Bayou Diaries The Rodeo Is a Holdover from Texas Lore, and Part of the Changing Story Houston Tells About Itself
If traditions like the rodeo can accommodate Houston’s diversity, whole new traditions will be formed—leaving us with something even better.
This is Bayou Diaries, a column by Bryan Washington on his life and history in diverse, expansive Houston.
During rodeo season, I worked the parking lots, setting cones outside of the stadium that lined NRG Stadium. It was a shitty, easy contractual gig that lent itself to a sort of mindlessness. You could spend whole nights watching trucks pass, beside the families bobbing along the pavement aligned like bunches of ducks. You were free to think about the weather or how hungry you were or how much sex you weren’t having or the books you still hadn’t read yet, and most of my shifts hit the tail end of twilight, so at least once a night I’d look up and see the skyline beneath the stadium dissolving into a murky puddle. It was enough to make me snap into a reverie—the kind you only fall into once you’ve gotten comfortable in a place—at least until the guys working beside me tugged on my polo to pick up the next truck in line.
If my shifts ended early enough, I’d check out the actual show. Sometimes my buddy Manny and I drank Modelo singles left in abandoned coolers. Sometimes drivers overtipped us, and we’d spend the cash on greasy bags of barbecue from the vendors. And sometimes this security dude I was cool with ferried me through the stadium’s lower gates. On the long walk toward the show, he’d practice his Spanish on me; the guard was a heavy black guy who’d gotten engaged the year before. His fiancee was Venezuelan. He lamented the looming date of their wedding. Mostly, he was worried about their respective fathers meeting—insisting, in English, and then again in Spanish, that no good would come from it. I’d tell him it couldn’t be that bad, and he’d laugh and say I didn’t know anything. By the time we finished conjugating a set of verbs, we’d find ourselves standing a few rows behind the fences surrounding the rodeo’s pit. We’d post up alongside seats that I’d have never been able to afford. The white folks sitting to our left would watch us, while we watched the stallions and the mares and the men who rode them.
photo by Larry Goodwin/flickr
Most of the riders I saw were lanky white guys, but one time I saw a black dude riding toward the gate. He wore these gold boots. The rest of his garb was black. The bull underneath him bucked at his ankles. Eventually our eyes met, and we both did a double-take—but he recovered his smile first, and then the gate was opened, and there was a roar from overhead as he literally rode for his life.
In Houston, rodeo season is a big fucking deal. Almost jarringly so. Most nights, the event generally begins with a professional rodeo, before making space for the kids to compete, and culminating in a concert on a 360-degree stage. Attempts at corralling the Livestock Show and Rodeo began in the early 1930s, stretching into what became the Astrodome Era. In 1993, Selena broke the rodeo’s attendance record by performing to a crowd of over 57,800 fans, before breaking that record again in 1994 (with over 60,000 attendees), only to break her record again in 1995 (at over 67,000 attendees). But once the Astrodome became defunct, festivities were moved to NRG Park, which hosts the event in the area surrounding the stadium’s perimeter.
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is over twenty days long. Last year, there were over two and a half million attendees. There’s this carnival that sits just beside it, and there are plenty of people who’ll just pass through for the pop-up roller coasters (the carnival alone is significantly cheaper). But, for the most part, folks volley between them interchangeably. They’ll grab some cotton candy and some meat on skewers, trekking their way towards seats angled over the grounds.
The rodeo’s also one of the city’s more jarring cultural crossovers. You’ll find all manner of folks in the stands. Most nights are, predictably, packed with white attendees—but between events like “Go Tejano Day” (which is generally the most popular evening; although, as Manny’s always quick to add, “Every day at the rodeo is Tejano day, it’s our fucking thing”), and “Black Heritage Day” (which makes more than a few of my black friends roll their eyes toward oblivion), sometimes the stands are a little more diverse. And you’re just as likely to find yourself in the company of folks from Bellaire and Alief as you are from River Oaks or the Woodlands or Katy. The rodeo is less of a rallier than the ambiance surrounding it. These aren’t sights you’ll find in the bulk of Texas: patches of Vietnamese couples SnapChatting steers from the stands, or Malaysian teens showing off their paintings in the rodeo’s annual sponsored art show.
But the rodeo’s also one of a handful of Houston’s holdovers from Texas lore, our rare co-opt of the story that this state likes to tell about itself. While Texas as a whole is culturally conservative (although, demographically, this is changing), Houston is (mostly) a bastion for acceptance and diversity of thought. Houston’s Pride parade is among the most lauded in the nation, while Texas led the States last year in hate-related homicides against LGBTQ folks . And while Texas, as of late, is most often seen in national headlines for its draconian treatment of Latin American refugees, Houston (and the state, by extension) would effectively shut down without their contributions—and every last person here, of every conceivable political stripe, knows it.
photo by Texas.713/flickr
Even attending the rodeo itself is a clash between the state’s fraught history and life as we know it in Houston—the industry stems from Texas’s cattle industry from the sixteenth century. Spanish and Spanish-Mexican settlers were among the chief propellers, having increased the number of cattle in the Southwest significantly. The annexation of Texas in 1845 rode the tail-end of the American cowboy’s appearance throughout the country, leaving (white) boys all over the South searching for work and adventure; and when (all white) communities formed, riding and roping competitions became a reliable source of (white) leisure. One of the first proper rodeos in Texas was held in Pecos, back in 1883—but shortly afterwards, competitions began springing up across the States, setting the foundation for a lasting tradition.
