As we previously explored, El Paso’s leadership has been driven by wealth. After the railroad barons, it was the bankers on through Jonathan Rogers that set the policy agenda for the city. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that El Paso’s Hispanic community began to assert itself politically. But it was the controversy over Maestro Abraham Chavez between 1984 and 1985 that launched an Hispanic empowerment. The minority Anglo’s, led by the bankers, fearing an “explosion in the community” backed off firing Abraham Chavez. It simply took one unnamed individual to ask, “who does he bank with” to fix the six-month problem. 
Abraham Chavez started playing for the symphony before becoming its conductor. He moved from Juárez to El Paso when he was five years old.  Before his fifteenth birthday, Chavez was the symphony’s first violinist.  By 1957, Chavez was the assistant conductor and continued to play the violin as well as the viola.  Chavez was also the Youth Symphony director.  In 1975, he was named the permanent conductor by the Board of Directors of the El Paso Symphony Orchestra on a vote of 20 to 1. Chavez was to be paid $16,000, but for Chavez to accept the position, UTEP had to offer him a position in the music department to offset his loss of salary. At the time Chavez was making $30,000 at the University of Colorado as professor of violin and the university symphony director. UTEP agreed to hire Chavez. 
The El Paso Symphony Orchestra Association was formed sometime in the 1930’s. It governs over the El Paso Symphony Orchestra. 
Tensions Between The Symphony Board and Chavez
By 1984, tension between Chavez and the symphony board began to emerge. John Bush, the managing director of the El Paso Symphony told the El Paso Times that “he was not aware of a power struggle between him and Abraham Chavez.” The day before, Chavez had told the newspaper that “he had suffered humiliation and embarrassment” because of the conflict between management and Chavez’ creative process. 
On August 9, 1984, Chavez told the symphony board that he was considering resigning because of Bush, the managing director. Since Bush had been hired two years before, Chavez felt that Bush had “been intruding on what he considers artistic domain.” The central issue, however, was that the board was considering hiring out of town musicians to form the core orchestra. As a result, most of the existing members were rallying around Chavez. A local musician, Ida Steadman, told the newspaper that “some of the board members seemed to believe that ‘if you are an El Paso person, you’re not really professional’.” 
The discord between the association and Abraham Chavez was the creation of the “core orchestra, a dream of Artistic Director Abraham Chavez since 1952.” Building the core orchestra led the association to form a steering committee on August 7, 1984, after Chavez “told the orchestra he was resigning because of the core orchestra conflict and other artistic vs. management issues.”  The differences between Chavez and the association simmered from August through October 1984.
The creative tensions were the primary issue causing the rift between the board and the musicians. But there were other issues between the talent and management that year. On July 24, 1984, the director of fine arts for the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD), Joe Booth, notified the symphony that 18 musicians who also work for the school district would be required to turn over their symphony paychecks to the school district for eight concerts that they would be playing for school children. Unlike, EPISD, the Ysleta School District released the musician teachers for “professional development” to play in the concerts and UTEP allowed the teachers to make their own arrangements to cover their classrooms during the concerts. At issue was that the EPISD musicians were not informed about the policy change beforehand and not given the opportunity to choose whether to play in the concerts or not. Chavez, for his part, told the newspaper that they were “very unhappy” and that he did not know of the change before learning about it “accidently”. 
However, according to Abraham Chavez, the dispute between himself and the board centered on artistic control. Chavez was paid $32,500 annually to be the conductor but did not have a formal contract with the symphony. The artistic differences were about hiring local talent, as Chavez was against hiring talent from out of town. The association preferred out-of-town talent. 
Chavez Is Fired
On October 15, 1984, the association met behind closed doors for the first time. The board agreed that their meetings would now be closed to the public, according to the association president, Allen J. Ely, Jr. Ely acknowledged that the meetings were closed due to the media’s interest in the conflict between the association and its conductor. 
On December 17, 1984, the El Paso Symphony Association fired its long-time symphony conductor, Maestro Abraham Chavez. Chavez had been the symphony’s conductor since 1975.  The Chavez firing became very controversial in the community with calls for boycotts from the orchestra and several community leaders, including Jonathan Rogers, the mayor of El Paso at the time. 
After the board fired Abraham, the city council asked the board to resign. Ely told the El Paso Times that the symphony board, composed of 44 members, was “not bound by any resolution of the City Council.” It was Alicia Chacon, then Lower Valley city representative that introduced the resolution unanimously adopted by city council. The city was providing $22,500 in funding for the symphony that year. The symphony’s total budget was $712,000, according to Ely. 
In October 1984, Jonathan Rogers appointed a six-member task force to help resolve the conflict between the symphony board and its conductor. The mayor’s task force was headed by Hector Holguin and included Terry Irving, Alyn Brown Morton, Olga Roderick, Edward Schwartz and Raymond Telles. 
The city’s task force found that of the “600 or so questionnaires” sent to individuals who had not renewed their season tickets, “about 250 were returned, including 26 with written responses.” Suspicious of the results, Holguin hired a local handwriting expert to review the responses. The handwriting expert “testified that based on an analysis of the questionnaire cards, some of those cards were the product of tampering, especially those cards with written criticisms of Maestro Chavez.” The association countered with its own expert who found that there was no evidence that that the “first survey were [sic] inaccurate.” 
