Cover Story

Houston: A semisweet land of liberty

"Houston: A semisweet land of liberty" Continued...

IN THE WORLD: Martinez.
Johnny Hanson/Genesis
IN THE WORLD: Martinez.
Martinez, his wife (originally from Puerto Rico), and their two children live in a rented house in Rice Village. One mile to the east stands the largest medical complex in the world: His wife, a doctor, is one of the 100,000 persons employed there. Four miles to the west sits a magnet elementary school his son attends. It’s a Mandarin immersion charter school that teaches half its classes in Chinese and half in English. (A segment with the children speaking and singing in Chinese is scheduled for our March 11 radio show/podcast, The World and Everything In It, available at, or through a podcast app.)

In a globalizing world Martinez believes the English and Spanish his children can ordinarily learn at school and home aren’t enough. The principle that goes with such pragmatism is important both for Martinez and Houston: Ethnic diversity is the spice of life and the stuff of heaven. His son’s school is almost equally split among African-American, Anglo, Asian, and Hispanic students, and not by quota.

Martinez spends a lot of time on Bissonet Ave., which connects medical center, home, school, and a strip center that includes a specialized tortilla shop: Explaining that Mexicans buy fresh tortillas every morning for their big early afternoon meal, he stopped at the tortilleria and bought one pound for a dollar. Also on Bissonet is another Houston institution, a Shipley Donuts store. There he meets with parents from his children’s school, just to talk: Martinez recalls conversations with a Polish atheist (“She became very interested in the gospel”) and says, “This is where informal apologetics takes place.”

Much of Houston is low-key in that way but also “vibrant,” Martinez says: He recalls seeing many young men in Philadelphia just sitting, while Houston displays “people working hard, so it feels like the city is moving and shaking.” He says the two U.S. cities he knows well are “night and day: fear in Philadelphia you might be the next Detroit, cranes in Houston. … All of that energy and expertise that comes from immigrants has made Houston a success story, whereas a city that hasn’t been able to capture that vibrancy and skill is struggling now.”

Martinez contrasts the message of a famous New York song—“If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere”—with what he says hard-working Houstonians learn: “You CAN make it here.”

GETTING TO WORK: Bolling enjoys a musical performance at the Aldine Family Hope Center.
Johnny Hanson/Genesis
GETTING TO WORK: Bolling enjoys a musical performance at the Aldine Family Hope Center.
SYLVIA BOLLING, now in her 60s, spends almost all of her time not on the freeways but within two miles of the north Houston intersection of U.S. 59 and Aldine Mail Route. In that circle are 10 schools, five subdivisions, five apartment complexes, and many businesses and churches. Two-thirds of the young people within that circle are  “economically disadvantaged,” and near the center of that circle is the Aldine Family Hope Center, which has grown from a seed she planted 25 years ago. 

Late one afternoon Bolling strode the corridors of her center, hugging small children as she went. She entered a room with teenage girls, greeted them by name, and offered a promise: “If we see you working hard, we’ll put in a good word for you and you will get a job.” She marched into a room where teenage boys were in a Bible study under the supervision of a dreadlocked, triple-majoring Rice student. The guys were lounging, legs outstretched, but when they saw Bolling, several sat up straight. She looked one of them in the eyes and said, “It’s good I see you in here. When someone comes asking for a reliable helper, I’ll remember you were here.”

Bolling in 1989 was an effervescent speech pathologist with a husband and two teenage daughters. They lived in an Aldine dominated by gang-bangers who shot out library windows for fun at least once a month. (I interviewed last year, for a WORLD cover story on the death penalty, an imprisoned murderer from Aldine who in 1991 cut the throats of his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend.) With drug use growing, Bolling decided to do drug education programs in schools. She operated out of her car until 1995, and once walked into a confrontation of armed gangs to give the adversaries a stern motherly talking-to.

Trying to find a permanent site, she headed from the discomfort zone she understood to the “scary” downtown she hardly knew: “I’d go to the [Central] Library downtown. I was scared to death. I’d sit in the foundation section of the library and start reading about getting grants. People would come in, and I’d ask, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ I’d go to United Way meetings. Relationships are everything in this city. You can meet people who will circle around you years from now.” Eventually the Houston Endowment gave Bolling enough money to buy the building and seven acres on which her center now sits.

— Houston segments on our daily radio/podcast show, The World and Everything in It, are scheduled for Feb. 19, Feb. 26, and the weeks of March 3 and March 10. You can access it through a podcast app on your phone or tablet, or by listening to the clips posted below.


You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading


    Troubling ties

    Under the Clinton State Department, influence from big money…