Houston, allow me to propose, is like a martini—an extraordinary thing cast from the mixing of ordinary elements, especially if you agree with Alex López Negrete’s assessment. “I see it as a combination of Chicago and Miami. If you shook those two together and put them in the Southwest, that’s what it would be.”

At eight-fifteen in the morning, the president and chief executive officer of López Negrete Communications is already gulping a Diet Dr Pepper, sitting there impeccably, right leg crossed over left, in black cowboy boots and a gray jacket that matches hair and goatee perfectly. A Houston native raised in Mexico City, the 43-year-old Hispanic-marketing-and-advertising veteran embodies his own summation of the city’s burgeoning Latino community: transnational, bilingual, and full of life. “Hay un ambiente that’s so cool,” he says of the Houston Latino scene, as a black-clad crew scrambles to begin the filming of a Goya Foods commercial featuring two lanky Latino kids on skateboards. “All Latinos have something here. The employees that I’ve transplanted from Mexico City, from Bogotá, from L.A., from Miami, from Puerto Rico—everyone loves this town.”

I have to admit that two years ago, I might have snorted at his assertion, or at least raised a suspecting eyebrow. It was rather reluctantly that I packed my bags and moved to Houston when graduate school called. Like most Texans who haven’t spent much time here, I had always dismissed this city as nothing more than a gritty mess of concrete and traffic. Coming here for me had meant leaving San Antonio, the state’s Hispanic cultural mecca, where I had settled to get my Texas fix after four years of college on the West Coast.

So when I got to Houston, I sulked for a few days. But once I poked around its neighborhoods, I began discovering, to my surprise, an ethnic mix that made the city come alive. I found myself surrounded by people from around the globe: from Iran, Africa, Vietnam. Even in a place like the Macaroni Grill, I could hear Spanish being spoken in unfamiliar accents.

As a first-generation Mexican American, my entertainment options were just as varied. If I wanted the tejano sound that had become my passion in San Antonio, I would venture into the pulsating clubs of Pasadena, where the bands play loud and people dance the polka with style. If I was in the mood for the Spanish-language pop and rock I’d grown up listening to on the border, I’d hit one of the swanky spots downtown where trendy Mexican and South American transplants congregate to drink scotch. If I was craving “salsa con sentimiento,” as one Ecuadorian friend calls it, I could get the soul music on the city’s Richmond Strip, but if I preferred salsa in the company of Turkish and Indian grad students and engineers—or if I wanted jazz, blues, or some other type of mainstream music—the city’s revitalized downtown was the place to be.

In Houston I could have it all, really: Ethnic identity, Texas flair, and a rich cosmopolitanism suggestive of López Negrete’s Chicago-Miami—perhaps, dare I say, suggestive of L.A. If I had been Mexican in Brownsville and Hispanic in San Antonio, Houston taught me to be Latina, with all of its cross-cultural freedom.

It is Houston’s best-kept secret: At the turn of the century, Texas’ swampiest city is the greatest place for Latinos to be, and that goes beyond entertainment to reasons that range from cultural to economic to plain aspirational. In the past two decades Houston has emerged as a promising place for Latin Americans of all stripes—rich and poor, native and immigrant, Central and South American and even Cuban (remember Orlando Sanchez, who nearly won the mayor’s race last November?).

Houston has always been an industrious city where, the myth goes, hard work pays off. That deep belief triggered the city’s largest population explosion during the sixties and seventies, when young white professionals from throughout the country flocked here to cash in on an oil boom that saw the stuff going for as much as $35 a barrel. By 1981, Houston was the fourth-largest city in the nation, its population nearly two thirds Anglo. Then the storied collapse: The following year the price of oil plummeted, and the dream was swiftly over.

