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ãCopyright by Denise Michelle Sandoval 2003

All Rights Reserved

Bajito y Suavecito:  The Lowriding Tradition

by Denise Sandoval

Bajito y Suavecito.  Low and Slow.  It is a phrase that captures the distinctiveness of this American cultural practice. Lowriding has a style and art which is distinctly its own.  It is more than just customized cars; it is also a way of life for many.  Family, honor and respect, those are more than just words, they are the unwritten social codes of the lowrider car clubs.  They are also the building blocks of the history and spirit of the lowriding tradition, which has crossed regional, national and international boundaries.  In many ways, lowriding in Mexican American communities is a living history of the Mexican American experience in the United States since its dates back to the early 1940s when Pachucos cruised the boulevard.  Therefore, Mexican Americans through the years have been associated with popularizing low riding, mainly due to the national and international popularity of LowRider Magazine and other popular media outlets, such as television and movies. Yet, lowriding has also impacted other cultural groups as well such as African Americans, Asian Americans and Anglo-Americans.  Each of these groups has marked out a space within the lowriding scene and they have also added to its vitality.  What has evolved over the years is a multicultural practice that involves crossing cultural borders through a shared passion—lowriders.  So where did lowriding begin you ask?   That is the million-dollar question.  Anyone you ask has a different story to tell.  So, maybe the real question here is just what is lowriding all about?  The journey into the history of lowriding reveals not only a passion for cars, but also documents a part of the Mexican American experience that is often misunderstood.  The cars are the canvases on which the car owners create their dreams, express their identity, and continue a tradition that began long ago. 

 

 

History of Low Riding

            Low Riding as a cultural form is part of an American mode of expression through both its materialist ideology and its classifications of aesthetics.  Low Riders emerged out of the Southwest during post World War II America. . Low riders have historically been part of the barrio youth culture, from the early 1940' with pachucos in their zoot suits and nice "rides” to the beginnings of car clubs in the 1950s to the Chicano Movement of the late 1960s. Car culture within Chicano communities has been the result of the changes occurring at the social and economic level.

Car industry and aerospace industries boomed in many urban areas after WWII, especially in cities like Los Angeles and Detroit. After WWII, many cities underwent a phase of tremendous expansion and growth and there was a need for labor in both high skilled and low skilled sectors. After the war, many people now had money in their pockets to spend on either new cars or used cars. It was then these used cars that became available to be purchased by youth, veterans and ethnic minorities since the cost of the cars was affordable.  Additionally, many returning servicemen had acquired mechanical and technical skills during WWII, which could be put to good use in a sport like car customizing and car restoration.  The basic ingredients for car culture were in place—young men with cars who could use their skills to build the coolest rides on the boulevard.

            Also of importance is the fact that many Mexican Americans soldiers during this time returned from fighting a war for democracy and freedom to find that little had changed‑‑‑Mexican Americans were still treated as second class citizens in America. It has been estimated that between 375,000 and 500,000 Mexican Americans served in the armed forces. A little known fact is that in World War II Mexican American soldiers earned more medals than any other ethnic or racial group (Acuna, 2000). The population of a city like Los Angeles boomed during the war since there was a need for labor and we are able to see the beginnings of segregated communities such as African Americans in South Central and Mexican Americans in East side of Los Angeles. For example, California Mexican population between 1940 and 1960 tripled from 416,140 to 1,426,538. Los Angeles experienced a rapid growth, so that by 1960, the Mexican American population numbered over 600,000 (See Acuna).   

Therefore, the development of Mexican American communities meant the beginning of cultural practices that were a blending of both Mexican and American traditions. Mexican American youth especially sought to express these dual identities (American or Mexican) and the idea of not fully belonging in either one became self evident in the practice of low riding. For example, the low riders were an affront to the car culture of hot rods and car customs as well within their own communities of Mexican immigrants who did not understand the younger generation of Mexican Americans. Lowriders created their own cultural niche within the American social and cultural fabric.  Low rider culture then is historically very much a part of the Mexican American social history and according to Michael Stone (1990): 

 

Low riding is considered as a public enactment of a re-negotiated sense of Mexican American identity, an identity which contrary to mass depiction is increasingly heterogeneous.  If offers a high profile commentary on the lived relations of class and ethnicity, and reinforces a sense of collectivity in diversity bound up with being Mexican by heritage and American by destiny. (pg. 86)

 

Car Culture: hot rods, car customs and low riders

Car leisure activities in the 1950s for Mexican Americans afforded a new generation a feeling of belonging to America, but also stressed a need to mark a space within car culture, one which was different from the dominant scene of hot rods and car customs which tended to be a sport favored by Anglo American youth.  The surge in low riding within the Mexican American community must be framed within the proliferation of car leisure activities after the war, such as hot rodding, drag races, car shows, and demolition derbies.  Low riding is one genre within car culture that flourished in America, especially with young adults. Therefore, low riding is linked to vibrant hot rod and car custom scene which exploded in the 1950's. But, what is unique about low riding is whereas hot rods were about speed and drag races, low riders responded to the challenge of speeding with the grace of cruising slow on the boulevard.  Low Rider cars were lowered to the ground and meant to go slow in order to be seen. Young men began to form car clubs that spoke to their affinity for hot rods, car customs or low riders.  Car Clubs provided a source of solidarity among car aficionados but also provided friendly competition for drag races or car shows movement and show pieces worthy for competition against the best car customs.  The beauty of the low rider lies in fact that it is built to be in the public eye and the building of the low rider car is not only an expression of one’s identity, but one’s solidarity and community with other low riders.

The low rider label started being used in the 1960's after hydraulics were introduced to the scene.  Before the low rider label, the cars were “pachuco cars” and Chicanos would lower their cars by cutting their suspension coils and putting lowering blocks to keep the car low to the ground.  Chicanos would also be known to put anything heavy in the trunk of their cars, such as sandbags, bricks or bags of cement—all which ensured the bajito y suavecito aesthetic.  The goal was to have your car as close to the ground and some guys would even install street scrapers on the bottom of their car so the sparks would fly out from underneath the chassis.  All of these features made the lowrider stand out, especially to law enforcement.  California vehicle code 24008 stipulated that no part of car could be lower than the bottom portion of the wheel rim.  The police would give tickets to violators of this law and low riders were often their favorite targets.  Low riders needed a technological solution and ironically one would appear courtesy of the US military.

In 1956, Ron Aguirre, a Chicano, put the first hydraulic system in a ‘56 convertible, and with a flip of a switch a car could be lowered and raised.  The hydraulic parts which consisted of hydro air pumps and dumps actually were surplus parts from World War II fighter planes.  The surplus was soon a valuable asset to the low riders since they could ride as low as they wanted on the boulevard and if they saw the police, with a flip of a switch they were “street legal”. Also, the sound this hydraulic system makes when lowering and raising is very loud—imagine the sound of a WWII fighter plane—but hydraulics definitely added “class” and style to the low rider.   Eventually though the WWII surplus would run out and by the mid-1970s various shops began manufacturing hydraulic parts such as the tailgate pump.  In the early 1970s, hydraulics also added another competition facet to the sport lowriding—jumping contests.  Originally, clubs would measure the height with coke bottled or beer bottles and later on, special rulers were created as cars jumped higher and higher.  By the late 1980s, the lowrider would be able to do much more than jump up and down, for instance, side to side and even around the world (completely turn around).   Today the innovations in hydraulics are truly amazing.  All the manipulations of the low rider inherently add to how these cars stand out or now jump out on the car scene.

The need to be seen was (and still is) at the core, of low riding, and this fact is especially powerful given the racism and discrimination many Mexican Americans faced on a daily basis during the 1940s through the 1960s, such as housing segregation and poor education facilities.  Low riding emerged from the working class Chicano community who used home grown elements to fix up their cars and later used technological advancements in car customizing to create a style all of their own.  As an extension of the fascination with car culture within the US, low riding began as an inherent male activity. At the beginning, there were few women in car clubs, and if the clubs existed in the 1950’s or 1960’s, they usually did not last long.   Generally speaking men have been the ones to carry on a life long affair with their cars or cars.  Moreover the car also began to be tied to a particular cultural identity-----an expression of self. At the same time, the participation in car leisure activities formed a collectivity with other low riders.  The low rider forced the broader society, and even the Mexican American community, to acknowledge the presence of a new cultural identity, which used a cultural blending of styles within Chicano car culture.  Simply put, the various structural conditions inherent in the post WWII economy created a public environment which furthered the American males' love affair with cars and Chicanos were no exception.

As such, automobile culture became an avenue to examine how "place” creates cultural practices in which one's identity is negotiated.  In fact, the car in many ways may represent the hopes and desires of the owner. The history of lowriding reveals the importance of understanding how urban cities and regions become symbolic landscapes within the cultural practice of low riding wherein individuals use their cars to negotiate identity (gender, ethnicity, class), technology, and the media.  

 

LowRider Stories

The Dukes

“It’s a Family Affair”

The best examples of low riding are the stories, which center on the family. More importantly, the history of low riding is an everyday practice within much of Mexican American Los Angeles, which revolves around la familia and the strong bonds created because of that union.  Low riding is a tradition that is passed on from one generation to the next, from father to son to grandson.  Los Angeles is also the birthplace for the oldest low rider car club, the Dukes, who prove that the strength of the lowriding tradition is found in la familia.  They are also very dedicated to keeping nuestra cultura alive in the barrios of Aztlan.   The Dukes are known for customizing ’39 Chevys a choice that made them stand out from the rest of the low riders in the 1960s and 1970s when most lowriders were customizing cars from the 1950s and 1960s.  Today these trendsetters are “godfathers” to the new generation of lowriders, especially the younger generation that is enticed by the challenge of customizing a ’39 “pachuco style” like the Dukes.  This car club is a beautiful example of the lowriding tradition and their story has its beginnings in a time period in Los Angeles history when being Mexican was a reason to be seen as inferior to Anglo Americans.

It is a story that begins just south of downtown Los Angeles on 41st street and Long Beach Avenue.  In the mid-1950s Josefina Ruelas, a single mother of four boys (Julio, Oscar, Fernando, and Ernie), immigrated to Los Angeles from Tijuana and settled in with Uncle Tinker and Tia Chana.  Uncle Tinker, who became a father figure to his nephews, introduced the boys to auto mechanics in an attempt to keep them off the streets and in the process, he taught them about taking pride in their work. The most important lesson that he imparted to them was the positive influence of la familia working together.  These would be lessons the Ruelas brothers would one-day pass on to their own sons.  As Fernando remembers in the documentary Low and Slow:

My involvement in low riding goes as far back when I was a young kid and my uncle was a pretty good influence on that, being he bought us a go-cart. He also took us to the scrap yard where they had tons of bicycles and he’ll go out there and he’ll buy them for us and we’ll put them together and we’ll do all these different types of modifications…My mother played a pretty good role into this because she preferred us out there with the go-carts and with the bicycles and the skateboards and the scooters than being on the street (Monica Delgado and Michael Van Wagenen, Low and Slow, 16mm, 27 min., Ritual Films & Publications, 1997).

