultures, that’s part of the problem.
(Danzon, “a native Cuban dance of African origin,” is a formal two-partner dance.)
César Espinoza, 35, executive director of FIEL Houston
What role do immigrant and Latino communities play in making Houston what it is?
Houston would not be Houston if it weren’t for the immigrant community. Just look at where the FIEL office is at, in the Gandhi district. You drive 10 minutes away and you’re in Chinatown. Right across the street there’s Indian food, Thai food, Ethiopian food, Afghan food. So, in a lot of ways, that culture and vibrancy has shaped Houston and kept Houston moving, not only prior to the pandemic but especially during the pandemic.
I think Houston has been shaped by immigrants, but in lots of cases the favor has not been returned. We’re moving in the right direction, with elected officials like Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and other folks, but there’s still a lot of work left to do because for so long the immigrant community was overlooked in public policy and not taken into account.
What can Latinos do to support one another, and how can others help?
One thing is we need to learn about corporate responsibility. There’s a lot of people in our community who have made a lot of money but for whatever reason, a lot of time they’re not willing to give back.
It doesn’t even have to be about money, it also is about connections. One of the things I’m grateful for, is that as my career went on in organizing. I met a lot of people who were willing to introduce me to other people, and they didn’t ask for anything in return. So now I do that with other young people.
What do you come across in your work that gives you hope for Latinos in Houston?
I’m really hopeful for the new generation that’s coming up, these people who are politically conscious. One of the promises I make to kids when we go out to talk to high schoolers is that if they ever want to run for public office, I’m going to be the first person to make a campaign donation. I say that and I mean it, because often in the Latino community, being a politician carries a stigma from our home countries — people think you’ll be corrupt, cruel, a robador — and that trickles down to people here and they don’t want to touch the subject. It’s important that we empower young people to be progressive and passionate, and if they ever want to run for public office, then give them the tools to be successful. I hope that one day somebody remembers those words and comes and says “I’m ready.” And I’ll say “We’re ready for you too.”