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Demographic Destiny

Slowly but Surely, Hispanic Culture Will Define West Texas
by Published on
Sabor Midland 2007 began with a pinata.

The fat man sidled up to the two children with an invite, his pitch a simple one. “I’m a fat man,” Gary Gibson said. “I like candy.”

Midland’s Sabor 2007 festival started off appropriately enough with a piñata, star-shaped and colored the green, white, and red of the Mexican flag. Youngsters lined up by the entrance, where organizers had hoisted the giant star. All but the very young knew the drill. Adults on their way into the festival area next to Midland’s Grande Communication Stadium stopped to watch.

Several dozen children beat the piñata, but its cardboard frame proved resistant. “This is beginning to look like work,” Gibson observed after about 40 minutes of abuse yielded nothing but a small gash. With some prompting, the children honed in on the hole, taking turns pounding the spot. When the first pieces of candy fell, the kids rushed the piñata, gleefully punching and gouging to release its sweets as the jovial Gibson provided color commentary.

I had traveled to Midland to try to catch a glimpse of the Texas of tomorrow-and to hear some good music at the third annual Sabor Midland music festival. It’s no secret that Texas is turning increasingly Hispanic. Towns all around the Panhandle and West Texas would be losing population if not for this demographic shift. The wry joke about the Panhandle is that Anglos are its only export. Remarkably, most of the Hispanic growth is not coming from foreigners, but from migration within Texas or by natural increase, according to Karl Eschbach, interim director of the Texas State Data Center. “If you are looking at the region as a whole, we are seeing that the natural increase of the much younger and growing Hispanic population is counterbalancing the stagnation and eventual decline of the Anglo population,” said Eschbach, who notes that this trend is projected over 40 years. The area’s growth, when compared with the increasingly urban corridor of Houston-San Antonio-Dallas, is slight.

When oil prices are high, as they are now, Midland has always been a prosperous enclave. Last year, Hispanics in Odessa, Midland’s more blue-collar gemelo, accounted for 47.9 percent of the population, according to the Odessa American. Midland’s population is slightly larger than Odessa’s, but its percentage of Hispanics is only 34.2, according to the Midland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. And with oil above $80 a barrel, the Permian Basin is thriving. “It’s booming for everybody,” said Guillermo Guzman, director of community development for the Hispanic chamber. Guzman laments that 9/11 is making it increasingly difficult to bring in people from Mexico to work legally despite a labor shortage.

As I checked into a Midland hotel on Friday evening, a soccer team from the Mexican border town of Ojinaga piled into the reception area behind me. They had endured the wait at the border and driven four hours to Midland for the first UNICOPA Tournament. Play began that evening, September 14, and would end on Sunday the 16th. Fútbol is a passion in the two-thirds world. It’s the ideal sport for the poor-all one needs is a field and something to kick. In Latin America during a World Cup, entire cities are stilled as the populace watches the matches on every available television.

Sponsored by the local Univision station and Tecate, UNICOPA featured 12 teams from Texas and Chihuahua state in Mexico. Local squads came from Midland, Odessa, Amarillo, Lubbock, and El Paso. Most of the Midland teams were eliminated the first day, with the stragglers mopped up on Saturday. It was hard to find anyone in town who was aware of the tournament. The Odessa Linses made it to the quarterfinals, but fell to Chihuahua 3-2 in overtime before a small crowd in a nearly empty stadium. The El Paso Indios faced Ojinaga for the trophy and a chance for photos with three teenage blondes sent by the local beer distributor. It felt like the Mexicans had been schooling the Texicans all weekend; then Ojinaga ran out of gas, and the Indios won 3-0.

Mariachi Cisne

Shortly after the victory over the piñata, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders arrived. A man representing festival sponsor West Texas Ford and a Midland police officer escorted Andrea Rodgers and Abigail Jordan Klein, a perfectly matched brunette and blonde, respectively, to a table shaded by a small tent. The women whipped out a stack of cheerleader team photos and some pens. Most everyone in the still-thin crowd milling about on the lawn in front of the stage wore some item of Dallas Cowboys clothing. More than a dozen men, women, and children formed a line to meet the ladies. Whether it was team loyalty or simply the attraction of opposites, for the next several hours, as long as they were at the table, so was the crowd.

