By Lomi Kriel, Houston Chronicle
The son of a Mexican immigrant and single mother who worked as a seamstress, Eridani Alcantar knew no English when he started first grade at an impoverished, mostly African-American school in a gritty part of southwest Houston. But he excelled and was quickly identified as gifted and talented, earning a scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin, where he graduated last year with a mathematics degree.
“I couldn’t have done it without my mother,” said Alcantar, who was born in Chicago and is now 23. “She always told me, ‘My job is to support us. Your job is to do well at school.’ ”
That value on education has been key to Hispanics succeeding in Houston, according to a report released Friday by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. Over time, it showed, Hispanics are assimilating by nearly all measures, from increasing their salaries to graduating more frequently from high school and purchasing more of their own homes. New immigrants made considerable gains the longer they had been here, and their children fared even better. But suddenly, by the third generation, their pace of progress slowed, the report found, suggesting external barriers impede further improvements.
Their experiences, and why some like Alcantar leap further ahead more quickly, pose important policy questions for city and county leaders who will soon face a region that is majority Hispanic, said Stephen Klineberg, the institute’s co-director and author of the report. It’s based on an analysis of two decades of regional data including annual interviews with nearly 10,000 U.S.-born Hispanics and Latino immigrants.
“Houston’s future is in the balance,” Klineberg said.
Decades of gains
More than half of all Harris County residents younger than age 20 are Hispanic, according to U.S. Census data. Overall, its Hispanic population is the largest in the country after Los Angeles, and nearly two-thirds of all students enrolled in the Houston Independent School District last year were Hispanic.
The report found most Hispanic immigrants in Houston arrived without a high school diploma. But over time they improved in practically every measure of success. Though more than two thirds of Hispanics here reported earning only $25,000 or less within their first decade in the United States, after two decades that had dropped to fewer than half.
Similarly, while less than a third owned a home in their first decade here nearly three quarters boasted home ownership after 20 years. Of all Houston’s ethnic and racial groups, Hispanic immigrants were the most likely to agree that if you work hard you’ll eventually succeed, according to the report.
Their children fared even better. Less than a quarter of U.S.-born Hispanics didn’t graduate from high school compared to almost 60 percent of Hispanic immigrants, and they graduated from college at three times the rate.
By the third generation, nearly a third of Houston’s Hispanics earned more than $50,000. Similarly, rates of homeownership and health insurance had also increased over the first two generations. Butby the third, progress in most measures began to stall or improve by only tiny amounts, according to the report. After decades of gains, Hispanics’ educational attainments, salary levels, and homeownership paused at essentially the same level achieved by U.S.-born black residents.
“The structural barriers that limit blacks’ prospect for success are also working against Hispanics,” the report found, suggesting the first generations of Hispanics advanced as far as they could within the confines of the system before being stalled by obstacles often beyond their control.
“Living in areas of concentrated poverty and coping with the blocked opportunities that result from educational deficits and the stress of perceived discrimination make further advancement difficult for both groups,” it said.
Putting education first
Houston, which boasts the most millionaires in the United States after New York according to Spear’s, a British financial services magazine, is a “tale of two cities,” said Juliet Stipeche, president of HISD’s board. Stipeche was born in the impoverished East End to an Argentine father who held a middle-class job as an electrical technician that enabled her mother, a Mexican immigrant, to stay home with the children. They both won scholarships to college.
“We were kind of anomalies in my neighborhood,” Stipeche said. “Many Hispanic children don’t have that same opportunity. They’re in homes where both parents are working and not earning decent wages, they’re moving from one apartment to another to get the best monthly special, and the children feel they need to get jobs out of necessity.”
When Alcantar’s grades suffered during first grade, his mother quit her job as a convenience store cashier and worked from home as a seamstress so she could be around. For a time they were on food stamps. But he progressed quickly, qualifying for a gifted and talented middle school. In high school, he took all advanced placement classes, getting into UT’s world-ranked engineering school.
His experience is consistent with what Angela Valenzuela, a UT education professor, found when she researched second- and third-generation Mexican immigrants in an inner-city Houston high school for her book, “Subtractive Schooling: U.S.-Mexican Youth and the Politics of Caring.” Those in advanced classes outperformed each other but progress among the vast majority who didn’t have such access stalled across generations, she said.
“If you give a kid quality education they’re going to succeed,” she said.
It was Alcantar’s own frustration with his mathematical instruction that inspired him to teach algebra at Westbury High School in southwest Houston.
While taking a differential equations class in college, he realized he’d never learned about matrixes and “felt kind of cheated,” he said.
“In a lot of these lower socieconomic schools they just teach you to the test, and there were no questions about matrixes on the test,” he said. “I wanted to get into teaching to alleviate that.”
His first year has been challenging. Many of his mostly low-income students say they don’t need to know math to keep working at the Wal-Mart after school.
“I tell them if you just do your job at school you’ll get a better job down the road,” Alcantar said. “But many of them don’t understand that.”