“MY CLIENTS FROM MEXICO ARE VERY SOPHISTICATED,” said realtor Connie Ramirez as she wheeled her four-door gray Mercedes to the front gate of Sonterra, a plush gated community thirteen miles north of downtown San Antonio that is known as Monterrey North because so many rich citizens from Mexico own homes there. “They like new, large houses with verandas for entertaining that remind them of Cancún. In Mexico these people live like royalty. They want a country club lifestyle in San Antonio. That’s why they like Sonterra.”
The security guard smiled and waved Ramirez through the gate. That day the pretty, auburn-haired Ramirez had six families from Mexico in town shopping for houses. The console of her car was crowded with maps, pens, and notepads, tools that she uses to keep track of her deals in progress. Every time her silver cell phone rang, she clamped it to her ear and called out brightly, “¡Hola!” One of her clients, a soap opera producer from Mexico City, called to check in. He had a house for sale for $560,000 in a section of Sonterra called the Highlands. That week there had been two offers—both for $530,000—but he had refused both. “I don’t think he really wants to leave San Antonio,” Ramirez said.
As she drove through the streets of Sonterra, which are lined with young live oak trees and earth-toned stucco homes with tile roofs, Ramirez described the development’s appeal to wealthy Mexicans. “I would say the number one reason my clients from Mexico love it here is security,” said Ramirez. “In Mexico these people live in fear of kidnapping or assassination. They all have bodyguards. Some of the wives tell me that they can’t even walk around their own homes without guards following them around. Here they don’t have to worry about any of that. They can leave the bodyguards at home.”
Indeed, Sonterra has been designed to ease their anxiety. Each section has its own gate, equipped with guards and video cameras. Private security guards patrol the streets in white cars marked “Security/Securitas.” Once inside, freedom rules. Young, ponytailed wives drive their Jaguars and BMWs to the country club to play tennis or golf. Nannies supervise toddlers on Sonterra’s crowded playground. “There goes the son of one of my clients,” Ramirez said, pointing to a twenty-something speeding around a corner on a street called Las Aguas in a black Lexus SUV. “In Mexico it would be risky for him to drive on his own like that—without a bodyguard—to the movies or to go shopping. Here, he’s free.”
When most Texans think of the state’s coming Hispanic majority, they don’t, as a rule, picture the worldly, discerning inhabitants of Sonterra. Instead, they picture roiling waves of poor Hispanics who will sap their education and social-service systems and contribute little to the prosperity and prestige of the state. They see a Texas divided into two cultures—one white, one brown; one Anglo, one Hispanic, with separate languages and loyalties. The most controversial article on this subject to date, titled “The Hispanic Challenge,” appeared in the March-April issue of Foreign Policy; it was written by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington, the author of the well-regarded Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Huntington argues that Hispanic, and particularly Mexican, immigrants are not assimilating into America’s melting pot the way other nationalities and ethnic groups have in the past. Instead of coming from a different continent—like the Irish, the Germans, and the Jews of the nineteenth century—the immigrants from Mexico are coming from a contiguous territory, into areas that once belonged to their forebears. Huntington is especially concerned that because these immigrants are coming in such large numbers, they don’t have to give up their language and culture. “If this trend continues, the cultural division between Hispanics and Anglos could replace the racial division between blacks and whites as the most serious cleavage in U.S. society,” Huntington wrote.
Viewed through his eyes, the future of Texas is conflicted, a long-running Battle of the Alamo between Anglos and a permanent underclass of Hispanic immigrants. The numbers are frightening in that regard: Steve Murdock, the state’s demographer, says that by 2030, more than 50 percent of the population of Texas will be Hispanic. But in Huntington’s fear-soaked analysis—he bemoans the fact that in 1998 “José” replaced “Michael” as the most popular name for newborn boys in California and Texas—he forgets that a shared border creates common interests as well as conflicts. San Antonio, for instance, is already 58 percent Mexican American and reveals a very different future from the one Huntington describes, one that is both more complicated and more hopeful.
Meet Alfonso Tomita, for instance, a Mexican citizen who owns a thriving restaurant called Sushi/Zushi just outside the front gates of Sonterra. It was the pursuit of the American dream that first brought him to San Antonio, in 1995. He and his wife, Cristina, were both born in Mexico City. Alfonso’s parents immigrated to Mexico from Japan. “Like many people in Mexico, I always had the dream of living the American way,” said Alfonso, who is a living rebuttal to Huntington’s characterization of Mexican immigrants as poor, uneducated, and unwilling to assimilate. He speaks English. He has a master’s of business in finance from the University of Texas at San Antonio. He has investors from both Mexico and the United States. He and Cristina also moved to San Antonio because his three children—ages thirteen, eleven, and nine—suffered from respiratory problems due to the pollution in Mexico City. “And for the same reason that anyone comes to America—to build a better life for my kids,” he said.
The Tomitas now own three sushi restaurants in San Antonio. Last year they grossed $1 million. Their menu offers traditional Japanese sushi, but the chefs—most of them Mexican immigrants—also make a San Antonio roll, with sprouts and crabmeat in a tangy salsa. Alfonso picked sushi because his eldest son thought it was trendy and had observed that San Antonio already had plenty of Mexican restaurants. “In most sushi restaurants, if you don’t look Asian, you stay in the back kitchen, out of sight,” said Alfonso. “But I totally empower the Mexican chefs. I put them right in front, making sushi in front of the customers.” The check at his restaurant comes with three ways to say “thank you”—”arigato,” “gracias,” and “thank you.” The future that Alfonso is building is not Anglo or Hispanic: It’s multicultural and based on the desire for prosperity. He plans to open a Sushi/Zushi in Austin this year.