 

At age thirteen, they each had a car that they began to customize and each of the brothers became a “specialist” in certain areas of car customizing.  For example, one brother would specialize in bodywork, one in upholstery and another in electrical wiring.  Since each one had different talents, they would build the cars as a team.  Even though they were not able to drive these cars legally, the brothers still took pleasure in their work.  More importantly though is the fact that the process of building a car became a family effort of love as the brothers worked together.  It also is a source of pride to say that they built the car themselves instead of sending the car to different shops in order to get the work done.  According to the Dukes, their lowrider club is an extension of their family and that approach is one of the reasons for their longevity.  In this manner, the car club is more than just cars; it has really family ties that are integral to the survival of the club. As the oldest brother Julio relates:

A car club is a family orientated thing.  We are a whole family. It is a big family and you get them together.  You can invite your cousins, your brothers, your daughters, your sons, your wife, your in-laws, grandparents, whoever.  We will have barbecue or dances.  That is what it is all about…a car club (Julio Ruelas, interview by author, tape recording, Los Angeles, CA, 12 June 1999).

 

The brothers are also acutely aware that lowriding is tied to Chicano culture and it is something that Chicanos should take pride in.  They want the work that they do to have a positive effect on the Chicano community, especially Chicano youth.  Fernando mentioned that the sole purpose to start the club was not to get a thousand members, but instead their main objective was to capture the youth and give them a positive alternative to gangs that might change their lives.  They also share their own history growing up to also motivate youth to enter into positive activities in their communities.  An example of this concern is when a documentary crew asked them to make a film on their car club, they did it only when the crew promised to make the documentary available to the schools, especially schools with young Chicanos.  The Dukes are well known among Chicano youth that follow lowriding history and culture. I can only interject my own experience when I was at the Petersen Automotive Museum and a large group of Chicano youth surrounded the Dukes one Saturday afternoon, asking for their autographs and posing for pictures with them.  The Dukes are a fine example of role models from the Chicano community and they also promote the positive effects of lowriding, which are often overlooked by the media.  When asked if lowriding is a positive activity for Chicano youth to get involved in, Ernie Ruelas responds:

I think that it is real positive because it is bringing awareness and it is bringing Mexican people or Chicano people to work together and to let them know that is it not about doing combat with one another, but loving one another in building something that is in our blood already.  Chicano people have a lot of talent but they are starting to work more together with each other and not be jealous of each other, give each other respect, and get respect when it is due and all that…I think that I live to see positive change in a direction where people can love each other, respect each other, and to really let people know that don’t know much about our background and all that.  Let them know how talented we are and let them know we also demand respect through our challenge and that kind of stuff.  We must love each other more and be more aware of the good things rather than the violence and the fighting…(Ernie Ruelas, interview by author, tape recording, Los Angeles, CA, 12 June 1999).

 

The Ruelas Brothers readily admit that as youth in the late 1950’s they joined the 38th Street gang out of a need for protection.  The 38th Street gang achieved mainstream recognition through the Sleepy Lagoon case of 1942 when 22 of their members where found guilty of crimes ranging from assault to first degree murder through an unfair and racist trial.  The Dukes’ roots are tied inextricably to Chicano history in Los Angeles through their association with the 38th Street gang.  Ironically, their cars would be featured in the movie premiere of the movie Zoot Suit (1981) that chronicled the Sleepy Lagoon case, again tying them to their own 38th Street past.    That aside, in 1962 their passion for cars won out over gang loyalty and they decided to form their own social club with Julio Ruelas as the first club president.    The Dukes car club was born and the car club became an alternative to gang life—or la vida loca.  This threat to gang control of the neighborhood caused some initial hard feelings between the Duke’s and the 38th Street gang.  Yet, this riff vanished as the Dukes car club brought honor and respect to their neighborhood.  Car clubs as social clubs provided an alternative option to gangs by providing the brothers with a positive social environment that was “respectable”, even in the eyes of the gang members.  Respect and pride is a theme that runs through their family story.   As Oscar Ruelas relates:

So that was really the main thing in starting the car club, doing things, doing different things and to show the people that we just weren’t gang members, we did have some kind of pride in us, we did know how to do something else besides just hanging out in the street, running around the neighborhood doing nothing.

(Monica Delgado and Michael Van Wagenen, Low and Slow, 16mm, 27 min., Ritual Films & Publications, 1997)

Cars in many Mexican American barrios throughout the Southwest provided the motivation for many youth to become involved in social car clubs since cars were “status symbols” which a youth could take pride in.  The style of car customizing “pachuco cars”  which Chicanos brought to the streets was also tied to the Mexican pre-Columbian past and would also impact the broader community as well during the 1960s.  Julio Ruelas traces the beginning of low rider cars to the pachucos and the cars they drove as statements of their individuality within the Mexican American community.   And this new car aesthetic was definitely Chicano since it had pride in our rich ancestry from Mexico and also had roots in American car culture.   According to Julio, “Chicanos have always been low riding.  I always saw them in the 1950s.  Our colors we get them from our ancestors, the Aztecs.  The color of feathers is the color of automobiles you see.  We have our own ideas and our own style (Julio Ruelas, interview by author, tape recording, Los Angeles, CA, 12 June 1999).”

In the late 1960s a cultural renaissance was hitting Chicano barrios and low riders were part of that activity.  Chicano Pride became the motto of the Chicano Movement and nowhere was that more evident than in the streets of East Los Angles.  Whittier Boulevard was alive every weekend as the top cruising spot in Los Angeles, and the Dukes were an important part of that scene.  Each lowrider club had their own spot on the Boulevard and the Dukes had the prime spot in the Huggie Boy  (a popular radio deejay) car lot, which was a prestigious place on the boulevard. As Fernando recalls, “Nobody parked in our lot, they knew it was ours.  We filled it with ‘39s.”  Yet, the late 1960s also brought the Vietnam War to many Chicano barrios as many of these same young men who cruised the boulevard were drafted in the army.  Several members of the Duke’s were drafted into the U.S. army, including the Ruelas Brothers.  Oscar was drafted in 1966, followed by Ernie in 1968 and finally Fernando in 1969.  Many of the lowrider clubs also lost members in that war and Fernando Ruelas thought it would be the end of lowriding. If they lost a member to the war, they would always honor these fallen heroes a “lowrider funeral” which consisted of a large caravan of lowriders.  The Chicano Movement was also occurring during this time period, and anti-Vietnam War protests were also a part of the various social movements, which sought equity for Mexican Americans. Many activists argued that Chicanos were dying in disproportionate numbers in Vietnam (see Rodolfo Acuna, Occupied America, 377) , a sentiment that is echoed by the Dukes who lost many friends to the war. The Dukes survived this time period even though the car club was reduced to a handful of people in the early 1970s, and the war could not stop the passion for lowriding.   Ernie declares how he felt in those early years, “And it made me say it doesn’t matter if you have only two people, three people, we are the Dukes (Ernie Ruelas, interview by author, tape recording, Los Angeles, CA, 12 June 1999).”

Therefore in1974 Fernando Ruelas became President of the club, a title he holds till this day, and he is also responsible for the changes to come on the lowriding scene in the late 1970s.  The Dukes were key in the formation of the West Coast Association of Low riders in 1978 with the Imperials and Groupe car clubs. The purpose of the association was to get car clubs to unite and do something positive within the Chicano community.  Together these clubs put on a “Christmas Toys for Kids” car show with all proceeds going to purchase toys and Christmas stockings for underprivileged children.  This annual tradition continues to this day. It is their commitment to community activism that separates the Dukes from other car clubs.  The Dukes have organized car shows to benefit the broader Chicano community from Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers to Mecha and other Chicano organizations to local prisons. They even had a “Dukes Bus” that they would take to prisons, along with lowriders, to put on lowrider shows for the inmates.   All of this activity reveals the importance of la familia and the community to low riders who do more than just cruise la calle/the street.  The Dukes represent the statement “giving back to the community” and they are also a testament to the power of la familia which sustains Chicanismo in the barrios of Los Angeles. As Fernando states:

We were raised poor and we know what it feels like to hungry and poor. At seven years of age I sold newspapers and shined shoes to help support my family.  So, our car club stated donating time for fundraising to help the community…the community needs help and we are there to help any way we can (Fernando Ruelas, interview by author, tape recording, La Habra, CA, 10 June 1999).

 

The Dukes were also pioneers in the low rider car show circuit.   Between the years of 1966 and 1977, the Dukes were featured at the Trident Car shows (which later became the R.G. Canning Productions) and were the only low rider club invited during the initial years because of the tensions between hot rodders and low riders within the car customizing scene. Unfortunately, low riders were given little respect if at all within the mainstream car customizing scene.  But that would change.   In 1979, the Dukes helped to produce the first Super Show at the Los Angeles convention Center along with Sonny Madrid, the editor of Low Rider Magazine.  They also participated in the very first LA Street Scene along with Tower of Power, War and Tierra.  The Dukes also broke through many cultural barriers by being accepted by mainstream car magazines, such as Car Craft and Hot Rod Magazine.   The Ruelas Brothers are able to promote their products—their cars—and they also take great pride in having made a name for themselves within the lowrider scene as car customizers who produce top quality work, again as a family unit.  Ernie describes the legacy of the Dukes car club to the lowrider scene as follows:

I think that someone out there who is versed in old custom cars can work at one of our customs that we built and say right away, the Ruelas brothers built this.  Because they know we were first in doing that style of car.  I think that even now that is what it is all about.  To me, I get off on being able to have the energy and the charisma and everything else and the knowledge of being able to build my stuff the way I want it right now…Here with this family that I am involved with is so talented, is so rich in talent. I am really blessed…I wish that we can be able to do more things together, like we used to when we were young though (Ernie Ruelas, interview by author, tape recording, Los Angeles, CA, 12 June 1999).

 

 

            Today, the Ruelas family still owns the shop and house that Uncle Tinker left them on the corner of Long Beach Ave and 41st.  Their shop is a family business that Fernando wants to keep in the family and he is grooming his sons and nephews to take over one day.  They have had many offers to sell the property for big money since it is located right along the Alameda Corridor, but Fernando always refuses.  He believes that is important that it stays in the family, even though some of the other brothers believe the money would be nice.  Today, all the Ruelas brothers moved their families East of Los Angeles to the suburbs of Whittier and La Habra, yet the oldest brother Julio still lives in the house he grew up in, and right on the porch is a street sign that reads “Lowrider Blvd.  Even though the brothers moved out of the area, they still get together on the weekends to work on their cars.   And Jay and Ernie Jr., the oldest sons of Fernando and Ernie respectively, work in the shop during the week and they are also dedicated to the Dukes’ lowrider legacy.  Ernie Jr. describes what it means to be a part of this legacy:

It feels pretty good to work with my dad and my family because I’d rather work with them than work with anybody else…. And also people think lowriding is a negative image like gang members and stuff. Its not necessarily like that, there’s a lot of family orientated people that are involved in it.  They make look strange at sometimes, but it’s particularly family working people who are earning an honest living and just want to have fun and build their cars and take them out to shows and have a good time.  It’s really a family thing (Monica Delgado and Michael Van Wagenen, Low and Slow, 16mm, 27 min., Ritual Films & Publications, 1997).

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            Just as the Ruelas brothers learned their customizing skills by working on bikes and go-carts, the younger generation of the Dukes received their schooling on customizing through also working on bikes.  In 1977, The Dukes started a bike chapter in order to get the youth involved.  Just as the Ruelas brothers had to work for their money to customize as boys, the next generation of Dukes also had to work hard in order to buy the bikes and also to maintain their bikes.  In the process, a love and passion for customizing was born later continued as they graduated to working on cars.  The bike chapter is also a way in which the fathers could build relationships with their sons by working together to create a lowrider bike and also teach them to have respect and pride in the work they do. As Oscar Jr.  a member of the Dukes bike club chapter states:

I save my cans for I could make money so I could buy parts.  I buy the parts for my bike and I’m barely working on it.  I worked on it for one year and I’m also finished.  I really like working with him [my dad] on my car.  I really like watching my dad.  I like cleaning it [the car] for him and everything (Monica Delgado and Michael Van Wagenen, Low and Slow, 16mm, 27 min., Ritual Films & Publications, 1997).

