CORPUS CHRISTI — At the Mexican Independence Day festival here this month, where the accordion-fueled sounds of the Tigrillos drifted across the grounds of a former greyhound racetrack, attendees like Sara Gaona came to celebrate their native country.
Gaona, 39, a housekeeper who was dressed head to toe in the red, white and green of the Mexican flag, down to the ribbons in her hair, arrived in Corpus Christi a decade ago from Reynosa in northern Mexico.
Like Gaona, more than half of the residents in the Corpus Christi metro area are Hispanic. But the vast majority of the area’s Hispanics were born in the United States. A report last month from the Pew Research Center shows that among the 60 metro areas in the United States with the largest Hispanic populations, Corpus Christi has the smallest percentage of Hispanics who are foreign-born, at 8 percent.
By contrast, 66 percent of Hispanics in the Miami area are foreign-born, as are 41 percent in the Houston region and 36 percent of all Hispanics in the nation.
South Texas cities like San Antonio and Corpus Christi have a low proportion of foreign-born Hispanic residents because that part of the state has been Hispanic for so long, said Steve Murdock, the director of the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University.
South Texas “was Hispanic before it was anything else,” he said.
The family of Nelda Martinez, the mayor of Corpus Christi who whooped excitedly from the festival stage as her mother looked on, highlights that long-time presence. Her family has been in Texas since before it became a republic in 1836, said Martinez, 52, the first Hispanic female mayor of Corpus Christi.
“It’s like the saying, ‘I didn’t cross the border; the border crossed me,’” said her mother, Maria Consuelo Martinez, 78.
Maria Consuelo Martinez was born 45 miles away in Alice. A few years later, the League of United Latin American Citizens was formed in Corpus Christi when it was common to see signs saying “No Mexicans Allowed.” Today, the organization, which is based in Washington, advocates for Hispanic-Americans. The American GI Forum, which seeks to protect the rights of Hispanic military veterans, was also founded in Corpus Christi.
It was the city’s established middle-class Hispanic population that drew Lisa Hernandez’s late grandmother Toni Medina there from Taylor in Central Texas. Medina, a housekeeper, first saw Corpus Christi when a couple she worked for vacationed in the coastal city, and she came along to look after their children.
"My grandmother would tell this story, she’d say: ‘I saw Mexican policemen, I saw Mexican bank tellers, I saw Mexican taxi cabdrivers,'" Hernandez said. “She saw visions of what her children could become.”
Not long after that visit, Medina bought a house in Corpus Christi and moved there in 1948. Hernandez, 51, a fifth-generation Texan who is a political consultant and an art teacher, now lives in that house.
This month’s Viva Mexico independence festival was held near the building where the Tejano singer-songwriter Selena had her recording studio and where a museum created after she was murdered in 1995 showcases gowns she wore to the Grammy Awards. The festival took place Sept. 8, eight days before Mexican Independence Day, because the bands performing at the festival were playing in bigger cities for the holiday, organizers said.
Attendees, which organizers estimated at 2,500, could pick up pamphlets on workers’ rights and listen to acts like the Tigrillos, whose members wore turquoise shirts and black cowboy hats.
Yulissa Aguilar, 15, who came to Corpus Christi from Tamaulipas, Mexico, as a young girl, listened with her classmate Arturo Guzman. Guzman, also 15, was born in Corpus Christi.
“For all I know,” he said of his family, “we’ve always been here.”