[Note: This article has been edited to reflect NorteñoBlog’s belated realization that HLSR is in fact a non-profit, using its proceeds for full college scholarships. Outside accusations of discrimination remain.]
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo sounds like a county fair on steroids and gamma rays, an orgy of horses, country music, and mad cowboys deep frying everything that’s not nailed down. I’m frankly jealous we don’t have one up in Chicago. But there’s trouble in Bayou City, and there has been for the past eight years, specifically surrounding the rodeo’s annual “Go Tejano Day” event:
Go Tejano Day is one of the biggest days at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo but it didn’t stop protestors from rallying outside of NRG Park.
Tejano supporters protested Sunday afternoon saying officials here have chosen musical acts in the Norteno and Banda genre and have not stayed true to Tejano music and culture.
Indeed, yesterday’s Go Tejano Day crowd broke the rodeo’s alltime record for attendance: 75,357 people paid to enjoy the music of Arrolladora and La Maquinaria Norteña, one banda and one norteño group, both of whom NorteñoBlog has been known to enjoy. Neither group has anything to do with Tejano music. To repeat, that’s the biggest ever paid attendance at any day of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which otherwise features first-tier country artists and a couple top-40 pop stars. (Dierks Bentley’s playing tonight; tomorrow’s Ariana Grande.) The second most attended day in history? 2012’s Go Tejano Day, which featured Julión Álvarez and Los Invasores de Nuevo Leon, one banda one norteño, neither of them Tejano.
Indeed, you have to go back to 2007 to find an actual Tejano act playing Go Tejano Day. (It was crossover country star Emilio.) Not coincidentally, that was also the last year the event didn’t spark protests. In 2008 the concert planners broke with tradition. For the first time since Go Tejano Day started in 1990, its headliners weren’t Tejano bands — instead they were Duelo, Texans playing norteño, and Los Horoscopos de Durango, playing Chicago duranguense. 71,165 people still showed up, but so did some protesters:
“The bands that are inside are representing Mexico,” said one protester, Steve Rodriguez, 54. “That’s not representing Tejanos.”
The rodeo’s excuse has always been reasonable, as you’d expect from a gigantic
moneymaking corporation. If you’re a Tejano music fan, maybe it’s infuriatingly reasonable. Go Tejano Day was never meant to refer to Tejano music; rather, it was a play on the “Go Texan” slogan and designed to appeal to Houston’s large-and-growing Hispanic population, and the nineties just happened to be when Tejano music was on the rise. As we saw around Grammy time, back in 1996, when the Grammys were busily neglecting norteño music, the Tejano music industry marshaled its clout to create the “Best Mexican-American/Tejano” category, which La Mafia promptly won. Since then, though, Tejano has grown less and less popular. As Tejano fan Ramiro Burr pointed out in 2008, “When it comes time to booking the bands, the Houston Rodeo folks are doing what commercial radio and record labels do — they go for what brings in the largest crowds.” Since Go Tejano Day started featuring norteño and banda acts, the event has consistently broken attendance records for the rodeo’s organizers. Can you blame them?
The thing is, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, to whom I’ll start referring as the more nefarious-sounding HLSR, has also done that big-corporation thing of changing the terms of the debate. The HLSR has accomplished this with diabolical ease. (MWA-jajaja!) The 2008 protests weren’t only about which bands would play the main stage; they made other demands:
1. Award greater number of scholarships to Hispanics. Only a few
scholarships are awarded to Hispanics.
2. Need Hispanic representation at the Executive Committee Level of the
rodeo’s governing group. Currently, Hispanics do not have
3. Retain event title as “Go Tejano Day”, while building greater
awareness of Tejano music & culture.
4. Expand role of “Go Tejano Committee” in the entertainment selection
process. The Go Tejano Committee has no role in selecting bands to
5. Pay parity for Tejano music artists. Tejano artists are paid much
much less than the other non-Hispanic artists. Yet, the Tejano artists
have broken numerous attendance records.
6. Increase Hispanic themed days/events at the Houston Rodeo.
Indeed, in 2008, “Several black lawmakers, including State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, joined the Tejano cause…, saying blacks, too, should play a bigger role in the show.”
Rodeo officials counter that about one-third of scholarships already go to Hispanic students. And while there are no blacks or Hispanics on the rodeo’s highest volunteer committee [it’s called The Executive Committee, MWAjajaja], that’s because membership is based on years of service and financial contributions.
I can’t speak to the scholarship numbers. But that second point is a classic method of refusing to integrate your organization while still seeming cool with the idea of integration. The idea goes, “They, the people whose money we’re taking in record-setting amounts, can’t help us plan the specific means of taking their money because they’ve never done it before. But seriously, we’re concerned.” Well, if nothing changes, nothing changes. Here, feast your eyes on the pasty faces of the current 2015 Executive Committee! The rodeo does have a black Vice President and some Latino-sounding names on the Board of Directors, which isn’t nothing. But it also isn’t integration. And if you’re serious about representing your clientele, it won’t take you eight years to integrate your Executive Committee, sure as you don’t wanna touch your shoe soles after visiting the livestock show.
(Um, I would like to pre-emptively apologize to Chris Richardson or any other members of the Executive Committee who might, in fact, be Hispanic. Set me straight!)
But in 2008, Leroy Shafer, the HLSR’s Chief Operating Officer, saved his fighting words for the musical argument. “The very vast majority of the Hispanic community knows that this is a subterfuge to try to keep a dying music industry alive,” he said of the protest. “They’re not buying into it.” He’s right about that. This 2009 message board thread is a good read, with every other post offering a sound argument about appropriate names for the event (the meaning of Tejano isn’t in question) and which music is worth supporting. But nobody really addresses the power structure like those 2008 protesters, except for a poster named MH, who says, “[W]e will not be able to influence the Tejano Day if we do not start becoming involved in their planning…”
This year’s protests got some extra attention thanks to Oscar de la Rosa of La Mafia, that Grammy-winning Tejano band; de la Rosa went on a profane rant against rodeo organizers during one of his concerts. (La Mafia has played the rodeo in the past.) There was also a change.org petition. But neither addressed the power structure of the HLSR; they just implored Tejano fans to boycott so that the HLSR would schedule some Tejano bands. The HLSR responded in kind: “We put music on our main RODEOHOUSTON stage that attracts fans and sells tickets.” There are bigger fish to fry here. I frankly don’t care who plays Go Tejano Day, but there’s no question Tejano’s appeal has waned for a while. It simply has fewer fans than norteño and banda. Changing the name to “Hispanic Heritage Day” or hiring La Mafia instead of Arrolladora isn’t gonna change who’s in charge of the rodeo or how they make their scholarship money. They’d just make less money if they hired La Mafia.