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The women in the Ruelas family also play a central role in the workings of the car club, although their roles may not be visible, their presence is still felt.  And many of the men mention that they could not participate in the car club if not for the support and patience of their wives.  Gloria Ruelas is Fernando’s wife and she is the coordinator of all the Duke’s chapters throughout the United States.  Gloria remarks that the car club has been a positive influence for her sons in the documentary Low and Slow: 

I think it’s great that the boys are involved in the old cars and the old bikes.  It kind of keeps their mind off drugs, being in the street, drinking and basically stirring up a ruckus…This takes up so much of their time and they’re so intense about it that they really don’t have time for anything else.  And also, it costs a lot of money.  They have to work to get their cars done.  And the bikes, it’s a very expensive hobby and I want them to know that if they want something they have to work for it.  No one is going to give it to them (Monica Delgado and Michael Van Wagenen, Low and Slow, 16mm, 27 min., Ritual Films & Publications, 1997).

 

 

Since the car club is family orientated, the participation of the women is also important, and they too are at all the car shows.   The most important female presence is that of Josefina Ruelas who is always at every car show and exhibit to show support for her sons as she says “ I am always with them, all the time.  In spite of my age and all, I love to be with them”   (Monica Delgado and Michael Van Wagenen, Low and Slow, 16 mm, 27 min., Ritual Films & Publications, 1999).

Over the years, the Dukes have built a solid reputation and have set the standards for other car clubs. The Ruelas Brothers developed the necessary skills in car customizing that would establish them as one of the top low rider car clubs for nearly forty years with thirty chapters nationally and even internationally.  The Ruelas family is truly passionate about lowriding as a sport and as a way of life.  As Fernando says,  “If God gives me another fifty or forty years, we still be doing the same thing.  It is something that we will carry on”(Fernando Ruelas, interview by author, tape recording, La Habra, CA, 10 June 1999). But, it is their commitment to their East-side roots over the years, which speaks to the strength of the low riding tradition within Chicano communities.  The Ruelas brothers exemplify the roots of lowriding which is anchored respect and family.  It is also a source of pride that stems from el corazon/the heart as Julio beautifully states:

A true low rider comes from one’s heart, a true working person that has his own steady job or his own business and he loves automobiles and goes by low riding.  Low riding is more than a name.  It is really a customized car, whether you change the interior, change the painting, the engine, put chrome here or there…And your sounds…your oldies music…”

(Julio Ruelas, interview by author, tape recording, Los Angeles, CA, 12 June 1999).

 

The DeAlbas

“El Corazon”

I am not into baseball, so I am not going to join a baseball team.  If I join a baseball team I have to dedicate myself to be at practice and all the games.  It is the same thing with our car club, we take it that much to heart.”

Alberto DeAlba

(Albert DeAlba, interview by author, tape recording, Montclair, CA, 19 March 1999)

 

The importance of family is key to many car clubs since it is the center of loyalty and unity in many Chicano families.   Lowriding is more than a sport, it is a lifestyle choice that takes a lot of heart and hard work to be successful at the top competition levels.  Yet, low riding is also about the relationship between fathers and sons.    For example, a father teaching his son about the history and skills of a low riding becomes a time to share his own stories of cruising the boulevard and they also create new memories as the work on a car together.  Then, hopefully one day his son will teach his own son (and now grandson) the skills of a beautiful tradition and the art of low riding.  It is a passion that many families share. The DeAlba family of Montclair is another example of the family tradition of low riding.  They have a family business called Mario's Auto Works in Montclair, California.  There are three sons, (Mario Jr., Albert, and Greg) and they all work together with their father Mario Sr.  And after the shop closes, they work together on their low riders, building on a passion and skills which Mario learned in Tijuana  and brought with him to the United States. It is a history which his sons know well and they now begin to teach their own sons.

Mario Sr., 53, worked at the horse track in Tijuana when he was youngster, which was a prestigious job to have in those days.  Mario would notice that the jockeys were the ones who had the money and they would drive customized cars.   Mario began by learning how to customize bikes at an early age, but the cars always turned his head.  Mario recalls, "There was a lot of low riding down there [Tijuana, Mexico].....I would see the cars going down the road and I would say that maybe one day I'll get me one” (Mario DeAlba Sr, interview by author, tape recording, Montclair, CA, 19 March 1999). Mario Sr. was fascinated by those cars and true to his words, his first lowrider was a ‘39 Plymouth that he bought for fifty dollars.  He cut the suspension coils on it to lower it closer to the ground and he cruised the streets of Tijuana as a teenager.   At eighteen he came to the states and settled in East Los Angeles.  The year was 1965, known as part of the golden years of cruising on Whittier Boulevard, and he would often join in the festivity of the performance by cruising that sacred boulevard.  Mario Sr. reminisces about the good times of cruising on Whittier, which today is shut off as a cruising spot,

On Whittier Boulevard, I still remember like the cruising would start from Ford and go all the way, way past Atlantic.  If somebody went up there to just get through, it would take the person an hour or so because of the cruisers.  They are so slow but that is what everybody used to go for, just to be seen on the street and a lot of cars and people in the business parking lots and all that.  It was like a car show on wheels.  I have seen a couple of fights or two once in awhile.  But that is normal when there is a lot of people.  They come and go but nothing major, nothing…It was very nice.  Like everybody mind their own business.  If it could be done again, I think it would be nice (Mario DeAlba Sr., interview by author, tape recording, Montclair, CA, 19 March 1999).

 

Mario Sr. had his cruising days cut short when he was drafted into the army in 1968 during the Vietnam War and as he says “I was mad. Nothing you can do when Uncle Sam says it’s your time”(Ibid). Mario was also married that same year and after he returned from Vietnam, the family settled in Pomona and Mario worked in an auto repair shop. Mario Sr. had joined a car club called Elite which his cousins’ started in the mid-1970s but then the club collapsed, so then he joined Style from Pomona and that club lasted until 1983. Mario then did not join a lowrider club for almost another ten years.   In the 1980s, lowriding came to shortstop for many car clubs, some of the reasons may be economic troubles of the Reagan-Bush years, but by the beginning of the 1990s, lowriding was able to pick up again.  

During those years of the 1970s and 1980s,  Mario Sr.  kept his sons off the streets by teaching them customizing skills.  He started with the bikes and eventually the boys would graduate to learning how to customize cars. Albert’s older brother, Mario Jr., was the one who got him interested in customizing.  Mario Jr. would always fix up their little pull wagons and little pedal cars . Their dad later bought them bikes, they would fix them up and their dad painted them.  Once Mario Jr. learned how to paint, he would start painting the bikes. The De Alba boys really enjoyed customizing and they learned the skills that have made them one of the top customizers on the low riding scene today.  Again it is a true-life long passion that began in their  youth while learning to fix their bike and they also learned the rewards that come with the competition as others admire your work of art.  As Albert says, “It is a statement of your personality.  Lowriding to me would be a statement of my individuality.  So when people are looking at it, they are also looking at you (Albert DeAlba, interview by author, tape recording, Montclair, CA, 19 March 1999).” Mario also taught his sons responsibility and dedication by making them work for their money by cutting the yard or other chores in order to buy parts for their bikes.  It is this work ethic that their father taught them which they now apply to the cars they build and which is evidenced by the many trophies their car club Elite has earned in car shows throughout the years.  It is this pride in their work that makes them feel good about their own self worth.  Albert elaborates further when he says “When somebody admires your car, they are admiring you at that same time.  You developed that.  You are the one who put the ideas and work into it (Ibid)”.

As Albert and Mario Jr. entered their teenage years, they also became fascinated by car culture as part of the mini-truck craze of the late 1980s.  They were not happy with the car clubs that were around back then, and they started thinking about bringing back to life their dad’s old club Elite when they learned another old club, Traffic, was started up again.   They remembered how they used to go to car shows when they were kids and they wanted a club that had a history and also had lowrider style.  Albert mentioned that the other clubs that he and his brother checked out were just single guys who wanted to be out there “screwing around”. They had started out with customizing mini-trucks as teenagers, but the DeAlba brothers were now ready to begin customizing the more classic lowriders—Chevy Impalas and bombs. The DeAlba brothers wanted to be more focused on a professional level of low riding to create some of the best cars on the streets and in the show circuit.  So these two principles of professionalism and fantastic lowriders would shape the direction of the re-born Elite car club in 1991.   When asked what are the requirements that club members must follow Albert explains:

Well we tell people, like all our membership is based on friends and friends of friends—we put people through a 3-month trial phase, a probation period.  We are now more of a family orientated club…So our requirements nowadays are to have a nice car, you don’t have to have the best car in the world, but your car has to have hydraulics, it has to have wire wheels, you have to have a hell of a paint job, you have to have a hell of an interior, the car has to be top notch period…We tell them our main goal is to have guys with level heads.  We don’t have want guys that our pushing drugs.  We don’t want guys that are using drugs.  We don’t want guys that are in gangs.  We don’t want guys that are just negative people.  We want pure positive, more family orientated, grown up people (Ibid).

 

            The Elite car club ranges in age from 19 to 54 years old and is focused on representing low riding at its most positive level, so cars that fly the Elite flag must do so with honor and respect.  If a car member is out on the streets and gets in trouble, that comes back to reflect on the car club. So very simply, Albert feels that in order to be part of club, a person needs to not only have a top-notch vehicle, but also must be “down for the lowrider movement”, which means full dedication at club meetings and club events.  Since cruising has been outlawed, one of the main places to display your lowrider is at car shows and car club picnics.  Every year the Elite car club has their own car picnic, which is very successful and their flyer announces their emphasis on the positive vibe to lowriding,   “No colors and no attitudes”.   This statement is a warning to gang members and also car clubs that like to start problems over losing awards or car hopping contests as a result of competitive jealousy. Albert believes that club picnics are part of the future of low riding since it offers the best solution to cruising, and the various car picnics are open to other car clubs to attend.  Most important though is that these car picnics are family orientated and a time to celebrate the tradition of lowriding on a Sunday afternoon in the park, which is a tradition in many barrios throughout Los Angeles.  For the DeAlba family, lowriding has brought them together and this family is another testament to the positive-ness of lowriding within the Chicano community.  The DeAlba men also have the full support of the women in their family and according to Albert, lowriding as a hobby is not something women in their family should worry about.   It is also something that Albert is sharing with his young son, Albert Jr, and his son now shares in his passion and enthusiasm for lowriding.  Albert relates:

Like my mom, my wife, they know where we are at.  We are not at nude bars spending our paychecks out there.  Like a lot of people do and that is their thing and that’s fine.  But like my dad says, lowriding is good, clean wholesome fun. It is a deep hobby. It has brought our family close.  We go to the shows.  Like I told you earlier, my son, Albert Jr., is a hard-core low rider fanatic.  He got to meet the Alberto Lopez who is the old owner of the magazine. The day he met him he was acting like he met Michael Jackson…. And, I have even seen it in our club, the members pick up their cars, and now the parents come to the shows, their wives and kids.  It is a family thing.  Let’s bring the families out.  That way you are closer to your family.  It is not only a thing for guys. When we were younger, we would go cruising, and you would go to the cruise spots to meet girls or whatever, but as you mature, you grow out of that (Ibid).

