Houston's Emerging Latino Elite Makes its Mark

It was, as one guest noted at the time, “the start of something big.”

An evening gown-studded night marked by a black-tie conga line and a live auction of works by emerging Latin American artists. An inaugural event generating such buzz that it sold out even before invitations had been mailed.

The “Latin American Experience” gala at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts was also something of a debutante ball for the city’s emerging Latino elite – a group of power players making their mark in cultural, philanthropic, political and business circles.

The 2005 fundraiser brought in $600,000 for the museum’s acclaimed Latin American art collection. Six years later, the biannual gala raised $1.12 million, a sign of the growing economic clout of Houston’s Latino movers and shakers.

“We’re going to be very much a part of the city’s future,” said Gracie Saenz, an attorney and former Houston City councilwoman who was born and raised in the city. “We have accomplished so much.”

It only takes a quick glance around Houston to spot those accomplishments:

Sofia Adrogue, the high-powered attorney who organized the first Latin American museum gala and sits on the boards of community organizations, hospitals, and cultural institutions, is a regular on the society charity circuit. Mari Carmen Ramirez, the internationally known curator at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, has elevated the Latin American collection to the heights of international acclaim.

Bernardino Arocha, a doctor who operates hair restoration clinics in Houston and Dallas, has served on boards at Houston’s Contemporary Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Glassell School of the Arts.

Latinos fill seats on Houston’s city council, port commission, university boards, and arts councils. Their names are included in the ranks of the city’s top attorneys, doctors, business owners, and accounting firms.

“We now have community members in places where decisions are made and resources are allocated,” said Saenz, whose grandparents came to Houston to work on the railroad in the early 1900s, and whose father was born in the city in 1926.

Saenz, who grew up in the city’s hard scrabble Fifth Ward, has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s Latino chronicle.

She heard stories of the forced removal of thousands of Mexican-Americans in the 1930s. She witnessed the civil unrest and forced integration of the 1950s and 1960s. She saw the rise of Mexican-American civil rights groups and early leaders in the 1970s.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the city’s Latino population began to grow more diverse, as immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala arrived. A cluster of Cuban exiles, including professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and businessmen, also made Houston their home and helped spur the community’s ascent. Latinos currently make up almost 44 percent of the city’s population.

As those newly-arrived immigrants staked claim in businesses in barrios and under-served neighborhoods, they sowed the seeds that would turn them into millionaires – and strengthen their economic muscle, said Saenz.

A mom-and-pop neighborhood store grew into La Michoacana Meat Market, the largest independent Hispanic grocery store chain in the U.S. Another business, which began with a family making tortillas became, La Espiga de Oro, a tortilla manufacturer that brings in about $11 million a year.

“In the meantime, those families were educating their children, who learned the U.S. system of doing business and came back as professionals, as architects and attorneys and doctors,” said Saenz. “They are becoming upper middle class and upper class citizens.”

In recent years, the Latino presence in the more affluent sectors of Houston has been bolstered by an influx of wealthy immigrants from Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia, noted Saenz.

“Because of the focus on illegal immigration, people sometimes lose sight of the fact that there are Hispanics from all over that immigrate here legally,” said Sofia Adrogue, who handles commercial litigation at the Looper Reed & McGraw law firm.

Adrogue was 7 when her family came to Boston from her native Argentina, intending to stay for just a year. Those twelve months turned into a permanent stay after her doctor father decided to settle in the U.S. with his wife and five young children.

When Adrogue was in seventh grade, the family moved to Houston, where she earned a full scholarship to Rice University, then went on to the University of Houston Law School.

“My parents indoctrinated pride in being from another country, but they also embraced the U.S.,” said Adrogue. “They taught us that as long as you work hard and play by the rules, you will be embraced by the new community.”

As Adrogue was building her reputation as a lawyer, she was also becoming involved in civic organizations, starting by serving on the board of Girls Inc., which offers mentoring and scholarships for at-risk girls. That led to an unsuccessful run for district judge in 1998, which led to stints on the boards of Memorial Hermann Hospital, the Rice and UH Law School alumni associations, and the Museum of Fine Arts.

It is her work with the Museum of Fine Arts that Adrogue considers among her top achievements. She still lights up when the subject of the inaugural Latin American gala comes up.

“It was electric and very emotional,” recalled Adrogue. “People were thirsty for something like this.”

Adrogue is quick to point out, however,  that the gala – glittering as it might be – is not just about society or show. It has a purpose: to help fund the museum’s Latin American collection and research initiatives.

Indeed, the collection is now considered among the best in the world and includes an unprecedented research and digital archive project.

Curator Mari Carmen Ramirez credits part of the success to the support from the city’s Latino art collectors and patrons. In turn, Ramirez said, the collection – which offers a diverse and stereotype-breaking array of works from every corner of Latin America and every genre of art -- serves as a mirror for the community.

“People tend to think of Houston Latinos as strictly Mexican, but there are people here from everywhere in Latin America, professionals, well-educated doctors, lawyers and teachers from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Brazil, Argentina,” said Ramirez, who is Puerto Rican.

“They want their families to learn about Latino and Latin American art. They want to be able to come to an institution likes ours and see something that relates to their patrimony, legacy and culture.”

The Latin American gala, held every two years, also reflects both the success of the attendees, who turn out in designer frocks and elegant tuxedoes, and their heritage, reflected in the sambas, tangos, pisco sours and caipirinhas at the festivities.

“You can assimilate and still differentiate,” said Adrogue, who speaks fluent Spanish and returns to Argentina at least once a year. “You have to do both if you want to be included at the table with people who don’t look like you.”

Monica Rhor is a freelance journalist based in Houston. Follow her on Twitter: @monicarhor.

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