The board and the city were at a stalemate and tensions were rising in the community. Hispanics were rallying behind Chavez.
Bankers Fearing Hispanic Empowerment Step In To Save Chavez
An instrumental player in the Chavez saga was long-time businessman and Hispanic leader Hector Holguin. Holguin has been credited with resolving the impasse between Chavez and the symphony board. According to Holguin, the Chavez issue was “discrimination of the highest order because here’s someone that gave his all…and then they just wanted to fire him with no recourse, no benefits.” 
As readers may remember from our previous article, although El Paso was about 80% Hispanic, Latino empowerment in the community did not begin to assert itself until the early 1990’s. As we will explore in the upcoming series of articles, in many ways, the Chavez saga was the impetus for the empowerment of El Paso’s Hispanic community.
In a 2009 oral history, Hector Holguin sets the stage, “and in the darkest hour I knew that we could rally the power of the Latino community, the Mexican-American community, and make it a big, big explosion.” The Chavez saga had gone on for six months, and Holguin added that bringing the Hispanics into the fray “would be terrible because no one wins.” As Holguin explained, “the people that are on the opposite side of the fence are only gonna get entrenched in that hatred and saying…this is our community, you can’t tell us what to do.” 
Holguin was referring to the 20% of the Anglo community that believed they ruled the city not realizing that “they’re surrounded now by Hispanics and the culture, and the Hispanic Chamber…and so on.”  On the day that Holguin was planning “to call Alicia Chacon” and other Hispanic leaders and tell them “we need to just go ahead and hit this thing (the Chavez issue) head on with all our might because it’s not going away,” he got a call. 
Before Holguin could make the call to Chacon, he received a telephone call from Hal Daugherty, the head of MBANK, which is now Wells Fargo. Daugherty told Holguin that 12 “leading leaders” of El Paso wanted to meet with him. At the meeting was Jonathan Rogers, and “presidents of all the major banks.” 
Holguin explains what transpired next.
Daugherty asked Holguin, “we’d like for you to tell us what the problem is.” Holguin told them, it is not that the board does not have the right to fire Chavez, “but do it correctly.” Suddenly someone asks, “well, who’s leading this,” referring to the firing of Chavez. After Holguin told them who it was, someone immediately asked, “who does he bank with?” “He banks with me, we’ll take care of him,” was the reply, according to Holguin’s retelling of the meetings’ events. 
Holguin goes on to explain that Chavez was empowered because although he had been fired, he had the support of the orchestra, who the symphony had no control over. Indirectly, Holguin was referring to the cancellation of the concerts that the Anglo community mostly benefited from. But Holguin goes no to explain that the underlining intervention by the bankers was because they feared “an explosion in our community.” 
In the oral history, Hector Holguin explains it this way. After the meeting with the bankers, someone came up to Holguin and asked him, “Hector, do you understand what just happened in this room?” The individual explained to Holguin, “they can’t afford to have an explosion in this community because it’s too divisive.” Holguin added that Chavez “was taken care of, and received monies for a period of years.” 
But Holguin admits that he clearly did not understand at the time what was truly happening. Holguin says that it wasn’t until later that the $40,000 they had negotiated for Chavez was “absolutely sinful” because the symphony board paid the next conductor, Gürer Aykal $90,000. 
The Board Capitulates
On January 9, 1985, the symphony board capitulated and rehired Maestro Abraham Chavez.  As part of the settlement, the board gave Chavez a two-year contract,  complete artistic control of the orchestra and “guaranteed that at least eight Hispanics” would serve on the board. The 44-member board would have “from eight to 12 Hispanic members,” read the memorandum of understanding.  After Chavez was reinstated as the conductor, several members of the symphony surprised Hector and Rosario Holguin by offering to provide musical entertainment and gave them a scrapbook of orchestra members. 
Also, for the first time in its 55-year history, symphony musicians joined a union, the El Paso Federation of Musicians in 1985.  In 1992, Chavez was replaced by Gürer Aykal. Aykal stepped down in 2004. 
Abraham Chavez Finally Forced Out By Board
Although Abraham Chavez’ last three-year contract called for Chavez to retire at the end of the contract, Chavez said in March 1992 that “he was being forced out by the board of directors of the association.” Chavez told city council in a written statement that he wanted the symphony board to pay him “about $39,000 a year in retirement benefits,” to “repair the damage that has been done” to his career. 
The Abraham Chavez Theater
The Abraham Chavez Theater opened as the El Paso Civic Center Auditorium-Theater in late 1974.  The project was part of the $19 million civic center complex.  Construction in the civic center complex, which included the theater began in mid-1970. It was originally budgeted at $15 million but the cost quickly rose to $18 million because of “delay bred in controversy,” according to the El Paso Times. The bonds to build the complex were voter approved around 1969. Hotel room occupancy taxes were used to pay the debt to build the complex. 