 

The DeAlbas’ pride and dedication to lowriding is best exemplified in their show stopping 1951 Chevy Couple entitled  “El Corazon” which gets its name from its fiery red color but also because as Mario Sr. states,  “I put by heart and soul into that car.”   It is a legend on the bomb scene and it won the title of “Lowrider Bomb of the Year” three times in 1991, 1993 and 1994.  It also represents the ingenious innovations of lowriders as they design cars that can boggle the imagination and also can be compared with great works of art.  As a young boy, Mario Sr. was always fond of ’51 Chevys and he originally bought this one for $150.  He used it first to run parts for his shop before finally deciding to customize it in a manner he had always dreamed of as a boy living in Tijuana, Mexico.   Working with his three sons, it took Mario more than four years of hard work to created this explosive ride that also has many technological changes.  First he installed a 1979 Chevy engine in order to give his car power.  He then he shaved down the original body of the car and extended and rounded the hood in order to get a unique look. He included other car modifications such as a ’53 Chevy grille, ’59 Pontiac side moldings,  modified ’76 Cadillac rear skirts,  ’49 Dodge tail-lights, and a center console from a ’66 Pontiac Grand Prix, just to name a few.  A master painter, Mario went all out on his car by first applying a custom acrylic lacquer gold base and then layering on numerous layers of candy apple red and brandy wine lacquer.  The interior of the car is red velour and gold plating can be found throughout the car. Finally he added several coats of clear lacquer to give it extra shine and for historic sake, a pair of fuzzy red dice hang from the rear view mirror.   The car lies so low to ground that you can barely slide a piece of paper under it---an exquisite lowrider masterpiece.   The car has become an icon on the lowrider scene and also represents the passion for lowriding within the DeAlba family so according to Mario Sr., he would never sell it.  The name of the car embodies everything that it takes to build a lowrider----el corazon/the heart.

 

A Caravan of Love: The Evolution of Lowriding

“Brotherhood”

“Everybody in the club no matter where they are from is my brother and family member.  Some of the members have been in other clubs before and never felt as if they belonged, but in Uso, as brothers, we all belong to each other.  We are really one big family, enjoying each other’s company, helping each other to achieve their goals.”

Kita Lealao (interview by author, tape recording, Los Angeles, CA, 15 April 1999)

 

 

USO is an example of a car club that started in the 1990's with a multi-cultural perspective on cars and people.  USO in fact translates to "brother" in the Samoan language and the club definitely has a created a brotherhood across racial lines. The club also speaks to how lowriding has evolved from being Chicano specific to one in which the passion for cars is viewed as a more important requirement for club membership.   In 1991, Kita Lealao and his friends, who are of Samoan ancestry, decided to start their own lowrider car club in the city of Carson where they lived, which is a city that has a mixed population of Samoans, Chicanos and African Americans. Kita, who has been low riding over twenty years both in Northern California and Southern CA, was one of the few Samoans in low riding in the late 1970s. He is comfortable in multicultural settings since he grew up in neighborhoods with primarily Chicano and African American residents.  He also sees acculturating and interacting to other cultures as normal for Samoans living in the United States as part of their quest for the “American Dream”.   He explains:

Where I grew up on Second Street, there was a handful of Samoans that hung out with Chicanos, because there wasn’t a lot of Samoans in our neighborhood, so we hung out with people we lived with.  So that this how I learned a lot of the culture.  We grew up with Blacks too.  When you come from different countries like the Samoan people do, the only places we can afford to live in and start our families is in the ghetto.  You know as you move along, you get upgraded as you go along, and find a better job, you make a little bit of money and move to a better neighborhood just to better your family (Ibid).

 

Kita’s upbringing exposed him to different cultures and also taught him how to get along with people from different cultures.  And it would be the Chicanos and the African Americans who first introduced him to the low riding scene. Presently, there are 31 car club chapters of USO, and they even have chapters in Canada and Guam.  In 1998, Lowrider Magazine named USO Lowrider car club of the year and they have the added distinction of being the youngest car club to win this prestigious title.  Uso is an example of a new breed of low riders who are multicultural and diverse in membership.  As they boast, “While other clubs talk about being together, USO does it everyday (Lowrider Magazine, April 1998, 134)”.   The club speaks to the transformation of low rider culture and also is an example of multiculturalism in practice.  Yet, they are also representative of the central tenets of the lowriding practice which are pride, respect, and family.

Kita Lealao is 42 years old and he was born and raised in the Bay Area.  As a young kid of 9 years old, he remembers visiting his relatives in Los Angeles and seeing lowriders for the first time and he was soon hooked.  Or as he says, “ I feel in love with them ever since (Kita Lealao, interview by author, tape recording, Los Angeles, CA, 15 April 1999)”.  He purchased his first lowrider in 1976, a ’73 Lincoln Mark IV, which he customized and lifted with hydraulics.  Lowriding hit the Bay Area big in the late 1970s with cruising the Mission District in San Francisco and King Boulevard in San Jose as standard weekend activity for many youth.  In 1979, he joined his first car club, Low Creations, based in San Francisco and they were the biggest lowrider car club on the scene at that time. They were also a mixed car club with an African American as club president.  Kita remembers there not being much racial tension between Blacks and Chicanos back then as he says “They low ride basically the same.  They just come from different towns (Ibid).” Yet, he does admit that some Chicano members would later leave Low Creations to form a different club, just for Chicanos.  He remembers that every weekend the streets in Northern California were filled to capacity with people and everyone was getting along and just enjoying themselves. 

Yet, Kita’s dream would be to start his own lowrider car club one day, but that would not happen until he moved to Southern California and settled in Carson. In 1991,  Kita co-founded Uso with his cousin Daniel and a friend Joe Hunkin. They had initially thought to start a “Samoans Only” club, but that plan soon changed when they realized that they would not have many members since they are so few Samoans who low ride.  So, they instead decided to open the club to every race.  As he tells it, they did not care what ethnicity a person was, they just wanted some one who had a lowrider style vehicle and who had a positive attitude. Put simply,  “The basic requirement for a member is only 10% the car and 90% the person.  That is the way we judge people in our car club (Ibid).”  So with 10 members, USO was born and would soon rapidly grow in numbers.  USO is also a lowrider car club that does not have specific car type requirements for instance only specializing in “bombs” or Chevys or strictly American made cars. Again it is the passion for lowriding which is key to membership.  Kita explains:

We wanted people who would look at the club as family, get involved with each other and enjoy each other’s company.  After all, if we were going to be a success, it would be as a club and that meant that everybody would have to contribute and help each other to achieve their goals. To me, a car club is like a second family.  You have your immediate and then you have them.  Besides your job, those are like the three groups you kick it with mostly.  You know what I mean. Myself, I like it because it is something that a bunch of guys, even their women, that we all like to do together…. build cars, talk about them and hang out (Ibid).

 

Kita attributes his club’s success to the cohesiveness of the various chapters.  According to him “we put our brains together 24-7” and they talk to each other everyday, either by phone or through e-mail.  They also have a website that keeps everyone in the club up to date through a newsletter so that every member can be informed to of the club business. Another innovative way they communicate is that they have their own telephone code of 870 so they all the USO members in the United States can communicate with one another.  In six years, they were able to have a respectable name for themselves on the lowrider circuit and they also established club chapters.  Kita views the strength of the club being the brotherhood  since they value the person, not the race of  perspective members. They want positive people who have good attitudes and if they are affiliated with any gangs, then that person need not apply.   Yet, if a person was once a gang member and now they are out of the gang, then he says they are welcome to join and they can also be part of “teaching youngsters the rights and wrongs (Ibid)”.  Another similar trait that USO has with other lowrider clubs is their belief in being role models for young kids.  Kita even equates his club to college and the members then are the professors teaching the kids the right way of doing of things in life in order to stay out of trouble.  It is this dedication to the younger generation by being good role models that makes USO stand out. It is also a fact that often goes overlooked by the media and other critics of  lowriding.  Kita  relates:

Believe it or not, I look at USO as more like a college.  It’s where you can learn right from wrong, what to do to achieve what it takes to get there, and what’s wrong and how to stay away from that.  I’ve got more than twenty five years of experience in lowriding and I want to make sure that the chapters are preaching the right concept to the members and to the kids who are going to be lowriders in the future (Ibid).

 

Almost everyone you talk to on the lowrider circuit knows Kita and speaks of him highly. He is well liked and is also very respected from an older club like the Dukes to a highly competitive one like Lifestyle.   Some common words heard to describe Kita are nice guy, big teddy bear, and family man.  Those are people who know him and have interacted with him, but Kita also has to deal with being stereotyped by how he looks by those who do not know him.  It is easy to take one look at him and jump to all the wrong conclusions.  He is a big Samoan guy, with a shaved head and tattoos and one would think that this guy was either in gang or maybe even has done some time in the “pen” (penitentiary).  Yet, the real story could not be farther from truth and is an example of how stereotyping can be damaging to a person and mislead those outside of lowriding what the culture is really about.  Kita has this beautiful personality and a warm soft voice that does not match his physicality, and he is  quick to hug those he meets as if they are old friends.  He is wonderful human being.  And he is an example of the reality that just because a person has a lowrider and tattoos does not mean the person is a gangster or ever was one.  The connection between lowriding and gang banging is one that is hard to overcome, because it obscures the fact that many of the lowriders are hard working guys with families and respectable jobs.   It is still easy to criminalize lowriders, which is a reality that many of them face everyday.  Kita explains this fact,

The first thing they always ask me when they see me tatted up is ‘hey man what joint were you in?’  No man, I have been really lucky.  I just like tattoos.  When you tell people that, they are kind of like, ‘you are kidding’.  I say, ‘no man, I’m not. I’m telling you the truth’.  Yeah, sure I can glorify myself and say I’ve been in this pen or that pen, but for what. You are just going to look at me like what the hell, I don’t want to be talking to this fool…..When everybody says that lowriding is associated with gang banging and stuff like that, I would tell them about just the lifestyle, having a nice car and I have worked for TWA for twenty years.  You can keep a job, keep a car and still have fun.  That is what I mean, having fun is the bottom line (Ibid).

 

            Though lowriding is about having fun, there are times when it is not fun and involves being mistreated because you are always seen as a gang member because you are brown skinned, you have tattoos and you cruise the streets in  a low rider.  Some clubs have good relationships with the police, especially the older clubs that have been around for a long time in East Los Angeles and have built  an understanding with the police. But, the police harasses other low riders,  and Kita says that the Los Angeles County Sheriffs in Carson were not friendly with lowriders.  He describes the degrading and humiliating experience of  being pulled over for no reason, sitting on the sidewalk and having his car searched for guns or drugs.  He also says that the sheriffs talked down to him and cussed him out just because they found nothing wrong and were trying to provoke him so that they could arrest him.  When asked if he received the same kind of treatment by police in Northern California,  Kita elaborates,

Not as severe.  I am talking about severe means just like verbally abusing you.  You say one little thing back just to say I’m sorry or something like that because you didn’t hear the question, it is like boom, they want to kick your butt.  If they think you are trying to get smart with them, but you are not, you are just trying to utilize your rights.  They just be throwing it in your face man,  ‘You say one more thing, I am going to kick your ass’ (Ibid).