About 30 minutes into the autographing bout, Jose “Bo” Zeurteche came to fetch the cheerleaders. Zeurteche is a jack-of-all-trades: promoter, developer, and musician. He helped start Sabor, which means flavor in Spanish, three years ago. It began as a restaurant tasting event. Zeurteche wanted to build on what he already knew to be successful: cookoffs. (In addition to the classic chili cookoff, the area also boasts a popular menudo-tripe soup-cookoff.) The mid-September weekend he chose is the most nationalistic holiday in the Mexican calendar, the one marking the historical Grito de Dolores usually known as dieciséis.

Zeurteche took the cheerleaders backstage to meet the Mexican consul based in Presidio, Héctor Raúl Acosta. The consul had come to lead the crowd in the gritos, or shouts, of “¡Viva!”, a few of which Mexican priest Miguel Hidalgo is said to have proclaimed in his call for insurrection against the Spanish on September 16, 1810.

Acosta primed the crowd. “Don’t you feel honored?” he asked after telling them they were part of “the most poignant (emotivo) moment of all the country’s ceremonies.” In Spanish, the consul asked the crowd, which now numbered about 1,000, to stand, and nearly everyone immediately rose to their feet. They echoed most of the chants tepidly, but “¡Viva Mexico!” animated the audience a bit. Zeurteche then introduced the cheerleaders, who gave a quick wave before returning to autograph purgatory in their tent.

Zeurteche may have picked the right Saturday for his tasting event, but economics interfered. With the oil boom, restaurants are having trouble filling positions. A stand selling fajitas, along with the traditional Texas festival fare of giant turkey legs, seemed one of the few concessions left from the original concept. Since Zeurteche found few takers for the taste-off, he turned it into a music festival.

This year, Zeurteche wanted to make a statement, bring in a national act, one that would bridge cultures with crossover appeal. He knew he’d be taking a chance. He describes area audiences as “finicky.” His ideal audience is still elusive in Midland-Odessa-Mexican-Americans with a foot in each culture and a willingness to experiment musically with what that means.

“Country is what works out here,” he said when reached by telephone a week later. “Tejano works, and regional Mexican works. You try to do blues and rock and R&B, it’s a little bit of a risk.”

Corporate radio hasn’t helped. “You can’t find any Tejano stations,” Zeurteche said. “It’s a segment that lacks identity. It’s hard for [them] to really associate with anything 100 percent. The group is assimilated enough to listen to general market and look at non-Spanish television stations, but with regard to the Hispanic roots, there is not a whole lot here to really ground the segment, to link them together.”

Zeurteche decided to book the ultimate multi-genre band, the powerhouse from East Los Angeles, Los Lobos. Forged in 1973 at a time when brown power meant more than numbers, Los Lobos, along with groups like the Texas Tornados and Santana, have been at the forefront of creating a new American idiom of rock and roll, Latin-style. But to Zeurteche’s disappointment, the audience didn’t come. No matter that the night was starry and temperate and the tickets only $9. He estimates the crowd at several thousand. Zeurteche fears that the lack of Tejano music scared away a potential audience, or maybe his ideal listeners simply haven’t reached their demographic maturity yet. Nonetheless, he remains optimistic. “I think today people are probably saying, ‘We missed Los Lobos,” he said. “They are going to be reluctant to continue passing on these opportunities in the future.”

Los Lobos

Los Lobos pulled up to the stage in a stretch white limousine SUV provided by Zeurteche. The two local bands the promoter had booked to open for them had been a mixed bag. The front man from the first, Los America, had candidly told the audience, “I just want to remind you that the more you drink, the better we sound.” Unfortunately, the event didn’t serve anything harder than beer. The second band, Brothers Z, featured Zuerteche himself playing guitar. Brothers Z performed covers from groups like Los Lonely Boys and Santana. The band’s at-times overly exuberant lead guitarist, Steve Alvarez from Odessa, dominated the set, generally to good effect.

