Dominated by working-class families who’ve lived in the city for generations, San Antonio has long maintained stable demographics. Many Anglos descend from Texas’s early European settlers, while, contrary to public perception of the city as an immigrant hub, many Hispanics are Tejanos—native Texans of Mexican descent—who were born in the city or in the Rio Grande Valley. But as Texas undergoes rapid urbanization, San Antonio is starting to feel like a big city—one that’s more dense, transient, global, and cosmopolitan.
Mexican nationals are a key force in driving this change. Though the term “Mexican national” is unscientific, it describes educated, professional-class Mexican immigrants who have recently fled from major cities like Guadalajara and Monterrey. Their homeland has seen rising violence, making them, because of their wealth, vulnerable to kidnappings. Mexican nationals can effectively navigate U.S. immigration laws, paying several thousand dollars for lawyers, visas, and plane tickets. They have flooded into U.S. cities, parking their assets in local banks and in real estate. They favor cities with a Latino flair—which explains their attraction to San Antonio, effectively the Mexican-American capital: it feels culturally familiar while providing greater safety and opportunity.
Roughly 50,000 Mexican nationals live in San Antonio and likely tens of thousands more throughout the metro area, according to a 2013 Los Angeles Times report. Many have settled on the north side—territory historically reserved for the Anglo elite—inside gated communities and newly built, town-center-style developments. They work in white-collar professions, infusing the city with new expertise in technology, architecture, and finance. Former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros, who sought to enhance the city’s Mexican-American business presence, cheers this influx of wealth. San Antonio has become one of the nation’s best-performing cities economically, and the metro area’s population growth rates rank among the nation’s highest since 2000.
But perhaps the Mexican nationals’ most notable imprint has been on the city’s culture, via their lavish consumption. One of the recently built north-side country clubs, Sonterra, serves so many Monterrey expatriates that some call it Sonterrey. Just down the road, Mexican nationals frequent La Cantera, a luxurious mall. On a typical Saturday, parking can be found only on the outskirts of the mall’s huge lot, beyond numerous luxury cars. Inside, shoppers splurge at stores like Nordstrom and Hugo Boss, with much of the business conducted in Spanish. The city also boasts greater diversity in restaurants, nightlife, and arts and entertainment. As Cisneros puts it, it’s “almost as if a new culture has emerged.”
It’s not just Mexican nationals flocking to San Antonio. Millennials, African-Americans, and Asians from around the country—most notably, Southern California—are coming to San Antonio for the jobs, low cost of living, and easygoing lifestyle. They, too, might concur with Mark Twain’s judgment, a century ago, that America has only four unique cities: San Francisco, New Orleans, Boston—and San Antonio.