Huntington argues that Mexicans who come to the United States are creating a parallel society, a Mexico within the United States. “As their numbers increase, [Hispanics] become more committed to their own ethnic identity and culture,” he says. The truth is that Huntington paints a limited picture of Mexican immigration and the culture it creates; in the Southwest in particular, the Anglo and Hispanic cultures have long been sampling from each other. “We Mexicans come here, you Americans go there,” said José Oleszcovski, a developer in Querétaro, a colonial city due north of Mexico City. “The people go back and forth, the money goes back and forth, the culture is intermingled. It’s been that way for centuries.”
At 45, Oleszcovski is a stocky man who wears handmade shirts and designer glasses on his weekend trips to San Antonio. He travels in his own private plane. His air of authority and hurried demeanor is Donald Trump-like. In Querétaro, he oversees multiple businesses, including an industrial park that he built with Houston developer Gerald Hines. “In Mexico I work fifteen hours a day, and then I go home to a large house with many employees,” said Oleszcovski. “I bought two town houses in Sonterra because I wanted a place to relax.” He and his second wife live in one; the other is a guest house sometimes occupied by his grown children from his first marriage. Instead of recreating his harried Mexican life here, Oleszcovski has chosen a simpler existence. His town house is two stories and simply furnished with contemporary furniture—leather couches and chairs, glass tables—and several Rufino Tamayo paintings on the wall. His terrace overlooks Sonterra’s tennis courts. “I like to read here,” he said, pointing to a thick stack of books and articles. “I’m too busy to read in Mexico.” This is a man who has reversed existing cultural stereotypes. In Mexico, he lives the stressful life of a captain of industry. In San Antonio, he succumbs to a rich form of the mañana syndrome.
Huntington also insists that Mexican immigrants are slow to give up their language. But statistics—and the reality of life in San Antonio—show he’s incorrect. It’s true that most first-generation immigrants who came here with little education spoke only Spanish. So did the first-generation Germans who came to San Antonio and started a German-language newspaper and their own singing clubs and churches. However, Andy Hernández, a professor of political science at San Antonio’s St. Mary’s University, says that his own studies show that by the second generation, 50 percent of Mexican immigrants are dominant in English. In the third generation, 80 percent speak primar-ily English. According to a Rand Corporation study, Hispanics have the fastest rate of language acquisition of any immigrant group.
In fact, they may be assimilating too well when it comes to the language. The embarrassing secret of many San Antonio Hispanics, including Hernández, is that they aren’t fluent in Spanish. As children, they were discouraged from speaking Spanish at home; their parents told them they wouldn’t get ahead. Now, middle-class Hispanics don’t want to be guilty of what Huntington charges—that they are slow to assimilate. “Anglos have cultural permission to speak Spanish,” said Hernández. “If Latinos speak it, we run the risk of being separatists.”
If multiculturalism is the product of immigration in Sonterra, so too is the profound mixing of cultures evident on San Antonio’s West Side, which is predominantly Mexican American and poor. Unlike Sonterra’s wealthy immigrants, most of the people on the West Side see themselves as underdogs. They view life as los de abajo—a phrase used by Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, the associate director of creativity and culture at the Rockefeller Foundation. To drive along streets such as Chihuahua, Trinity, or Guadalupe on the West Side is the opposite of driving in Sonterra. The homes are modest; many are painted in the bold blues, pinks, and greens of Mexican villages. But the streets are crowded with children playing basketball, chattering easily in English and Spanish.
In Sonterra an estimated 40 percent of the subdivision is Hispanic. The West Side is 90 percent Hispanic. If Huntington’s theories were true, residents here would value ethnicity above all other interests. As Hispanic as this neighborhood is, both in sensibility and numbers, voters in the last city council election selected an Anglo woman, Patti Radle, over Tom Lopez, a veteran Hispanic politician. They voted their interest, not their ethnicity or nationality. Radle and her husband are well-known anti-poverty workers. She speaks Spanish and also sees herself as an underdog. “The people in my neighborhood are not racists,” Radle says. “I’ve lived here for more than thirty years. I knew them and they knew me. When it came down to it, that was more important than color.”
In truth, the future of a predominantly Hispanic Texas is less likely to reflect the fears of social theorists like Huntington and more likely to resemble present-day San Antonio—messy and complex. The best place to glimpse it is actually downtown, at Alamo Plaza—the same distance from Sonterra as from the West Side. It’s not the old mission that’s so important but the plaza itself. The shrine is Spanish Colonial in style. The land beneath it is a burial ground for one thousand indigenous mission residents—Indians, in other words. In front of the Alamo stands a Bavarian-style gazebo on one side and the white limestone Cenotaph, designed by Pompeo Luigi Coppini to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo, on the other. Contemporary touches include raspa vendors with their carts, along with classically American chain restaurants. On any weekend night, thousands of San Antonio natives and tourists form what approximates a moving conga line from the river, dancing up to the plaza, where magicians perform coin tricks and hip-hop musicians do their thing, freely borrowing from many genres.
In Alamo Plaza, you do not see just two cultures but layer upon layer of cultures: Spanish, Mexican, English, German, each taking from the others in ways that may not be smooth but are wonderfully surprising. “People expect purity,” said Henry Muñoz III, a native of San Antonio and the president of Kell Muñoz Architects, a firm that’s made its name with designs that borrow from all the cultures found in South Texas. “But nothing is pure these days. It’s all exuberant, bold, and constantly shifting. That’s the future of Texas.”