But another one—this one international, working-class, and Latino—began. Mexicans, to be sure, had been in Houston since the 1800’s, building railroads, making textiles, working in oil refineries, and helping enlarge the Ship Channel. They had cobbled together small enclaves on the east and north sides, in places like Magnolia Park and the Heights. But it was in the eighties and nineties, especially after the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act passed with provisions for legalization and family reunification, that Latino numbers surged, as migrants streamed into Houston clamoring for jobs. Houston was radically transformed into a city where Latinos, at 37 percent of the population, are the largest ethnic group (followed by Anglos at 31 percent, blacks at 25 percent, and Asians at 7 percent and growing fastest of all). Harris County now has 900,000 Latinos, more than any other county in the nation except Los Angeles.

And the faith in Houston persists. Asked whether it’s true that by working hard here one will eventually succeed, 88 percent of Houstonians queried in the 2001 Houston Area Survey agreed. That figure has never dipped below 75 percent since the question was first asked in 1982, even during the oil bust. “It makes a lot of sense, because it’s the immigrant’s faith,” says Stephen Klineberg, the Rice University sociologist who directs the survey. Nationally, Klineberg says, fewer people—roughly 58 to 65 percent—feel the same optimism about America.

There’s this story, for instance: Thirty years ago a young Mexican American woman from the tiny South Texas town of Palito Blanco drove her Volkswagen Beetle here after failing to find a job in her city of choice, San Antonio. She has since risen from social worker to lawyer to Houston’s second-highest-ranking elected official, now bidding to become the first woman elected to serve—and the first Hispanic, period—on the Harris County Commissioners’ Court. “I think in Houston, if you work hard and focus on what you want to do, you will succeed, no matter what race you are,” says city controller Sylvia Garcia from her eighth-floor office in city hall. “It truly is our own version of the American dream.”

Today Latinos are visible just about everywhere in Houston—inside Loop 610, in the neighborhoods between the loop and Beltway 8, even trickling out to the suburbs. They continue to live in Magnolia Park, but they’re also in Galena Park, in Spring Branch, in Gulfton. “Pasadena used to be the home of the KKK,” Houston native Tatcho Mindiola, a University of Houston sociologist and the director of the school’s Center for Mexican American Studies, says with a smirk. “Now it’s all mexicano!”

Though the majority of Latinos are of Mexican descent, a significant 12 percent have ties to Central America, 7 percent are from South America, and another 1 percent are from Cuba and Puerto Rico. The city’s proximity to Mexico and the convenient nearby location of Continental Airlines’ southern hub have helped immigrants maintain a strong relationship to the homeland. “I think,” Mindiola says, “we’re going to rival Miami as the international gateway for Latin America.”

Take a stroll through Harrisburg Plaza, on the city’s southeast side, where the Rent-A-Center screams “¡Se habla español!” where Amco Auto Insurance promises low, low monthly payments, and the Korean-owned Seven Mart Factory Outlet serves up everything from Last Supper beach towels to strings of multicolored cardboard cutouts spelling out good wishes for your party: “Feliz Bautizo” (“Happy Baptism”). Most of the CD racks at the neon-lit Ritmo Latino store are crammed with regional Mexican sounds—banda, cumbias, rancheras, norteñas—and you can wire money anywhere south of the border while you’re at it. Next door, Su Optica Latina advertises Thalia eyewear; across the street, Pegasso Tours sends off a bus every evening, “comfortable and safe,” to Monterrey. On the sidewalk the snow-cone and popsicle vendors offer their products in the delightful flavors of back home: tamarindo, chicle, piña colada. In the parking lot, rickety Grand Marquis and shiny F-150’s burst with jumpy children and giddy young couples and grandmothers in flowery skirts. The spirit is one of presence, of vibrancy, not one of life on the margins. The burden of history feels a little lighter here; perhaps it helps that there is no Alamo to remind its people of a more difficult past.

Latino radio is thriving, and Univision is now Houston’s most-watched television station in the daytime. But Houston’s Latin Americans are also permeating more-privileged cultural places—the Museum of Fine Arts, for one, recently featured two Latino-related exhibits at once and has hired a Puerto Rican curator to develop a permanent Latin American collection. Latinos are also forging their own cultural institutions. Organizations like Talento Bilingüe and Nuestra Palabra provide weekly and monthly venues for writers and artists to strum their guitars, dance the tango, and recite poetry about growing up in the tougher streets of Houston. This month Edward James Olmos’ Latino Book and Family Festival comes to town, the first time the massive Los Angeles-based gathering has traveled to Texas.