 

Kita also keeps the lowriding tradition by passing along his knowledge to his children and he admits that his daughters who are eighteen and nineteen are the best pupils.  He says that they can tell a difference between all the different styles of Impalas and they also know the year and makes of lowrider cars.   Kita says all his children can look inside a trunk and tell you what kind of hydraulic set up it is, to what kind of paint job a car has, to basic things such as what type of rims are on the wheels.  And now, even his grandkids also are learning what lowriding is about.  It is very rare for a Samoan family to have lowriding roots according to Kita.  Lowriding in the case of the Lealao family is something that they can do together and at very car show, the whole family is there in support of lowriding.   Kita best describes the energy that lowriding has for him when he says:

It doesn’t matter how old you are, that love is still there for the game.  The sport.  That is what I love about low riding .  To me, it is like I’m always in the candy store.  I  never get tired of it. Never.  It is always exciting (Ibid).

 

The excitement of lowriding is something that continues to grow stronger. And as lowriding has evolved through the years, it has changed, and this is mainly due to the increase of low rider car clubs, especially multicultural car clubs.  Not all car clubs have strict requirements for membership, such as a specific type of cars or even ethnic ties, but some car clubs are social clubs based on a passion for lowriding.  Kita told me that the oldie song that captures the style and emotion of his car club is one by the Isley Brothers called “Caravan of Love”.  He said this song is like the national song for his club, especially the words  “we join our hands, we join the caravan of love”.  For him,  Uso is all about love.  And I believe that is an accurate description.  Uso also lives the social codes of the lowriding of pride, respect and family, albeit with a multicultural twist.  When asked to describe the contributions of USO to the lowriding scene,  Kita sums it up when he says:

There is nothing in the like expressing yourself and your ideas on a lowrider that you have so much love for.  USO is proud to be part of that.  In just six years, USO has gone from being  “just another lowrider club” to what we hope will be the pattern for all of the other clubs of the future—no racial lines, no color lines and connected to the hear of the Lowrider Movement through LRM.  That way, all of us can spend more time enjoying the sport of lowriding that we live and love and less time with problems among the people.  While other clubs talk about being together, USO does it every day (Ibid).


The Rock and Rollers---the Lowrider “Lifestyle”

I don’t let my family involved in anything I do here really, they wouldn’t understand. You get told “why are you leaving?  You gotta see your son’s football game!”…My friends are always there for me, and if one day I am not there for them, they’ll never forgive me.  The less I tell the family, the better off I am.

Joe Ray, President of Lifestyle (Interview by author, tape recording, Los Angeles, CA, 6 May 1999)

 

 

            There are many lowrider clubs that depart somewhat from the structure of the incorporating the family into lowrider club life, and instead are focused on the passion for the cars as a purely masculine activity that sometimes must come before the family.  These clubs typically have young men in their 20’s and 30’s who are single and then also a few guys from the older generation in their 40’s and 50’s.   The commitment they make to the club is a primary one, and many of them therefore are divorced or have broken relationships with women and even their children.   The particular car club that I am examining here is called Lifestyle---and the name captures the philosophy of the men in the club.  Lowriding is the lifestyle they choose, and they live it in its fullest extent with pride and respect for their craft, with one exception, family is often a sacrifice that one has to make in order to belong to the club. When a man chooses to join Lifestyle, they are joining a club that must come first in their lives and the loyalty they have to one another creates bonds that are displayed through behaviors that one can accurately portray as being macho.  It was one of the few instances in my research process that my role as a woman placed me in a disadvantage and I had to prove myself to them through various masculinity strategies that were employed against me.  Women are conspicuously absent at all club activities and that is the way they like it.   Therefore, it is important here to include my positionality as a Chicana on the research process because it is relevant in context of the club’s philosophy.   Lifestyle car club is a perfect example of how lowriding at its most basic level is an expression of masculinity, though some clubs display it in a less forceful level than others, and their existence speaks to the diverse politics involved in lowrider clubs.  Also, this section allows the reader the chance to understand the inner workings of car club meetings, which can range from an expressions of male bravado to the mentoring of younger members of the veteranos—the older generation.  

            My first interaction with Lifestyle car club came at a club meeting on February 26, 1999, car club meetings are usually held every other Friday in an auto-body shop in Santa Fe Springs . The car meeting was supposed to start at 9 pm, but would start late because the President of the car club, Joe Ray, was running late.   The meeting started around 9:20 pm when Joe Ray arrived, and the rest of the car club filtered into the garage. I noticed that most of them were in their early 20s to their early 30s and there were about 40 or so guys.  All of them were Chicano, except for two Japanese guys. The car cub sits in a make shift circle, some find chairs or boxes to sit on and other just stand around.  The officers of the club stand together on one side of the circle. And Joe Ray stands in the front.   All club members are wearing their car club T-shirts, which are the club’s colors of Black and gold.   

            The club meeting then officially started by taking roll and collecting dues.  The dues are five dollars a meeting and you get fined for being late, and a guy can even be placed on probation for habitually being late to club meetings.  I asked Joe Rodriguez, the secretary of the club, as dues were being collected if everyone at the meeting has their own car and he yes. Joe said that one exception to the rule of a car per member are the “cuates” or the twins.  They have one car and they were voted into the car club together.  As the meeting continued, some older men walked in and Joe mentioned to me that they were “honorary members” who come to meetings when they wanted.  These men are typically in their late 40s and early 50s and have been in lowriding for along time, so they have special status.  There is a definite generation gap in the club between younger men and the old timers.  The club celebrated their 25the anniversary in the year 2000 and Joe Ray, the president, was with the club since the beginning.

            After roll and the dues are collected, Joe Ray then begins to preach to his young audience, which is something he does a lot during this meeting.  But his “preaching” is a combination of motivational speeches and also admonishments ala Vince Lombardi or even General Patton in some cases.  He tells the club that he is ashamed at the club presence in the last car show in Arizona were they showed only thirty cars.  He said that some of the cars in this club are not “cutting it” and they will be kicked out of the club for not having their cars “show ready”.  Apparently, some of the guys in the club have been in the process of building their cars forever and Joe Ray said that this is unacceptable.  He says the club is about competition, not only among car members but also about having cars that are competition ready and cars that are the best ones out there.” And the lack of progress by individual car club members reflects badly on the whole car club according to him.  Joe Ray speaks in a tough manner and as he talks he walks around and looks at every car club member.  He is very dramatic and energetic in getting his point across and everyone is listening and watching him.  

            Then this being said, it is time for the head of the car committee to go around the room and check on the status of the cars that are still “in process”.  Joe Ray says that he wants the guys to be short and sweet on their updates, and he wants no excuses.  This though would end up being the longest part of the meeting as the guys get into elaborate stories as to why their cars are not done and the rest of the club gives their opinion on the matters.  I guess from this process that certain members have a history of giving sob stories and making excuses to why certain things are not done on their cars.  And then there a few members who are in the club that have not even built a lowrider yet.  Joe Rodriguez mentioned to me that in the car club at the moment are 35 cars that are competition ready and 15 cars that are not.   That means that those 15 members cannot fly the club colors or the club plaque on their car.  Also all the cars are classic lowriders such as Impalas, Riveras or other Chevy cars, and there are even Cadillacs, but basically no car after 1979.  He said that the club has certain standards for modifications to the cars and the car committee does have the final say on what the member does to the car.  The car committee also challenges certain members to finish the work on his car and also tries to motivate them.  Joe Ray particularly challenges a young Chicano/Flipino guy in his early 20s, who has a ’59 Chevy convertible and all that has been done is the frame of the car.  Joe Ray tells him that he needs to think about why he got into the car club in the first place because so far he has done nothing to his car and he appears to have no interest.  Joe Ray tells him forcefully, “Where is your motivation?  You need to look at yourself and your whole life and ask yourself that question.  You build the car yourself and you got into the car club yourself.  Get off your butt and do the car or throw in the towel and get of club because at the moment, you are doing nothing.” The young guy  looks at him the whole time he is talking with a bit of arrogant attitude, and this exchange reminds me of a father trying to motivate his son to get his life together.  Joe Ray then talks about how it takes pride to “fly your machine” and how it is an issue of respect.  You get respect for being in the club, having your Lifestyle plaque and also for having a nice ride. And every member reflects on the club, therefore he is going to keep each member “on check”. Finally, the wrapping up of the meeting was supposed to start, now it was about 10:30 pm.  Joe Ray mentioned that if any member is late to the Azalea Festival that they would be fined or swatted.  Swatting is something that I would experience first hand in a few minutes, but Joe Ray continues to try to motivate his members. He also mentions the importance of grooming future leadership in the younger generation.  He says that he used to be a lot stricter with the club, but he is mellowing out in his old age.  I think to myself what exactly “mellow” means to him, as I again notice the generation gap between the club members.  And at the young age of 43, Joe Ray is the “veterano” who is respected and admired for having given twenty-five years of his life to this club and to the lowriding scene.

            It was now time for the swatting to begin.  The Sergeant of Arms a young Chicano in his 20s steps forward carrying a large black wooden paddle with the name Lifestyle etched on it.  He says that he is going to go through the list of members who need to pay their fines and be swatted.   If someone is late or misses a meeting, it is $25 and apparently if your fines are then over $15, you are “swatted” with the paddle. There are three members who are swatted during this meeting. It works something like this; the guy being punished walks to the center of the car club circle, bends over and then receives one swift hard smack on his ass by the Sergeant of Arms.   .  One guy tries to negotiate his way out the swat, he said the club knew he was having money problems and okayed the fact that he would be late with the money he owes.  But, The Sergeant of Arms says that the rule is that if you owe more than $15, then you get swatted—no exceptions.  So, the guy has to bend over and get his smack.  As this was happening, I was trying hard not to laugh at the absurdity of this ritual, that reminded me of something that frat boys do, but I had to suppress it since everyone was so serious.  This was not a laughing matter to the guys in Lifestyle.  And it also something that not too many car clubs still do, it is a throw back to old days when the car clubs were run like “gangs on wheels”.

            After the meeting ended, Joe Ray walked over to my dad and I and said that he was sorry if any of the language offended us, but his club is dedicated to “keeping it real”.  Joe Ray thanked us for coming to the meeting and then asked me to notice that there are few wedding bands on the guys which means it is hard to have relationships with women and also be in a car club.  He also told me that many of the guys are divorced because of their dedication to the club.  Also, that the dedication is so fierce that their wallets are thin from putting so much money into their cars.  This fact speaks to the dedication of the guys in the club, but also speaks to how one’s family life at home suffers.  I am reminded of something that the artist Mr. Cartoon said about Lifestyles’ philosophy in regards to lowriding:

Put it this way, we pay the chrome bill before we pay the phone bill.  We’re down like that.  We lose sleep over what color we’re going to paint our cars and how we’re going to affect the streets when we’re rollin’ in our cars. We live our lives like that and we bounce off each other because building a lowrider isn’t just about one person, it’s a unity of all our friends.  So for most of us here, lowriding is our passion.  It is something we will always do (Lowrider Magazine, August 1999, 70).

           

My experience at Lifestyle’s meeting was one instance when I see how each car club has different politics and also a different philosophy toward lowriding.  For Lifestyle, it is about dedicating your life to the club and to having your cars at a competitive level.  They only have one chapter because they want to control the way they perceived on the lowrider scene.  And their cars are some the best lowriders I have seen.  They are also one of the most respected lowrider clubs on the customizing scene and they have a lot of prize-winning cars.   Yet this club, and there are other clubs out there like them, does not integrate family into the car club. The car club comes first and family second, therefore a member must be willing to sacrifice their family or have a family that is very understanding.  Joe Ray can be overly dramatic, but his own life experience with the club has cost him a lot.  He reminds me of the “Godfather” when he says,  “Lowriding is a sport.  It’s a hobby.  It’s a lot of fun.  It takes a serious commitment of time, you get trapped, you’re stuck and you’re not gonna get out. I’m stuck real bad” (interview by author, tape recording, Los Angeles, CA, 6 May 1999).

