Joel Carmona's Last Ride

A confused custom car show, and a dispute over money, mar the memory of a beloved community activist

Late on the afternoon of February 19, after the low rider car enthusiasts, the stunned schoolboys on low rider bikes and the somber-faced friends dressed in zoot suits had all paid their respects, Joel Carmona's widow met her late husband's colleague to put her name on a contract.

The funeral had been draining, the circumstances excruciating. Carmona, founder of the Los Magnificos Car Club and president of Arizona Fleming Elementary's Head Start program in Fort Bend County, had died in a house fire four days earlier while trying unsuccessfully to save his four-year-old son Nicholas. He was 35. From the variety of the mourners crowded around his north Houston gravesite, one could see that the loss ran not only deep, but far throughout Houston.

Crying teenagers dressed in red T-shirts raised their hands in what looked like a gang gesture; it was actually a low rider car club salute. Carmona's 29-year-old brother Richard sat up front near Carmona's wife and three daughters, shaking with pain. Almost every endeavor Joel undertook had been attached to his family, people said; they remembered Helen Carmona joking that she liked Joel's passion for cars because it kept him around the house. Whenever Joel staged one of his low rider car shows, Helen and their daughters, as well as Richard and Joel's other siblings, would work it with him.

Not only Mexican-Americans hovered over the caskets of Joel and his son. There were also African-Americans and Anglos, people who knew Carmona for his activism in Four Corners, a working-class Latino enclave of Sugar Land, as well as for his involvement with low riders. Basically, everything Joel Carmona cared about -- his friends, his family, his work and his cars -- was intertwined. That's why it seemed right when Joel's sister Esther, in her eulogy, urged Joel's friends to honor him by attending an upcoming custom car show that he'd organized.

And that's why it seemed clear to Helen Carmona that her family should -- and could -- carry out the contract Joel had signed with Norman Hargrave, president and part-owner of the Texas Cultural Pavilion, where the car show was to be staged.

Norman Hargrave, a promoter in his late fifties, says he feels deeply for Joel Carmona, with whom he'd been preparing what he billed as the biggest car show in America. But mention the claim by Carmona's survivors that Hargrave owes them money for Joel's work on the show, and Hargrave, normally jolly, turns flinty. Not only does he owe the Carmonas nothing, he says, but he's going to take them to court. He won't specify on what grounds, but Hargrave wants you to know they'll be serious. "I've hired a private investigator. I've learned all kinds of things," Hargrave says. "The Carmonas have no idea what they're getting into."

Helen Carmona agrees she's in over her head. But she believes her family's mistake didn't occur when they asked Hargrave for the money she says they're owed, or even on the day of the funeral, when she renewed her late husband's contract with Hargrave. Instead, she thinks things went wrong on the first day Joel trusted Hargrave. Although Hargrave ended up naming the car show for Joel, and advertised it as a benefit, Helen Carmona says she hadn't planned on receiving any charity. What she wants is the $20,000 that Hargrave agreed to pay Joel in exchange for coordinating the show at the TCP.

Hargrave admits to signing a contract with Joel that included a $20,000 guarantee, and then transferring the contract to Helen. Before his death, Joel had completed about three months of promotions and preparations. But, Hargrave argues, the Carmonas didn't properly finish what Joel started. On top of that, he adds, the March 16 show didn't make a cent.

When Hargrave first planned what would be the Texas Cultural Pavilion's inaugural event, he wasn't thinking in terms of a benefit. Hargrave, whose family has owned a Baytown jewelry store for 70 years, had gotten into show promotion strictly for profit and, he says, "love of the entertainment industry."

Initially, it seemed the TCP car show could satisfy both of Hargrave's interests. The Texas Cultural Pavilion, a 20-acre event site on Beechnut, had been in the planning for about three years, and, says Hargrave, he wanted to open it with a fabulous first event. Joel Carmona, Hargrave believed, was the man to help him pull it off.

"Joel had been doing these car shows for 13 years, and had he lived, I think he could have done a fine job," Hargrave says. Known for his tireless boosterism of what he called "the positive image of low riding," Carmona ran the oldest car club in Houston. He was no slouch as a businessman, either. His Space City Promotions produced many lucrative car shows over the years, a large part of the proceeds from which Carmona often turned over to charity. It was his success with a car show last year, in fact, that caught Hargrave's attention: Carmona's October 1995 show at the Astrohall, reportedly one of the largest such events in the country, attracted 30,000 people.

So if Hargrave had the money to invest in a show, Carmona had the ability to organize it and deliver a huge audience. And, say people who saw them work together, there seemed to be a personal bond between the men.

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