Gov. Greg Abbott at the 86th annual San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce gala. Photo by Scott Ball.qGov. Greg Abbott at the 86th annual San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce gala. Photo by Scott Ball.
Gov. Greg Abbott at the 86th annual San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce gala. Photo by Scott Ball.

In an evening that was part celebration, part muscle flexing, the nation’s oldest Hispanic Chamber of Commerce gathered for its 86th annual gala Saturday night, a night that featured Gov. Greg Abbot delivering his first speech here since he was sworn into office.

This year’s Chamber theme is “It’s Our Time,” and newly elected Chairman Adolfo “Al” Aguilar, looking trim and tanned, put the numbers behind that claim in his own speech, which you can read in its entirety on the Rivard Report by clicking here. Aguilar, who founded Creative Civilization with his wife, Gisela Girard, assumed the organization’s top leadership position from 2014 chairperson Patricia Pliego Stout.

“We are the majority now, let’s act like it,” said Ramiro Cavazos, the Chamber’s president and CEO in his own remarks.

A glittering audience of 1,700 packed the Grand Hyatt’s main ballroom for the evening affair, which began with long lines of VIPs lined up to have their photos taken with Gov. Abbott, who looked fit and formal in his tuxedo and pleased by all the social commotion. The evening dress code called for “Mad Men” attire, which made for an interesting mix of period grab, formal wear, and some women sporting a ’60s look, an others wearing ball gowns.

A mingling crowd forms at the 86th annual San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Gala.
A mingling crowd forms at the 86th annual San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Gala.

The event brought downtown traffic to a drizzly crawl Saturday evening as attendees arrived for what may be the year’s longest fiesta, beginning at 6:30 p.m. and extending into the early morning with after-parties. Even the governor’s team had a hard time in downtown traffic.

Guests were surprised when students spread out through the ballroom and presented every attendee with a complimentary Southwest Airlines gift certificate for $86, commemorating the Hispanic Chamber’s anniversary. The talk at our table and those nearby immediately turned to travel plans and a discussion of Southwest destination cities. The new daily service to New Orleans was cited by several people.

Javier Palomarez, the president & CEO of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, was on hand to introduce Aguilar, who he credited with saving the national chamber with his hard-working and creative efforts to rebrand the organization that has now grown nationally to 200 local Hispanic chambers.

President of U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Javier Palomarez at the 86th annual San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Gala. Photo by Scott Ball.
President of U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Javier Palomarez at the 86th annual San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Gala. Photo by Scott Ball.

“Think of the contributions we have made in this city,” Palomarez said. “More than 40% of all businesses in San Antonio are Hispanic.”

Hope Andrade, the newly elected chairperson of VIA Metropolitan Transit and the state’s first Hispanic secretary of state appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, introduced Abbott. The governor’s speech focused on supporting small business, but he also established a very personal connection with San Antonio.

Gov. Abbot noted that his wife, Cecilia, is from San Antonio, and that they were married at Our Lady of the Lake University. Her grandparents, he noted, were immigrants from Monterrey.

“It’s good to be back in this town so steeped in culture and heritage, where I was married 33 years ago, where my wife grew up and where her parents still live, and where my brother, Gary, lives with his family since retiring after 20 years of service with the Navy,” Gov. Abbott said. “It’s good to be here with Father Richard from Central Catholic, where two of my wife’s brothers attended school.”

Gov. Greg Abbott sings along to the National Anthem at the 86th annual San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Gala. Photo by Scott Ball.
Gov. Greg Abbott sings along to the National Anthem at the 86th annual San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Gala. Photo by Scott Ball.

At a time when the Republican Party is struggling nationally to find a more empathetic and welcoming immigration reform policy that balances inclusion with security, Gov. Abbott sounded a decidedly positive and informed note.

“Thank you for the powerful role you’re playing in propelling Texas to the economic pinnacle of the United States. You’ve helped make Texas number one in the nation for job creation, the top exporting state for 12 years, and ranked the best state for doing business ten years in a row,” Gov. Abbott said.  “Last year Texas added over 450,000 jobs – the most ever for a year in Texas. Texas had a low unemployment rate of 4.6 %, and San Antonio’s was even lower, a testament to your job creation prowess.

“The truth is Texas is exceptional and you are a big reason why. You are the entrepreneurs and the risk takers, the people with a dream and the vision and work ethic to achieve it, ” Gov. Abbott continued. “Texas remains the land of opportunity, opportunity that attracts people here from other states and other countries.

“It’s the same opportunity that brought my wife’s grandparents to Texas from Monterrey, Mexico. Like so many, they wanted to raise their children in a place where opportunity knows no limits. Now their granddaughter is the first Hispanic First Lady of Texas.”

Gov. Abbott also told the now-familiar story of the incident that has made him the first Texas governor to use a wheelchair.

Gov. Greg Abbott at the 86th annual San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce gala. Photo by Scott Ball.
Gov. Greg Abbott at the 86th annual San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce gala. Photo by Scott Ball.

