Houston political and civic leaders often speak of how the city is a model of diversity for the nation. And while some radio commentators seem to treat “diversity” as a virtual four-letter word, it seems most Houstonians have embraced the multicultural stew that the city has become in the past few decades.
Steven Klineberg, the Rice University sociologist who’s been conducting a wide-ranging survey of the attitudes of area residents for three decades, has made that a theme of his presentations for several years. And people outside Houston have taken note, including the staff of the online Fast Company magazine.
On a perfect spring day Saturday, the point was made all the more obvious just by walking a few blocks downtown. This weekend is the second of the venerable Houston International Festival, or iFest, the 500-pound gorilla of Houston’s festival scene, this year paying homage — instead of just one country, as usual — to the Silk Road, the ancient trading route connecting Mediterranean Europe and the Middle East to the breadth of Asia.
Here in Houston, those cultures — and many, many more — are connected in close proximity, and most agree that we’re the stronger for it. Witness two other, somewhat smaller events that took place downtown Saturday.
Throngs of people, mostly Mexican-Americans but also people of different heritages, lined the streets for the annual Cinco de Mayo parade, celebrating Mexico’s version of Independence Day. The parade, sponsored by LULAC, had the usual mix of high school marching bands and drill teams, JROTC groups, commercial hucksters and politicians and elected officials — in this instance, including Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, the county’s first Hispanic sheriff, on horseback leading his mounted patrol. Young dancers in colorful, traditional garb spun gaily, sometimes proudly shouting “Viva Mexico!”
Just a short walk from the parade, Allen’s Landing — the historic birthplace of Houston — was the site of the 11th annual Houston Dragon Boat Festival, held in conjunction with the Asian/Pacific American Heritage Association Festival.
The event, in which teams from corporations, nonprofits and other organizations fiercely but good-naturedly compete to ply their dragon boats up Buffalo Bayou, has grown steadily since its beginnings, Eugene Lee, chairman emeritus of the sponsoring organization told me. (Click here to see photographer Pin Lim’s photos of the event.)
Lee, disarmingly young for such a vaulted title, explained that dragon boat races are a tradition that dates back 2,000 years in China. They honor an exalted poet and advisor to a Chinese king (before the vast land was unified), who legend says jumped into a river as a form of civil protest. Fisherman, who bedecked their boats with dragon heads, rushed to save him, beating drums to scare off underwater predators.
Lee told me that the festival has three goals: promoting the sport of dragon boat racing itself, promoting ties within Houston’s Asian and Pacific American cultural groups, and expanding cross-cultural awareness outside those communities.
In that regard, the lineup of the festival didn’t disappoint. Along with traditional Asian food from several countries, the entertainment offerings included a group of young girls of different ethnicities performing traditional Hawaiian and Tahitian dances; martial arts exhibitions including Thai boxing; a Tai Chi group; Filipino dancers; the Mayapuris, a Florida band that performs kirtan, a call-and-response form of music from India; Japanese drummers; and even a belly dancing troupe performing to Arabic music.
Almost to underscore the point, I was there with my longtime friend and sometime collaborator, Pin Lim. In between shooting photos of the events, Pin — who hails from Singapore but has lived in Houston for over a decade and is married to a Hispanic-American — was excitedly checking his smartphone for the results of his homeland’s elections.
Copyright © 2011 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.