Posted on September 5, 2014

One Austin, Muchas Comunidades

Marty Toohey, Austin American-Statesman, August 31, 2014

The writer and sociologist Joel Garreau once divided North America into nine regions, each with a distinctive cultural character. One, called MexAmerica, stretched from Southern California along the U.S.-Mexico border to South Texas. Its northern reach stopped just short of Austin.

Gus Garcia chuckles when he thinks about that boundary. Garreau drew it in 1981. That was before Garcia became the first Hispanic elected mayor of Austin. That was before Hispanics had moved in large numbers beyond the East Austin barrio to become a majority in wide swaths of North and South Austin. That was before a burgeoning Hispanic middle class emerged in Austin of doctors, lawyers, engineers, entrepreneurs, even police chief.

“When (Garreau) wrote his book, MexAmerica ended at San Antonio,” Garcia, 80, said. “If he wrote the book now, it would end at Austin.”

Hispanics three decades ago made up just 18 percent of the Austin area’s population. Now one out of every three people here is Hispanic. Demographers expect Hispanics to become the area’s largest ethnic group–larger than whites–as soon as the early 2030s. Hispanics might become an outright majority by 2050. Perhaps the most important indicator of Austin’s demographic future: Hispanics are already a majority in Austin public schools.

The rapid growth of Austin’s Hispanic population, the result of both immigration and high birth rates, has far-reaching implications for Central Texas. Despite gains, Hispanics still lag behind the general population in education, job skills, income, health and political involvement, among other measures. How the region addresses those challenges will have a lot to do with Austin’s continued success as a center for innovation and job growth.

Austin’s Hispanic culture was never a geographic or social monolith. But there once was one easy-to-identify Hispanic community in Austin, with a social hierarchy, political ecosystem and geographic boundaries. Now there are several distinct communities, some of which have little in common with the glittering Austin of national repute.

But–perhaps more importantly–many Hispanics would no more identify themselves as part of a particular ethnic community than would their white neighbors. The civic activist, the lifelong educator, the politician, the mother trying to clean up her neighborhood, the poor immigrant family, the graduate student–each gives a glimpse into a population woven into virtually every aspect of Austin life.

“We’re a very diverse group,” Garcia said. “I don’t know who they all are now, because there are so many new ones starting up.”