Although the stereotype has it that Latino immigrants are credit-averse, in Houston they’re enthusiastically buying into the biggest American promise, taking out loans not just to buy cars and refrigerators but to open up their own restaurants and flower shops and contracting companies. During a recent morning talk show on Estéreo Latino 102.9 FM, the city’s most popular Spanish-language radio station, one Latino immigrant contractor called in to boast about the earnings he can make in Houston without a college degree. He likes this city, he announced, because he can stroll into a restaurant in his cowboy shirt and his “pumpkin-colored boots” and nobody stares. “They don’t have these built-in fears about not being able to make it,” says Houston native Richard Torres, the president of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “They’re used to struggling, and that’s what it takes to make that jump and open up a business.” Hailing from countries where factory jobs are few and many people are forced to live off of their skills, be it baking sweet Guatemalan coronas or crafting Tweety Bird piñatas, Latino immigrants are poised to become Houston’s new class of entrepreneurs.

But factor in the opportunity this city provides at the other end of the economic ladder—factor in, that is, the more highly educated arrivals, the upwardly mobile Mexican Americans from Houston and beyond—and it increasingly means six-figure salaries at big corporations and law firms. Last year, the president of the Houston Bar Association was a partner at Locke Liddell and Sapp, Roland Garcia; this year, J. P. Morgan Chase’s Houston-region chairman is David Mendez. The diversity is as great economically as it is ethnically. “That’s what I like about Houston,” says Sylvia Garcia. “If you want barbacoa al pozo, the way we used to make it in Palito Blanco, you can find it. But if you’d rather go to a black-tie event at one of our country clubs and eat filet mignon, you can find it, and you can get in without a problem.”

Long-standing problems endemic to Houston’s Latino community do remain. Being Latino in Houston, even more than in San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley, too often translates to construction worker, hotel janitor, dishwasher, nanny. Latinos often complain about police harrassment, and the beating death in nearby Baytown of migrant laborer Luis Alfonso Torres has only fueled suspicions of racially motivated violence. (The FBI is investigating whether the mentally unstable man’s civil rights were violated, as a video shows him being pummeled by the officers who had subdued him.) Politically, much work remains to be done. Latino’s entrance into local government still has to be pitched on ethnic terms. Turnout is also a problem. When Sanchez came close to winning the mayoral runoff, Latinos rejoiced that their share of the vote hit an all-time high—but it constituted a meager 15 percent of the vote. “We’ve emerged from being a small vote to being an important swing vote,” says Mindiola, “but we have yet to achieve our full potential.” And then there’s the seemingly never-ending project of improving public schools in an immense school district where 56 percent of the students are Latino and three fourths are low-income.

“Structural oppression” we call it in graduate school. History, poor resources, and a lack of access to power have collided to make life tough for ethnic groups, especialy in large urban areas. So how could I sit before my keyboard in good conscience and argue that Houston is the best place for Latino’s to live? I picked up my phone and dumped my dilemma on a friend, Guadalupe San Miguel, a professor of history at the University of Houston. He’s an activist intellectual who protests the inadequacy of bilingual education before the school board and gets numerous gigs speaking to groups like the League of United Latin American Citizens. He encourages his students by asking them to study their communities—to write about their own experience, to study culture on the streets. He would know. I posed the million-dollar question: If structural oppression exists, how can Houston’s Latinos still be so chirpy?

He confirmed what everbody else had been saying all along: optimism. While recognizing their disadvantages, he said, Houston’s Latinos are more interested in finding ways to get ahead. “When I give speeches in the communities,” he confessed, “I can’t be too negative because people are having positive experiences too. I would argue that both the immigrants here and the Chicanos, at least the activist Chicanos, have the optimism.” Sharing my wonder, he added, “I haven’t seen that anywhere else.”