“Not long after we were married at Our Lady of the Lake, our marriage vows faced a test because that’s when that incident occurred that you have heard about before,” he said. “One day my wife woke up and kissed me goodbye on my way to work. She didn’t know that when she kissed me goodbye that day it would be the last time she would see me walk.  That was the day that a tree crashed down on me, shattering my spine and vertebrae, leaving me forever unable to walk.

“Now I know over the course of the last year many of you have heard that story, but I can still see people hearing it today shaking their heads and wondering, “How slow was that guy jogging, anyway?”

It’s line that draws laughs of relief everywhere Gov. Abbott tells the story, and one he uses to great effect to put people at ease with his disability, which might be the wrong word in his case since he shows none.

“Following my accident, I learned something very powerful, that our lives aren’t defined by how we are challenged,” Gov. Abbott said.  “Instead we get to define our lives by how we respond to the challenges we face.”

He then delivered a pro-small business message that resonated with a crowd that included hundreds of Hispanic small business owners, many of them only one, two or three generations removed from their immigrant roots.

“That is the same principle that you apply every day. You have to deal with increasing challenges – challenges in making your businesses grow, meeting a payroll and navigating a maze of regulations and taxes,” Gov. Abbott said. “As governor I want to help you respond to those challenges. I believe that government should be on your side, not riding your back.

“As governor, I’ll focus on policies that will make doing business in San Antonio and Texas even more inviting and more rewarding. That includes lowering your taxes. It’s a proven fact that lowering the business franchise tax is one of the best ways to stimulate job growth. I will reject any budget that does not include tax relief to Texas businesses.”

Gov. Abbott signaled his intent to seek more funding for highway construction. He said he noticed the construction of Loop 1604 on his first visit to San Antonio and thought to himself, “Who is the crazy person who is building this road that no one will ever use?”

Now, he said, “a guy in a wheelchair can go faster than traffic on 1604.”

“I will fund the roads we need to keep San Antonio growing,” Gov. Abbott said. “Tax dollars raised for roads will be spent on building roads.”

One of his first acts as governor has been a proposed reorganization of economic development efforts in the governor’s office, a significant policy change that comes in the wake of years of controversy over Gov. Perry’s use of the Texas Enterprise Fund, which Gov. Abbott wants to abolish. He said again Saturday evening hat he intends to use the fund’s $70 million to help Texas state universities recruit research faculty.

Gov. Abbott also affirmed the early childhood education white paper the Hispanic Chamber recently released that called for every child to be proficient in reading by the third grade.

(Read more: Hispanic Chamber report: Educating Tomorrow’s Texans.)

“We must do a better job educating our children. They are the workforce for our future,” Gov. Abbott said. “I want to emphasize early learning, ensuring that every child can read and do math at grade level by the third grade. I want to emphasize building a skilled workforce. ensuring our graduates are prepared for a career or college. I want to elevate our colleges and universities higher than they’ve ever been.

“I proposed the Governor’s University Research Initiative this week. This program will help our colleges and universities recruit the best and brightest researchers and scholars from across the country especially those focused in the critical fields of science, technology, engineering and math. These great minds will work with universities like UTSA and will do more than educate our students they will develop top research centers and partner with the private sector to develop the ideas that will transform the next generation.”

Gov. Abbott closed by recalling a conversation with one “Latina business owner about the role of education. Like my wife, her grandparents came to Texas from Mexico. She was the first in her family to go to college. She was a single mom. And now she runs one of the most prominent real estate companies. She told me that kids need role models who demonstrate why it’s important to stay in school to strive to aim for success. You are those role models.

“We want you to succeed. We need you to succeed. When you succeed, Texas succeeds,” Gov. Abbott said. “All that we ask is that you keep growing your businesses, keep hiring and keep Texas prosperous.”

Later in the evening, state Sen. Leticia van de Putte was called on to the stage to introduce outgoing chairperson Pliego Stout.

“I’m bilingual, I’m bicultural, and I’m bifocal,”Van de Putte said, donning what she called “Rick Perry glasses” to read her introduction.

Pliego Stout reviewed her year as chair and talked at length about the importance of mentoring Latina business startups and making a greater investment in early education initiatives. At the end of her remarks, she was surprised with a larger-than-life portrait by San Antonio artist and Latino advertising and marketing pioneer Lionel Sosa. His portraits of outgoing Hispanic chairs have become a tradition at the annual gala.

A portrait is presented to Patricia Pliego Stout at the 86th annual San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce gala. Photo by Scott Ball.
A portrait is presented to Patricia Pliego Stout at the 86th annual San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce gala. Photo by Scott Ball.

Van de Putte is expected to resign her Senate seat once her successor is selected in a Feb. 17 special election runoff. (Read more: Gov. Abbott Sets Feb. 17 for Runoff Elections.)

She is running for mayor against former state Rep. Mike Villarreal, who chose not to be sworn into office for a new term after his re-election in November. Villarreal declared his candidacy for mayor last summer. A number of people asked last night why he was not given equal play and invited to make one of the evening’s introductions.

 *Featured/top image: Gov. Greg Abbott at the 86th annual San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce gala. Photo by Scott Ball.

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Hispanic Chamber: ‘It’s Our Time’

Commentary: Why San Antonio Is a Great Place for Business

San Antonio: Bridge City to Mexico

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.