The exhibition hall portion of the civic center was completed on December 1, 1972.  The theater was originally scheduled to be completed in July 1972 but was delayed until July 1973  and was completed in 1974. The problem arose because of the welds on the ring girder that holds up the “sombrero” roof over the theater. 
The designer was a joint venture between Garland & Hilles and Carrooll, Daeuble, DuSang & Rand of El Paso. The structural engineering was done by A. B. Peinado & Son. And the ring girder was designed by Severud-Perrone-Sturm-Conlin-Bandel of New York City. 
On February 11, 1992, city council voted to rename the civic center theater the Abraham Chavez Jr. Performing Arts Center Theater.  On April 25, 1992, Maestro Abraham Chavez conducted his final concert as the conductor of the El Paso Symphony Orchestra in the theater now named after him. Although most of the concert goers celebrated his 17 years, at least one patron grumbled to the El Paso Times, “I usually don’t like music programmed, and I’m looking forward to the future.” The El Paso Times did not name the patron. 
Elitism In The El Paso Arts Scene
The El Paso arts scene had several controversies in 1992 besides Abraham Chavez. All centered around who’s vision was to lead the arts. The city council ended the contract with the museum association in February 1992. “Dozens of El Pasoans congregated in the council lobby to hug and congratulate each other,” because “they saw the decision as a sort of populist revolt – the beginning of a new era in which art of El Paso actually belonged to the people of El Paso.” According to the newspaper, the group believed that “under the supervision of the private El Paso Art Museum Association board, the museum had served not the public, but an elite group of El Pasoans.” Likewise, Pro-Musica’s founder and artistic director was fired after 14-years over artistic control problems. Abraham Chavez stepped aside as well that year. 
In our next article in our deep dive into who sets the narrative for El Paso, we will continue to explore the rise and fall of Hispanics in El Paso’s political scene. The Abraham saga gave rise to the Hispanic Leadership Institute (HLI). The HLI demonstrated the rise of Hispanic political power in El Paso and why it fails to gain traction. Before we get to the HLI, we need to look at another Latino leader – Fermin Dorado, who was targeted by an Anglo minority because they were losing business. From there we will take a deep dive into the HLI as we continue our way towards the time Latinos wanted to build an arena in El Paso in 1999. By the end of the year, readers will have a deeper understanding of today’s political power brokers like Bob Moore and others who are positioning themselves for what comes in 2022.
- “Symphony Artists To Appear at ESPG,” Alamogordo Daily News,” March 20, 1957.
- “EP Youth Symphony Concert Set,” El Paso Times, April 16, 1958.
- “Seek Abraham Chavez As Symphony Director,” El Paso Herald Post, February 22, 1975.
- Pat Henry, “Symphony musicians support conductor,” El Paso Times, August 25, 1984.
- Pat Henry, “Teachers in symphony lose extra wage,” El Paso Times, October 6, 1984.
- “Musicians give thanks to volunteer,” El Paso Times, July 2, 1985.
- Pat Henry, “Musicians agree to contract,” El Paso Times, October 17, 1985.
- Maribel Villalva, “Symphony announces lit of finalists to replace conductor,” El Paso Times, March 25, 2004.
- Interview with Hector Holguin by Homero Galicia, 2009, “Interview no. 1508,” Institute of Oral History, University of Texas at El Paso, January 23, 2009.
- Robert Nelson, “Symphony hires new conductor,” El Paso Times, April 10, 1992.
- Pat Henry, “Mayor calls for symphony boycott,” El Paso Times, December 20, 1984.
- Ed Kimble, “Symphony Board Forms Expansion Planning Unit,” El Paso Times, December 8, 1978.
- “Core orchestra wins approval for symphony,” El Paso Times, August 31, 1984.
- Pat Henry, “Orchestra board decides to close monthly meetings,” El Paso Times, October 16, 1984.
- David Crowder and Pat Henry, “Symphony board asked to resign,” El Paso Times, December 19, 1984.
- Pat Henry, “Chavez explains dispute with board,” El Paso Times, December 19, 1984.
- Pat Henry, “El Paso Symphony rehires conductor, agrees to appoint Hispanics to board,” El Paso Times, January 10, 1995.
- “Auditorium-Theater 85 Percent Complete,” El Paso Times, May 10, 1974.
- Legal Notice, “Amendments to the City Charter,” El Paso Times, November 17, 1974.
- Joe Olvera, “city Council may honor local conductor,” El Paso Times, February 9, 1992.
- Robert Nelson, “Symphony board to discuss conductor’s retirement,” El Paso Times, April 7, 1992.
- Lisa Woodul, “Audience final concert sings praises to Chavez,” El Paso Times, April 26, 1992.
- Robert Nelson, “State of the Arts: Bickering aside, the arts are flowering in El Paso,” El Paso Times, May 17, 1992.
- George Kinsinger, “El Paso Civic Center Now Begins To Shape Up,” El Paso Times, December 13, 1971.
- “Civic Center Battle Shaping Up,” El Paso Herald Post, September 7, 1972.
- “City, Civic Center Contractor Continue Construction Battle,” El Paso Times, December 14, 1972.