Before going on, Los Lobos posed for photos with the sponsors. I asked band member Louie Perez to what did he attribute the group’s longevity. “Our creditors wouldn’t have it any other way,” he quipped. Turning serious, he noted that they had grown up together. “We were all friends from the same neighborhood,” he said. “We didn’t get our bass player out of the phonebook.”

They started out playing old-timey Mexican music and then gravitated to rock and roll. The band is known for sterling musicianship, mastery of multiple instruments, and eclectic tastes. A Los Lobos set is as likely to include an Allman Brothers cover as Guantanamera, and the band can nail both with equal skill and bravado. Through the years, critics and fellow musicians have acclaimed the wolves, but popular support has lagged. Their biggest hit was La Bamba, which they covered for the soundtrack of a biopic about Latin rock pioneer and martyr-to-the-cause Ricardo Steven Valenzuela, better known as Ritchie Valens. Characteristically for Los Lobos, they then refused to sell out. Their next album was an exquisitely crafted collection of acoustic folk songs from various regions of Mexico called La pistola y el corazon.

Perez noted that Los Lobos’ fan base is 90 percent Anglo and that the band has had difficulty crossing over. Yet at concerts the audiences are starting to reflect the demographic change occurring in America. Where it is most in evidence is in Anglo-dominated areas like Vermont or Virginia. In the past where there might have been one Hispanic at a show, he’s now seeing five or 10. Maybe there will be an uptick, Perez muses, once they “put down the drawbridge and call off the crocodiles.”

The band opened the show by inviting a young woman from the audience up to the stage. “¡Viva la Independencia,” she shouted. “¡Viva México!”

Cesar Rosas, in a black silk shirt with black jeans and his trademark sunglasses, chimed in, “¡Y que viva la raza!

“This is the first time we’ve ever been in West Texas,” he said. “Que viva West Texas!

It took a few songs to warm up. They introduced the third tune as coming from “El Fernando Valle” and then launched into the Valens’ hit “Come on, Let’s Go.” David Hidalgo tore it up on guitar while bassist Conrad Lozano beamed with pleasure. Then Steve Berlin, wearing shades and a porkpie hat, let loose with a fiery saxophone solo. Berlin is an accomplished music producer as well as the honorary Chicano of the band, having joined Los Lobos in the mid-80s. Suddenly the music had a smoky, roadhouse feel, and Los Lobos sounded like one of the better bar bands on the planet. The band delved into a deep exploration of Latin rhythms with a song called “Chuco’s Cumbia.” Rosas then slowed the tempo down to croon “Sabor a Mi.” The song by Alvaro Carrillo is a great example of the wonderfully exaggerated lyrical landscape of much of Los Lobos’ music from Mexico. “Yo no soy nada. (I am nothing),” Rosas sang soulfully, vamping a bit. “Yo no tengo vandidad. (I have no vanity.)”

The band played on rented instruments driven in from Albuquerque because there isn’t enough high-end gear to be found in West Texas. But it didn’t seem to make a difference.

The meatiest part of the set began with a funked-out version of the Temptations’ “Papa was a Rollin’ Stone,” which morphed into crowd favorite “Oye Como Va.” Berlin played keyboards, and Perez soloed on guitar. Hidalgo, with a voice as smooth as water, then sang the Valens classic, “Donna,” and for a second it was like that four-passenger Beechcraft Bonanza didn’t wipe out in a cornfield in ’59, taking a chunk of rock-and-roll royalty with it. The band then launched into a breakneck paced “Carabina 30-30,” an old Mexican Civil War song extolling Pancho Villa, segueing into “Soy México Americano,” then into the classic “Volver, Volver.” The set ended with “La Bamba,” bookmarked by “Good Loving.” Rosas urged the crowd to sing along, “Come on Chicanos!”

Los Lobos encored with one of their songs called “Cumbia Raza.” The soloists from Brothers Z joined them onstage. After one played a nice turn, Rosas looked on approvingly and said into the microphone, “That’s the way we do it in Midland.”

Observer intern Leah Finnegan contributed to this report.