              

Chicano Art and Culture

Pachucos and Lowriders

 

“It is the secret fantasy of every bato in or out of the chicanada to put on a zoot suit and play the myth mas chucote que la Chingada.”  Luis Valdez, Zoot Suit (1981)

 

El Pachuco:   Man or Myth?

The pachuco is an image that still influences low rider culture--from the logo of LowRider Magazine to the clothes some youth wear at car shows---the image is a reminder of a time during World War II when zoot suit style represented defiance to the “status quo”.  The zoot suiters were an affront to the war time style of dress when more conservative suits were the style due to fabric rationing during the war, as well as short hair cuts by men, especially military men.  The Pachucos wore a baggy suit with a high waisted trousers, a wide brim hat, and a long gold watch chain.  In addition, they wore their hair a bit longer than was the style of the time. It is style that flagrantly visualized extravagance and excess in a time in American when minimalism was favored due to the war.  The zoot suit style was favored by some African American and Flipino youth, yet the style came to be identified with Mexican American youth.  Therefore, this style reflected a stance of resistance or an attempt to mark out a different space in American society. For the Pachucos, the zoot suit was definitely not the traditional Mexican style of their parents, and at the same time it was also different from other American youth.  But, the zoot suit is every part American, just like the low riders, which are also American cars.  Both styles would eventually invade popular culture and reach mainstream audiences in America.

Whereas Octavio Paz the great Mexican Philosopher saw negativity in the Pachuco after his visit to Los Angeles in the 1950s, since according to Paz, they represented the children who lost their connection to  their Mexican roots.  Yet, this Pachuco identity is still very much alive within Chicano culture as a symbol of resistance. Octavio Paz in his book “Labyrinth of Solitude” (1961) captures the complexity of the pachuco cultural identity. He writes: “His whole being is sheer negative impulse, a tangle of contradictions, an enigma. Even his very name is enigmatic: pachuco, a word of uncertain derivation, saying nothing and saying everything ( pg. 14).

Therefore, the Pachuco style was one which stood out and it can also be seen as a site of resistance in the fact pachucos would be the target in the Sleepy Lagoon case of 1942 and the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943.  The former was a case when the media and law enforcement publicly criminalized pachucos.  Seven pachucos were found guilty of murder with circumstantial evidence and  the case revealed more about public sentiment of pachucos who were labeled  “juvenile delinquents”.  The chief of police even said that Chicanos were expected to violent since they descended from the Aztecs.  The case was eventually overturned, yet it was a landmark case for Mexican Americans in Los Angeles in that it revealed the racism of the American Justice system. Another important event was the Zoot Riots which occurred in the Summer of 1943 when  U.S. servicemen who ventured into areas where pachucos hung out in the city and they terrorized them.  The servicemen would beat up the pachucos, tear off their zoot suits, and even cut their long hair.  The servicemen saw the pachucos as un-American and draft dodgers, and the beatings represented a way of re-establishing order.  The police were of no help to the pachucos and they only stepped in once the beatings were over and arrested the pachucos,  the servicemen were let go.  Both these instances reflect the disdain that the broader society had for the pachuco.

The romanticization of the "pachuco" past and the quest for a Chicano identity is also present within the pages  of Low Rider Magazine and other magazines that focused on low riders such as Street Low, Teen Angel, and Orlie’s Lowriding.    The way the past continues to live the present and how the present in turn is used to make sense of the future is a quality shared by many pop cultural forms. An example would be how Low Rider Magazine during the late 1970's encouraged its readers to send in pictures of their parents and grandparents during the Pachuco era of the 1940's and 1950s.  The pictures were included in a section entitled "Low Rider Pasados"  (Low Riders of the Past).  The readers responded enthusiastically by sending in their pictures of both men and women dressed in Zoot suits which created a collectivity within the low rider culture by linking the past to the present.  The magazine made a political move to link the low rider "movement" to a time in the past in which an alternative space was carved out to celebrate being Mexican American.  It also demonstrated how Chicanos of one generation admired the Chicanos of an earlier generation---The Pachucos.

The pachuco through his dress, language, and style embodied a meaning of resistance, just like that of a low rider who chooses to drive his car low to the ground. In addition, both styles are “visual”, a person cannot help but notice, yet by being seen, both styles are often “criminalized” and seen in a negative light by the dominant society.   The pachucos existed between both their American and Mexican identities in a space defined by the working class roots of the barrio.  To see and be seen, a visible marker of difference, yet sameness by creating a community---of pachucos and eventually low riders.  Both subcultures within Mexican American communities are a sign of youth attempting to make a new identity for themselves, and in the process the pachuco and the low rider have become symbols of Chicano culture. But, the pachuco is the beginning of a Chicano identity rooted in rebellion and resistance. The great  Chicano poet Jose Montoya once proclaimed the Pachuco “the first Chicano freedom fighters of the Chicano Movement.”  Where they real men or romanticized symbols of strength in the face of negativity?  A myth does not create such an impact like the pachuco has within Chicano communities, their spirit of resistance is still alive in many barrios across the Southwest.   Que viva la pachucada!

 

 

 El Arte Chicano---an art for and of the people

“A truly public art provides society with the symbolic representation of collective beliefs as well as continuing re-affirmation of the collective sense of self.”

(Eva Sperling Cockcroft and Holly Barnet Sanchez, Signs From the Heart: California Chicano Murals, 1990, pg. 5)

 

Chicano art at its basic definition is something that is tied to the everyday reality of Chicanos, whether it be in the barrios of Los Angeles or the deserts of New Mexico.  Chicano art was born during the Chicano Movement which was the civil rights movement for Mexican Americans during the 1960's and 1970s. Chicanos began to fight for their civil rights whether it was in the work place, school, or local communities. Chicanos began to create changes and bring equality to their own communities through the belief in self-determination and self-empowerment.  Pachucos were the first Chicano freedom fighters who began to create a different identity and community for themselves through a visual medium—they were also the first Chicano artists.  And Chicano visual artists have always been present in the barrio especially during social movements since art is the method which fuels the inherent rage, passion, and resistance.

Chicano graffiti for example expressed the rage of Chicano youth and it was also tied to the reality of the streets and barrios which they inhabited.  Graffiti was also a precursor and even a foundation of the Chicano mural movement of the late 1960's.   Chaz Bojorquez  is a world wide graffiti artist who has been active in the graffiti art scene since the 1960s.   According to his research graffiti or tagging started around the 1920s in Los Angeles when shoeshine boys would mark a corner by painting their names.   The Pachucos continued the tradition of marking their space, and they used the Old English style of writing to mark their neighborhoods.   And since the spray can  was invented around 1952, the graffiti would be hand painted.  There has always existed a struggle for an identity for the Chicano and marking out a space in society is very important. For these youth, what they could claim was the streets or their neighborhood, and graffiti was a part of that. It was the first truly Chicano art on the walls of the barrios of Los Angeles. And eventually Chicano murals would also be added to those walls during the late 1960's early 1970s.  Art whether on walls or cars became a way of expressing Chicano cultural pride and even rage, and it is a tradition which has continued until today. According to Chaz, art is born in one’s own community,  “It was the streets that built me and those are my building blocks and those are my elements that I take to describe who I am”(Chaz Bojourquez, interview by author, tape recording, Los Angeles, CA, 15 January 1999).  

The seizure of open space for Chicano murals in the late 1960s and early 1970s drew from their graffiti art predecessors. Walls within Chicano barrios provided the canvas to express an art which was different from that which hung on museum walls. It was art for the masses--to be seen by the community.  It was continuing a tradition that the Aztecs began with painting on their temples and a tradition that Diego Rivera, the great Mexican muralist,  espoused-----art could be political and was tied to our indigenous past.  Chicano murals could also be seen as a rejection of the dominant society’s version of what art is----Chicano artists began to question and reject the boundaries and social distinctions within the art world.  Chicano art spoke in a language that Chicano communities could understand and used symbols like the Virgen de Guadalupe, Emiliano Zapata, and the Aztecs to create a source of cultural pride.  Murals were and are also a way of teaching Chicano history and many murals told the story of conquest and struggle in the United States.  Chicano art collectives emerged like The Royal Chicano Airforce, ASCO, Los Four, all which questioned what is art and  used  public space to create art for the masses.  Today their work and the work of other Chicano artists is still evidenced in over 2,000 California Murals.

The Chicano mural movement was community based and the community decided what they wanted on the walls--they reclaimed their cultural heritage.  And artists were key to the Chicano movement as they are in almost every revolution.  The artists sought to include the community and would  discuss the potential themes with the community and the community would sometimes do the actual painting.  Therefore murals were painted all over the barrios and became a way of social commentary as well as a celebration of cultural pride.  Chicano Public art was political and was able to express a collective vision which was often overlooked by the dominant society. Financial support for the murals usually came from grass roots sources and government grants.  During the Chicano movement, of the Chicano community clearly was supportive of the murals and the artists built relationships within the community   Los Angeles was an important site for Chicano murals.

As home to the largest concentration of Mexicans and people of Mexican ancestry anywhere outside of Mexico city, Los Angeles became the site of the largest concentration of Chicano murals outside in the United States. Estimates range from one thousand to fifteen hundred separate works painted between 1969 and the present  (Cockcroft and Sanchez, Signs From the Heart, 1990,  10).

 

The aesthetic of Chicano art was a blending of both Mexican and American cultures and would use religious symbols to indigenous motifs.  The art would focus on themes ranging from events in Mexican history to portraits of Mexican and Chicano heroes, such as Cesar Chavez, Emiliano Zapata, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. to name a few.  Also issues which affected the Chicano community could also be addressed within the murals such as gang warfare, education, police brutality, and the struggle of farm workers with the boycotts of the United Farm workers of America (UFW). Urban cultural symbols such as the pachuco and low rider were also favorite motifs used in murals.   Chicano art incorporated both the histories from Mexico and the United States to visually create a vision of the past, present and future. Yet at the core was a barrio sensibility that cannot be denied.  This sentiment according to Tomas Ybarra-Frausto was rooted in “a sense of self-worth that is defiant, proud, and rooted in resistance”as well as the “an initial recognition was that everyday life and the lived environment were the prime constituent elements for the new aesthetic” (Tomas Ybarra-Frausto, Signs From the Heart, 1990, 57-59).

