Houston, in many ways, always has been a city of newcomers. The city owes its very existence to a pair of brothers from New York who calculated that immigrants would be drawn to their exaggerated promises of a paradise on the Texas coast, complete with cheap land, ocean breezes, and plenty of possibility. Yes, the Allen Brothers left out the heat and the mosquitos, among other things, but many of the arrivals who took the gamble more than 150 years ago—from Europe, from Asia, from Mexico and South America, and elsewhere—decided to stay in Houston anyway, folding their own cultures into the panoply that would become this city.
Over the following decades, waves of newcomers continued to arrive, whether the first flux of Mexican immigrants driven here by the Mexican Revolution in 1910; the surge of Chinese who arrived in the 1930s and set up in the Third Ward; the Vietnamese who, driven out of their country by war, arrived in the 1970s and established Little Saigon just outside downtown; or the thousands that have continued to arrive thereafter from every imaginable corner of the globe.
Along the way they have helped to turn our city into a place like no other, a hodgepodge of cultures, traditions, languages, religions, and ways of life that have made us the most diverse major metropolis in the United States. Immigrants embraced Houston, and Houston embraced them right back, and that’s how this city went from being a con job to the wonderfully vibrant, eclectic place that we know today.
What does it mean to be an immigrant here? There’s no one story that could sum that all up. In this issue, Houstonia shines a spotlight on an array of immigrants, 40 to be exact, from all walks of life—refugees who fled war zones to come here, those seeking better economic opportunities, artists and engineers and lawyers and ballerinas and hairdressers. Some left behind lives of privilege; others witnessed atrocities they speak of in whispers. Some are prominent city leaders; others are everyday folks. Some just got here; others have been here for decades. Some are desperately homesick; others are just fine never going back to their home countries. All have come to Houston and found a way to not just survive, but to thrive.
There are challenges to our tradition of welcoming immigrants, especially when it comes to our most desperate newcomers. In January Governor Greg Abbott announced that Texas would decline to accept refugees, making us the first state in the nation to do so under the current administration. As of press time for this issue, a federal judge had blocked the ban. Nevertheless, fewer refugees are entering the U.S. each year. At the time of Gov. Abbott’s announcement, Mayor Sylvester Turner responded with a statement that read in part: “Regardless of where someone is from, who they are, or what they believe, there is a home for them in Houston. Our welcoming spirit has led to our city becoming the national leader in refugee resettlement.”
Embracing immigrants remains a crucial part of Houston’s identity, as attested by the 40 people who generously agreed to share their stories with us. Taken together, they begin to form a picture, of a city formed by its arrivals, and the one thing those arrivals have in common: They or someone close to them made the agonizing choice to leave behind their loved ones, and the worlds they knew, in pursuit of the American Dream. They’re Houstonians now. These are their stories.