A racially charged controversy surrounding the diversity record of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo deepened over the weekend, with the county's first-ever Hispanic sheriff backing out of his earlier commitment to participate as a grand marshal in the city's annual rodeo parade.
Newly elected Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia , who took the post in January, had initially agreed to be one of two grand marshals, but withdrew his name shortly before the Saturday event, telling the Houston Chronicle that "the rodeo and the community have some things to work out."
The move underscores the brewing tension between the rodeo and minority groups over diversity issues such as the rodeo's hiring of black and Hispanic employees.
While Hispanics make up roughly 42 percent of the city's population – and blacks constitute about 15 percent -- they have no presence on the rodeo's 19-member board of directors, which is all white and all male. Also, the 76-year-old rodeo in the last 10 or so years has started requiring applicants for student scholarships to prove they are U.S. citizens. In addition, the organization's roster of 90-plus full-time employees includes just seven minorities, who work as groundskeepers and other low-level employees, critics charge.
Meanwhile, the rodeo is a huge cash cow, generating about $80 million every year during its three-week run.
Late last month, one of the rodeo's staunchest critics, state Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, introduced a bill that would require the non-profit rodeo to open its books, contract with more minority-owned companies and put some minorities on the rodeo's main board of directors.
"Times are changing, but our rodeo hasn't changed in 76 years," Gallegos told HispanicBusiness.com Monday. "I feel the rodeo needs a big lesson in Diversity 101."
The dustup began in January of 2008, just before the start of the festivities, when the rodeo didn't hire a Tejano band to play in its annual "Go Tejano Day" event. Tejano, or "Tex-Mex," is a style of Hispanic music that blends polka, rock and Mariachi and is specific to Texas. Musicians unhappy about the exclusion complained to Senator Gallegos.
As the Gallegos administration looked into the matter, it found the rodeo to be unresponsive, Gallegos said. During the investigation, the administration also discovered that the bidding for rodeo contracts was not open, and that few contracts seemed to be going to minority-owned businesses.
Every year, contractors work with the rodeo on a wide range of projects, from doing the carnival work to setting up the lighting to installing the porta-potties.
Gallegos said he doesn't know how many minority-owned businesses have contracts with the rodeo, because the rodeo hasn't cooperated with his quest to find out. But he said he suspects the number is very low.
"Seventy-six years is a long time," he said. "We're talking about daughters and their daughters and their daughters. Sons and their sons and their sons."
On the issue of the scholarships, Gallegos said he offered a compromise, in which students who are not yet citizens would pledge to become legalized at age 18 on condition of receiving a scholarship. The rodeo, he said, wasn't interested.
"No deal," he said, adding that the new rules on citizenship recently caused the rodeo to deny a scholarship to a high school valedictorian.
In April, the American GI Forum sought to arrange a non-binding mediation session between the rodeo and its critics, with the U.S. Justice Department acting as the mediator. Rodeo leader Leroy Shafer declined to participate, and was quoted in the Chronicle saying such talks would be "pointless." Shafer did not return a call Monday morning from HispanicBusiness.com.
Gallegos' bill would require the rodeo to appoint a board of directors that more accurately reflects the population of the area. It also would require the rodeo to make a "reasonable attempt" to hire more minority-owned contractors.
In a letter to the public, the chairman of the rodeo's board, Butch Robinson, sought to parry some of the claims of the critics.
He said that between 2006 and 2008, the rodeo contributed 915 scholarships to Houston students, at a total value of $12 million. Of those, 44 percent went to white students; 29 percent went to Hispanics and 18 percent went to black students.
"The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo will continue to do what we've always done - put on a great Show and award thousands of scholarships to deserving Houston-area students," he wrote.
The letter has left Gallegos unmoved.
"I've been asked, 'so is the rodeo racist or not?'" he said. "I can't say, because I don't know all the numbers. But do they do business with us freely? No. Do they call the Hispanic Chamber on a regular basis? No. Do they call the African American Chamber on a regular basis? No."
During the Saturday parade, though Sheriff Garcia stepped aside as a grand marshal, he did ride horseback with some deputies.
The other grand marshal was Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.
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