 

“El Magu”

 

The low rider car has been a theme employed in the work of many Chicano artists, most notably the work of Carlos Almaraz, Gilbert “Magu” Lujan and Frank Romero.  Yet,  Magu has consistently employed the low rider in his work since the 1960s and it continues to fuel his art to this day. He celebrates the imagery of the low rider lifestyle as well as includes the car as part of Chicano art, a position that was not always recognized in the 1960s. He most recently employed the car as a theme for the newest station of the Los Angeles subway system at the intersection of Hollywood and Vine.  He has done murals for the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department and was active in the artists’ collective, Los Four, who were the first Chicano artists exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1974.  Los Four also included the artists Frank Romero, Carlos Almaraz and Robert de la Rocha and they contributed a ‘keenly politicized vision to the artistic production of el Movimento” (Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Chicano Art Inside/Outside the Master’s House: Cultural Politics and the CARA Exhibition, 1998, p. 148).  The artists used various art forms such as graffiti and Chicano icons, to define the conceptual understanding of Chicano art grounded in the everyday life experience of Chicanos.  Magu is most famous for his combination of the  elements of graffiti and car customizing in his modified 1957 Chevy entitled “Our Family Car”.  The two-door sedan became the canvas on which to create a mobile Chicano mural with flaming jalapeno peppers on its sides.  It is a piece that has toured museums nationally and is often a regular at car customs shows like the Blessing of the Cars in Glendale, California.  He is an important cultural worker and artist and it is important to understand how he views low riders as part of the cultural milieu of Chicano art.  As a veterano of the Chicano Movement he has helped set the tone that other Chicano artists have followed and expanded upon in the area of low rider arte.

Magu, 59,  grew up in East Los Angeles and he remembers always being fascinated by cars.  When he returned from the service in the early 1960s he entered East LA community college and it was there where he first considered being an artist as a career.  He then began to work on defining “Chicano art,  which at this time some people would argue did not exist, but for Magu Chicano art has existed since the Pachuco and graffiti art.  He also began an introspective process as an artist and as he says, “I began to look ethnically and ethno-culturally at what I was all about and look at art from a personal point of view...I already knew I was a politically entity called ‘Chicano’”(interview by author, tape recording, Claremont, CA, 11 August 1999).   This belief grounded his idea of Chicano art since it mean looking at the everyday life in his community, such as looking at the art of Mexican sweet breads or how Mexicanos shaped their gardens.  There was art all around him in the barrio of East Los Angeles as he looked at all the visual motifs which surrounded him.   Magu instinctively knew that Chicano art had to come from Chicano culture. And as he took classes in art and western theories of art, he noticed that “low riders had the same criteria as “sculpture”---texture, mass, shape, color, line were the vocabulary which designated art---and I applied that to low riders and there it was (Ibid).”  Also, Magu sees low riders as functional art, a moving sculpture if you will, and a culture product of Chicanos.

There was difficulty in the beginning of trying to define low riders as art since there were biases both inside and outside the Chicano community.  In the art world at this time, cars were not considered art forms and even in the barrios, some Chicanos and Mexicanos looked at low riders with disdain and as gang affiliated. He began doing lectures on how low riders, the pachucos, the zoot suit, and graffiti were Chicano cultural products---which is the basis of Chicano art.  He also sought to bridge the cultural gap between looking at low riders and hot rods. Magu told me how he looked at Physics and discovered that the hottest part of a flame was the tip, thus he choose to paint jalapeno chiles as the tips of his hot rod flames on his custom car.  As he says, “Normally, Chicanos did not put flames on their cars, it’s typically a hot rod thing, so my interest here was to bridge the cultural gap between the hot rod and the low rider (Ibid).”  As he says these are two cultures that co-exist within car culture and he believes that hot rods are definitely influenced by low riders which was not a popular position back in the 1960s. He feels along with many of the low rider veteranos I spoke to that most historical accounts of hot rods do not include the influence of low riders and that reflects cultural bias.  Yet, today there is more recognition of the two cultures fueling each other within the car custom scene.  

Basically, low riders were an art object for Magu which defined the spirit of Chicano art which is anchored in the experience of everyday life. Chicanos began to recognize the intrinsic value of the car and he sees the evolution of the acceptance of low riders as art as a personal reward which makes his heart swell with pride.    Low riders beyond their aesthetic value also have social and functional  values within American culture since as he says, “We (Chicanos) have taken a Detroit machine and we have personalized it... We Chicano-ized it (Ibid).” This “rasquache” style involves making do with what the system provides to create something new—a lowrider.  As such, Chicanos have contributed something to American culture that today has been recognized worldwide in places like Japan and Germany.   It is the social and cultural impact of low riding as an art form which today speaks to the need for cultural identifiers among Chicano youth.   Low riders are part of Chicano aesthetics created by Chicanos and also speaks to their positionality within America.  The cars become the canvas on which to represent oneself and ones dreams and hopes for the future, most especially, they call on society to look Chicanos. According to Magu, “Low riding is show boating...presenting an emblem that represents ego...you  may live in a beat up house, but your car, your ranfla, your bomb is looking spotless and clean.  People are looking.  We use the car as the opportunity to show off our best.  It is our aesthetics (Ibid).”

 

Low Rider Arte

“We are the Picassos of the Boulevard” Kita Lealao

“Mr.Cartoon”

 

There are a new breed of Chicano artists concentrating on using cars as their canvas to create art and their style shares the history of Chicano murals, but also creates a new Chicano art anchored in contemporary urban life.  Two of the best on the scene are Abel Izaguirre and Mr. Cartoon.

 

“I basically have to see it done a couple of times any form of art to be able to know how to do it.”  Cartoon (interview by author, tape recording, Los Angeles, CA, 10 January 1999)

 Cartoon, age 30,  grew up in San Pedro and has always enjoyed drawing.  He is a natural artist, who with very little formal art training, has become one of the top low rider car muralists.   His murals have won many awards such as the Las Vegas Car and LA Woman and he has muraled cars for Larry Flynt and Oscar de la Hoya.   At age 12, he first received money for his art and was published and it was then that he realized that he could make a career as an artist.  Cartoon admits that as a youth he concentrated on graffiti art, which is a passion he still has, but airbrushed his first car mural at age 19 and a legend was born.  Car murals are special works of art because they are a canvas which is mobile---works of art that use the streets as their exhibition space--and also a calling card for the artist.  Cartoon watched other legendary artists such as Tramp, Russ, Ron Tess, Mike Pickle, and Abel Izaguirre to develop a style all of his own.  It is a style that is an “urban  snap shot” of LA street life and fantasies based in the urban experience.  According to Cartoon “A mural is a conversation piece. It is meant to accent the car, to make you remember the car (Ibid).”  He comes up with his themes by either talking to the car owner to get an idea or he is given creative license.  He often places his murals in places that are hidden to the observer such as in the door jams of the car or on the walls behind the engine.  Murals can cost anywhere from a couple thousand dollars up to 20,000 and according to Cartoon it just depends on how elaborate the car owner wants to get.  His artwork is nationally and internationally known since he has also worked in Japan steadily over the years. Since the Japanese like the Chicano style of low riders, they also want Chicano murals on their cars with Chicano girls and other Chicano symbols. As he says “It is a trip to see how serious they (the Japanese) are about it (Ibid).” As an artist, Cartoon has branched out to other areas such as tattoos and graphics for CD covers.  He has done work for rap artists such as Cypress Hill, Psycho Realm, and Eminem. Cartoon also designs for the Joker clothing line. He is an artist who dabbles in many mediums to express his passion.   Today he sees himself as part of an “artistic crew” named Soul Assassins which use music, art, clothing, photography and film to inter-link with the low riding scene.  Most importantly, kids are copying his art and he is also an inspiration for the new generation of low rider artists.  Cartoon is part of the new breed of Chicano artists which have developed a style of their own and have made an exciting mark on the low riding art scene. According to Cartoon:

I am proud to be involved in something that is going to outlive me.  I think that is the goal of everybody in life, be it if you are a teacher or whatever, to be involved in something that can never die (Ibid).

 

Abel Izaguirre

Abel Izaguirre, age 28,  is a contemporary of Cartoon and he also has made an impact on the low riding art scene.  Some of his most notable works include “Casanova”, “The Players Ball”, “Southside Poison” and “Wet Dream ‘63".Both Cartoon and Abel  use similar themes such as sexy women, clowns and urban life,  but each has a style which unique upon closer inspection.    They are definitely the top two artists on the low riding scene.  Abel like Cartoon taught himself how to airbrush and found a niche in muraling in which he could express identity.  He also has some of the same teachers in Mike Pickle, Tramp, and Russ.  Abel is also a graphic artist who can create quality designs on the computers and he also designs low rider theme t-shirts.  He has won many awards for his artistic gift which again demonstrates his natural talent as a “home grown artist” of LA. He is humble about his work and is very dedicated to his family.  His talents have taken him across the United States and he has also gone to Japan.  Abel though is particular in the jobs which he accepts since “he can’t stay away from his wife and kids for long periods of time.”  Nonetheless, his artwork can be found on many low rider cars and he has created a moving legacy which can be found at any car show---I can’t imagine a low rider car show without an Abel Izaguirre mural.  As Low Rider Magazine remarks “he was one of LA’s best kept secrets until recently” and his artwork is an category all have its own.  One look at his art and you can see why he is a legend at the young age of 28.

Summary

Chicano art has always been grounded in the everyday experience and Chicano artists have been at the forefront using cultural icons such as the low rider to bring recognition to the car as an art form.   During the Chicano cultural  renaissance of  “El Movimento”, artists were key in developing a source of pride within the Chicano community.  They also began the process of defining Chicano art, as well as visually documenting the history of being both Mexican and American.  Chicano artists such as Magu have set the foundation for artists like Cartoon and Abel who continue to formulate and re-formulate what “Chicano” means and what is Chicano art.  All three artists are examples of the evolution of Chicano art and they have worked for the recognition of the low rider as art.  It is their passion for art that contributes to the understanding as the low riders as more than just metal, but a living reflection of the hopes and dreams of many Chicanos.  The low rider is an emblem or badge of Chicano culture which continues to evolve with each generation, and the art and style of the low rider is now recognized both nationally and internationally.  It has gone far beyond the dreams of Chicano artists in the 1960s, and will definitely continue to grow as we approach the new millennium.  Who knows what the future of the low rider holds....the possibilities are endless.

Media

Low Rider Magazine

            In May 1997, Low Rider Magazine celebrated its twenty-year Anniversary.  Low Rider Magazine has played a key role in shaping and marketing of low riding while also creating a contemporary image of the lowrider lifestyle.  As the editors of the magazine boast on the website (http://www.lowridermagazine.com):

 

Criticized as a gang magazine, simply because of its Chicano character, looked down on by the mainstream press as an amateur effort, Low Rider has cruised to the top.  Now the number one car magazine on the news stands, readers in over 30 countries wait eagerly to check out sculpture and sport straight from Aztlán.   

            As an expressive form, low riding was appropriated and transformed into a commodity over time through the magazine. As a cultural practice, participants of low rider culture share a "collectivity" that is mediated through Low Rider Magazine (LRM).  Yet, it is important to understand how this discourse has been able to create a “collective” and achieve “meanings” in the lives of its readers.  Low Rider Magazine is a perfect example of how popular cultural institutions which are part of the market economy serve to replicate structures of inequality, specifically   along gender lines.  Furthermore, the magazine is an example of how oppositional spaces are eventually incorporated into the mainstream,  The diffusion of low rider culture was possible through the role LRM capitalized on by marketing, promoting, and satisfying customers’ need for an alternative space which is somehow outside the mainstream.

            And what does Low Rider Magazine say about its own history?  The following information can be found on their homepage which has excerpts from their forthcoming Low Rider History Book (http://www.lowridermagazine.com). The section entitled “Low Rider History” establishes the connection between what was happening within Chicano communities during the 1970’s to the beginning of LRM.  The founders,  Larry Gonzalez,  David Nunez and Sonny Madrid, are  said to have been active in the Chicano Movement by promoting social events that combined car shows, cruises, and music to raise money.  The founders saw a magazine as the perfect vehicle to 1) capture the low rider lifestyle and  2)  connect that lifestyle to life in  Chicano barrios.  The following is the mission statement of the magazine at the early stage:

 

The popular image of what la Chicanada is has yet to be televised, written or published.  The United States and the world has yet to discover the gente called Chicanos, especially the younger generation known as Chicanos (http://www.lowridermagazine.com  ).

