Recently released data from the 2010 U.S. census shows significant growth in the nation's Hispanic population. And nowhere has that growth been more dramatic than in the southwestern state of Texas, the state with the biggest overall population increase during the past decade. Experts say the demographic shifts pose a challenge for the state and that its future prosperity will depend on how Texas meets that challenge.
Not long ago, the annual Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Luncheon was the city's biggest Hispanic business event of the year. Now it is the biggest business event of any kind in the city, drawing many non-Hispanic figures from industry and government as well as Latino business owners.
During the past four years, under the leadership of President and Chief Executive Officer Laura Murillo, the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has experienced a 600 percent growth in membership. She says Houston's young population, its location and the business-friendly environment in Texas all help.
"Our chamber, for example, has attracted many sponsors that had traditionally gone to Miami or Los Angeles," noted Murillo. "They are coming to Houston now because they have found that the economy of Houston is so much stronger than it is in other parts of the country."
Many businesses here see an advantage in hiring local Hispanics who can help them build links with Latin America.
Francisco Grados works for an accounting firm whose workforce is now 30 percent Hispanic.
"We have several clients from Latin America, Spain," said Grados. "And even though they speak English, they feel more confident, secure speaking Spanish. And it is an advantage to be bilingual."
Rice University sociologist Steve Murdock says the future of Texas depends on Hispanics, because they are the fastest growing segment of the state's population.
"Sixty-five percent of the [population] growth in Texas was due to the Hispanic population," said Murdock.
Census figures show the population of non-Hispanic whites, often called Anglos in the Latino community, is increasing at a much slower pace than that of Hispanics. Very few Texas counties are experiencing Anglo population growth, while most others show a decline. The opposite is true for Hispanics.
Although immigrants account for most Hispanic population growth in other U.S. states, sociologist Steve Murdock says the growth in Texas comes mostly from a natural increase within an already established population.
"Most Hispanics in Texas are not immigrants; they have been here for multiple generations," said Murdock. "And remember, there are parts of Texas that have been Hispanic longer than they have been Anglo."
But Murdock says census figures show a looming problem for Texas in that minorities, especially Hispanics, tend to be less educated and earn much less on average than non-Hispanic whites.
"The modal minority is a Hispanic male, 25 to 29 years of age, with less than a high school level of education and making about $35,000, down about $3,000, in real dollar terms, from 1999 to 2009," he added.
Murdock says the state's economic future depends on how well Texas educates this dynamic young population.
"If we could meet that challenge, what some of us call the Texas challenge, we could have a younger population than most other parts of the country in a time period when aging of the population is going to be a major problem," Murdock noted.
The Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce's Laura Murillo says education of young Hispanics is the key to this state's future.
"We will be the economic engine, not only of the city of Houston, but of Texas. And that will require a more educated Hispanic community," said Murdock.
But politicians in the Texas capital, Austin, are struggling with a deficit of more than $20 billion, and they are cutting rather than expanding some educational programs.
Being raised by Mexican-American parents who emphasized the value of education helped bank executive Michelle Hitchings find success. She says she sees it as the best investment the state can make.
"It is a huge mistake cutting education funds, especially early childhood education, which, now we know, is more important than ever," said Hitchings.
Hitchings says she knows that many young Latinos could be inspired by her example and she spends time working with the Girl Scouts and other community groups to encourage children to aspire to great things.
Partly because of these role models and their influence, Laura Murillo says she is optimistic about the role Hispanics will play in the future of Texas.
"I see a Texas that is truly going to be a model for what the rest of the United States will look for in terms of a state with a predominant Hispanic community that Texas will be the model for the rest of the states to follow," Murillo added.
Laura Murillo calls the city's Hispanic business people the "leaders of Houston's new majority."