Every April, the University of Houston hosts a large western party lasting four days, known as Frontier Fiesta. "Old West" buildings, like an old Bonanza movie set, are erected across the street from the university's entrance one at Calhoun.
Every April, UH sorority and fraternity members haul the "buildings" -- actually facades of buildings -- out of storage and spend a lot of time reassembling the town. UH alumni are called back home. Bands perform for partygoers, who put on their best western gear and celebrate by drinking cheap or free beer.
And every April, Lorenzo Cano, associate director of the Center for Mexican-American Studies at UH, boycotts the event.
"In today's world, I think the name and theme of Frontier Fiesta denotes a period of lynching and manifest destiny, where the political leadership of the U.S. tried to extend its borders all the way to the West Coast," says Cano. "To celebrate it is ludicrous and insensitive."
Cano, who is not alone at UH in his dislike of Frontier Fiesta, believes that a lot of what goes into the Old West theme is pure myth and has nothing to do with the actual history of the West, which, in his eyes, was not a pretty time for blacks, Native and Mexican-Americans. For the school to celebrate such a period of "massive genocide" is just as bad as "celebrating the Holocaust," he says.
Two weekends ago, in this April's effort, UH made a special attempt to be inclusive of all ethnic groups, urging their participation in Frontier Fiesta. Unfortunately, this year's featured Tejano band for "Mexican Day," Jaime y Los Chamacos, was misspelled "Los Chumacos" on fliers distributed on campus. Some Hispanic students saw this as evidence of a continued lack of sensitivity on the part of party organizers. A lack of communication between organizers and members of participating Hispanic groups about who would foot the $2,500 bill for the band led to further bad feelings.
According to critics, these mistakes follow several years of missteps on the part of the Frontier Fiesta organizers.
Frontier Fiesta, as it exists today, is really a stepchild of an event created in the late 1940s as a public-relations tool for a school that was transforming itself from a junior college to a four-year university. UH would shut down for a week as students and administrators poured dollars and time into building a western town known as "Fiesta City." So many buildings were erected by student groups and particular colleges that Houston mayors often declared Fiesta City an official "town" for a week.
UH's western town became so popular that celebrities such as Humphrey Bogart and James Garner paid occasional visits. The university claims that more people flocked to Fiesta City than to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. The event received national attention during the late 1950s when Life magazine did a photographic essay calling it "the greatest college show on earth."
By 1959, however, the university decided to pull the plug. So much time and effort was being dedicated to building the western town that students were flunking classes and administrators couldn't handle the party's growth. State legislators were also putting pressure on the school to start acting like a university rather than a junior college.
In 1992, university officials decided to bring the magic back after members of influential alumni associations pleaded with them to consider rebuilding the western town. School officials thought it would be a good marketing tool to bring some of the old alumni back, and maybe a chance to bring in some money, if the event got big enough. (Since its reintroduction, the event has lost money every year but last year, when it made $10,000 in profits.) However well-known the event may be to UH alumni, teachers and students, it has never regained its former prominence in the community at large. Most of Houston doesn't know it exists.
The chief problem with Frontier Fiesta, critics say, is that in the 33 years between 1959 and 1992, the UH student body changed drastically. Unlike the UH of the 1940s and 1950s, the UH of the 1990s is not a white institution. A number of black and Latino students and professors have been very vocal about what they see as a limited and exclusive celebration, and weigh in with comments each year now before the buildings go up.
Annica Gorham, chairwoman of MEChA, a Mexican-American student organization, agrees. She and her organization have a problem with Frontier Fiesta because the frontier theme represents a period of "genocide and conquest of the native people already living here [the Southwest]. If it's just a 'party,' they can easily change the name of the event," Gorham says.
Debra Gaines, president of the Black Student Union, said her organization just refuses to participate. She said it was unfair for the administration to support such an event when other campus events with a longer recent history, such as Black History Month and Latino Heritage Month, are ignored.
However, not all Latino and black students agree with such critics. "Over a 40-year period, this legacy has died out," said Jose Soto, assistant director of the Council of Ethnic Organizations. "Organizers of the Frontier Fiesta today have made attempts at diversifying the event. Mariachis came out here to perform, there was a black cowboy museum and we had kids from HISD come out here to enjoy themselves."
Pilly Garzon, a member of the Hispanic sorority Kappa Delta Chi, says that Frontier Fiesta's racism is over. "I think, in the past, that's what it was, but right now we are all out here to have school spirit and have fun."
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Putting on an enterprise as involved as Frontier Fiesta is not inexpensive. UH shells out more than $35,000 and gets more than $300,000 in outside money to make sure the event goes well. Activities and offerings include talent shows, variety shows from the Greeks, horse rides, museums, a sponsored field trip for HISD elementary kids to come check out the western town, food, a chili cook-off and live entertainment every day.
Critics of Frontier Fiesta are quick to point to the literature of the Frontier Gazette, the official newspaper of Fiesta City in the 1950s, whose pages included fake news stories. One headline in the 1950 Gazette read "SOUTH WINS CIVIL WAR," and went on to say that Northerners were begging to join the South because of Southern "superior values." The lead story the following year pointed out that reconstruction of the North was making New York an "Indian reservation."
Organizers of Frontier Fiesta are aware of this past, and have tried to reach out to minority students on campus by offering to construct their booths and to include their types of music and performances on stage. This has not always gone smoothly. In 1994, when a vendor refused to lower his Confederate flag, members of black Greek organizations walked out on a scheduled show. The following year, another vendor increased the volume of the country music he was playing to drown out a reading by a Mexican-American poet because, according to the vendor, the poet was being "too political." Last year, when a coalition of student groups decided to hold a candlelight vigil for the "victims of genocide" across the street on Calhoun, on the same day Frontier Fiesta had its largest crowd, the UH Police Department was on alert.
School officials, including Dean of Students Dr. William Munson, say they have no intention of canceling the event again. Instead, they are actively trying to expand the party by shelling out more dough, getting corporate sponsorships and encouraging staff and faculty members to attend the festivities. It will be interesting to see if this enthusiasm remains given UH's rapidly changing demographics.