It goes without saying that black folks weren’t the predominant audiences or professional competitors for these events. And it goes without saying that Chinese laborers weren’t the predominant audience or professional competitors for these events. And it goes without saying that Texans from Vietnam and Brazil and Venezuela and Thailand and anywhere else with some semblance of pigment didn’t play an oversized role in setting the stage for the rodeo’s professionalized influence: it was, by and large, an almost exclusively white affair.
But if you were to take stock of the stands today, you’d be hard-pressed to trace your fingers along its origins. As the city continues reconstructing its identity, in real time, the boundary between city and state grows wider every day. Which makes us hard to define. A highly malleable mess. But by the time we do find the words for it, it’ll already have changed again.
Whenever I’m abroad or out of state or wherever, and I’ve inevitably mentioned that I am from Texas, it’s not at all uncommon for someone to ask if I grew up around horses. The question is usually born from genuine curiosity, or one of the more predictable forms of condescension.
But, regardless of the asker, no one expects me to say that I did. There’s head-shaking and blushing, and once, fielding the question at a gay bar, an incredulous guy put his hand on my shoulder, screaming over the music, Why ?
It’s sort of a half-truth. For a while, I lived next to an equestrian center. The building was attached to a church, and the church was attached to a bayou. A neighbor’s backyard was connected to that expanse, so the other neighborhood layabouts and I popped firecrackers and lazed around by the stream. Across the water, you could spot the periphery of the center, and whenever they had events we heard the cheers and cries and the firing of blanks into the air.
After one of us was bit by a snake, we stopped trying to hop our way across the bayou’s expanse. Partly because—even to we who cared about nothing—it wasn’t worth the risk. Partly because we couldn’t imagine it: us, on stallions! But it made for a nice metaphor—our lives on one side, and a literal fucking equestrian center on the other. Glossy and bright and too far to reach. We’d throw rocks and middle fingers and never once thought that we’d ever have anything to do with it.
As Houston continues to change, with an influx of newcomers and a shuffling of locals, and the accumulating effects of climate change on our hurricane seasons, so will the story it tells about itself. This’ll happen gradually in some areas. It’ll happen all at once in others. In most parts, these shifts will be violent and unwelcome. In others, it’ll be deemed rejuvenating. Either way, the narratives that Houston has woven will continue to mount more heft, but the thing that keeps me hopeful—a rare sentiment, lately—is how the city’s shown us that it can take the weight. It can stand beneath the changes it’s been thrown. At least for now.
But we’ll still have those holdovers. Tiny little stalemates between where we’ve come from and who we’d like to become. The rodeo, for better and worse, will probably be chief among them. But if Houstonians manage to mold these traditions on their own terms, accommodating the population’s diversity and unwillingness to “assimilate,” whole new traditions and identities will be formed in the process, leaving us with something even better.
photo by JP in TX/flickr
Sometimes, the clash happens all at once. One night, working the parking lots by the stadium, Manny and I were smoking between our shifts. Groups of women were laughing in boots and cowboy hats. More than a few high-schoolers sported chains over plaid button-downs and spurs. Every now and then, some kids gawked towards the horses in their viewing areas, and Manny called it a parallel universe, one of the wonders of the world, and I didn’t think he was wrong.
So we stood around watching the crowd ebb and flow, sweating through the humidity and drenched in our STAFF shirts, when this older white guy passed us, shepherding a mare by her reins. I wouldn’t have called her majestic at the time, but I am using that word now. The older dude saw Manny and I staring. He beckoned us over. And despite everything I knew about my Manny, and everything Manny knew about me, we went.
The white guy made small talk—who were we, what were we doing—and when he noticed we were paying him less mind than his horse, he told us we could touch her if we liked. We asked if he was serious, and he said that he was. We told him to stop bullshitting, and he assured us that he wasn’t.
So Manny and I did that. We rubbed the horse, looking entirely too giddy. In my head, I kept willing her to accept our advances (nod her head), or give some sort of acknowledgement (“Thank you”), or even reject us (although not too violently), but she didn’t do any of that. No lights went off. We didn’t jump across her back and ride her into the stadium. The white guy smiled at the two of us, and then he patted the horse on her rear, and she murmured just a little bit and the two of them kept on walking.
Manny and I watched them go. Then the two of us started speaking simultaneously: a combination of Man , and Wow , and What the fuck , and, Damn . Altogether, I think it sounded a lot like the future.
Bryan Washington will teach a 6-week Online Fiction Workshop for Catapult starting on July 3rd.