 

            The web site details how the founders had to market their magazine since at first it was seen as a gang magazine and not all Chicanos wanted to be associated with low riders. This speaks to the generational differences within many Mexican American barrios and also that lowriders may also be seen as a negative influence within their own communities, much like the days of the Pachucos in the 1940s.   So, Low Rider magazine was in English and used barrio slang which in turn was foreign to many Mexicanos who lived in traditional Spanish speaking communities.  Therefore, some  neighborhood markets questioned the marketability of a magazine that did not speak to many of their customers, yet the magazine found a niche among Mexican American youth---those Chicanos who were part of both Mexican and American  cultures. When the magazine first came out in 1977, many readers responded enthusiastically to the creation of a cultural space which spoke to many Chicanos and Chicano cultural pride was echoed in many of the letters to the editor.  Two examples are:

 

You manage to capture the dignity and street culture of La Raza Nueva, at the same time, making a political statement to the straight world telling everybody who seeks to enslave us "TOMA" [take that!]¼Los vatos are here to seize the moment, let no man worth his mud give an inch to those who try to cage us. (LRM, May 1979).

 

We appreciate the hard work you are doing in the Low Rider Magazine. It really brings our the essentials that make the Chicano what he is today, his ideas, heritage, pride, courage, motivations, and personality.  These essentials that were lost or misplaced are being brought back to awareness in your magazine. (LRM, October 1979).

 

           

            The issue of gender ruptures  the history lesson through the incorporation of bikini clad models in 1979.  Up until then, the covers of the magazine had both men and women and the women were fully clothed.  But in 1979, the clothes came off and a dialogue ensued for almost twenty years between the readers and the magazine editors.  The first cover girl in 1979 was named Mona and she posed in a white bikini to promote the first ever Low Rider Super Show in Los Angeles.   Apparently, the outrage was so great that she was kicked out of Catholic school (could she have been under age?).  More importantly, the magazine started receiving letters of both criticism and support.  The web site details: “It wasn’t just the politically motivated Chicanas.  Even the guys in the car clubs would get upset.  They took it personally saying ‘This is a nice homegirl and you’re making her look real trashy.  You’re making this a cheese magazine, not a car magazine” (www.lowridermagazine.com).  The founders of the magazine countered this criticism with the fact that the models gave the magazine a 15% to 20% boost in sales.  Therefore, bikini clad models served market interests.  

            The first phase of the magazine came to an end in 1985 because of funding problems.   The second phase began in 1988 and continues to today. The editor, Alberto Lopez,  during the 1980’s articulated in the following statement what the magazine means to the Chicano community and the importance of cultural survival of Chicanismo. Alberto Lopez says: “The magazine was born out of the Chicano community and we have always served that community.  If they take that out of the magazine, it will no longer be LowRider” (LRM, December 1997).

 

 

Women and Low Riders

Even though it is a primarily a male culture, women have always played a role

either as the themes for the artwork on the cars, as sexy ornaments poised next to the cars, or even the cars themselves are used to attract women. Beautiful cars need beautiful women‑it can be described as a marriage of objects of beauty. Young men will readily admit that they build cars to attract women since who doesn't want a fine Jaina (woman) sitting next you in your ride. As one low rider mentioned, "If it wasn't for the girls backing us, we wouldn't build the cars". Cartoon adds to this sentiment that women are the motivation for a guys building lowriders. He says:

The low rider lifestyle is¼Why does a guy build a low rider in the first place, but for the women basically.  Otherwise he would drive a little bucket.  Why does a guy iron his pants in the morning or why does he comb his hair or care about fixing up his car?  A lot of it is to show off and the women are at the core of low riding (Cartoon, interview by author, tape recording, Los Angeles, CA, 10 January 1999).

  

Even though criticism is thrown at low rider magazines or at the low rider scene as being sexist, women are drawn to the scene and they have marked a space. Many Chicanas especially are drawn to low rider culture.  Since the beginning of Low Rider Magazine, the role of Chicanas within that culture cannot be dismissed, they wrote in to the magazine, even started their own car clubs, and it was their image of womanhood that populated the pages of LRM.  Chicanas and women of all colors continue to make their presence felt within this male dominated culture through their presence at car shows or by writing letters to the editor.   And at the same time it is their image, often a very sexualized one, that is used to sell the magazine and often graces the artwork on the cars.  Also, the fact that there will be young sexy Chicanas at the car shows is another reason why young men flock to the scene.  Therefore on some level the success of low riding is depended not only on the bodies of cars, but on the bodies of women.

The founders of the magazine countered criticism that they are promoting sexism with the fact that the models gave the magazine a 15% to 20% boost in sales…it is all in the name of good business.  Therefore, this bikini clad models served the market interests and they also helped to sell magazines. Whereas it is easy to see how the market uses women’s bodies to make money, there is also the other side of this criticism, there are women who choose to model and use their bodies to make money.  

 

Lowrider Model:  Dazza

“Low Rider Magazine never made Dazza, Dazza made Dazza.” (interview by author, tape recording, Granada Hills, CA, 31 January 1999)

 

Dazza is one of the top low rider models and she is an example of a businesswomen who is in charge of how her image is used.  To control her image is something that she learned after being exploited in the business. She first started out singing for Thump Records and she was often a regular at Low Rider Magazine car shows performing for the masses.  She soon had the idea to put out a poster of herself in order to have money to pay her back-up dancers.  In 1991, she approached a car club to loan her $500 to make a poster and she sold out her poster in one day.  So she then decided to move from singing and to take on the low riding scene as a model.  In her own words, she became an “independent contractor”.  Dazza would buy a booth at low rider car shows and sell her posters with her mother by her side.  Most of her success is due to her personality and how she treats everyone like a friend when they come to her booth, both men and women.  She says:

Car clubs are like my brothers and sisters and to them I am like their friend, their chick, their fantasy.  But when they come to meet me, I am like their friend because I am a very people person and I like to associate with them. It is an honor (Ibid).

 

Dazza works hard and it is evident in her approach to her career. She is also honest in admitting that she is selling a male fantasy.  Yet, she is always sure to acknowledge the girlfriends and wives of the men that come to her booth and she is friendly to them.  Dazza is a peoples’ low rider model, they have made her successful, and she works hard to acknowledge that when she meets them.  But there is a side to low riding that uses women’s bodies.  Dazza  does agree that men put everything they dream of into their car and women are a part of that.  As she says;

That is why women will always be a part of the low riding scene because as long as men are looking for the ultimate fantasy, the best car, the best mural, a woman will always be there because she symbolizes beauty, strength and the will to create (Ibid).

 

Dazza has also been the inspiration for much low rider art as evident in some of the work in Low Rider Arte and one youth even used her image as an inspiration for his low rider bike.  Her effect on the low riding scene cannot be overlooked.  Yet, she also admits that because she is seen as too Latina, it is hard for her to model on other car magazines that focus on hot rods for instance.  But she is proud of her Latina looks as she says, “That is why I produce my own material and started my own calendars and stuff because I don’t like people saying no to me.  I don’t understand them, nobody says no to me”(Ibid).

Dazza is an example of someone who has found her niche on the low riding scene and makes opportunities to happen for herself. She is in control of her image and manages how that image is used.  She even has her own clothing line which she designs and even a web page. If you want to see a legend on the low rider scene,  be sure to say hello to Dazza at her booth at a low rider car show near you.

            Another important area to mention is how women have participated on the low riding scene as car owners and in helping their boyfriends and husbands who low ride.  In the early days of Whittier Blvd, it was not uncommon to find girls who low ride, the clubs had names such as the “Lady Bugs” and even the Dukettes (a branch of the Dukes).  Yet, those women usually were young and it is harder to find women who started low riding and continued.  Part of the reason might be that they become wives and mothers and it harder to rationalize low riding.  And also men generally do seem more willing to spend more money fixing up their cars than women.  No one would argue that low riding is a predominantly a male sport, so it is hard to find women low riders, though the presence of women on the scene is evident.  Women often do support their men who are in low rider car clubs and go to events with them.  Some one mentioned that without the support of his wife he could not low ride since it does take time and money.  The women are a support network and they do play a role in the club.  For example, one woman is the historian for the Duke’s car club.  You can often find a few women at car shows, but they usually are not club affiliated.  I even found a grandmother from Wilmington, Lupe Ramirez, who low rides and she is the originally owner of a ’63 Impala.  That is a rare occurrence indeed and the people at the car show I was at knew it.  One young guy remarked to her as she was driving out of the event, “is that your low rider lady?” And when she replied yes, he let out this tremendous cry….Viva La Mujer!  Orale!

 

Low Riding and Popular Culture

Popular culture has a fascination with low riders.  Low riding has influenced popular culture in so many ways, through dress, music and style. Movies have usually used low riders in gang movies or even in a Cheech and Chong movie of pot smoking mayhem.  A recent example was in the movie Selena (1997) in which two cholos in a low rider came to the rescue of Selena when her tour bus is stuck in a ditch. It provided one of the most memorable moments in the movie because these vato locos recognized Selena who specialized in tejano music---who would have thought that even cholos listened to Tejano music?  They also mispronounce her name as “Salinas”.  The move provides a perfect example of the cultural blending or mestizaje inherent in Mexican American culture.  

Today even commercials use low riders, a memorable one is two Anglo senior citizens hopping in a low rider, talk about mainstream appeal of low riders.  So, in some cases the low rider is crossing cultural borders.   Music videos, especially rap music and hip hop ones, have used low riders and also provide outside work for low rider clubs in Southern California who rent their low riders for use in videos.   In the process though low riders have become linked as well to African American culture.  Yet, no example of low riding and American popular culture can fail to mention the significance of Japan.  Many Japanese youth love low riders and they have thrown themselves into the culture like no other international audience.  They even dress like Chicanos wearing baggie pants and t-shirts that say Chicano pride or even have an image of La Virgen de Guadalupe on them.  They are also buying low riders and having them exported to Japan. Some say they are only dressing Chicano,  yet it is also a way of life for some.  House of Low rider in Santa Ana is sending one low rider a week to Japan and of course the car everybody wants is a 1963 or 1964 Impala. Those are the most popular models and the style is especially good for hydraulic car hopping.   The craze is full tilt and they even have their own Low Rider Magazine, Japanese style which means you read the magazine in reverse, and there is also a Japanese girl on the cover in the requisite bikini.

I met Oishi at House of Low Rider the shop he opened up over five years ago and he made such an impression on me.  He has such a passion for low riding that he moved his family from Japan over here so that he could open his own shop! And he has become one of the top exporters of low riders to Japan. He is also one of the top innovators within the low riding scene and he continues to build “super clean cars” as a member of Lifestyle car club. He also has a lot of creative ideas on hydraulics and he taken awards for those innovations.  Oishi is an example of how low riding crosses cultural borders and he is also part of keeping a tradition alive through his dedication to the art of low riding. According to his club:

His contribution to LA has been super clean cars that he is always changing.  His 1985 chopped Cadillac is in the exhibit and what makes it stand out is his use of patent leather in the interior and on the convertible hard top.  Oishi was the first guy to think of using patent leather in his low rider, and that is an example of how he thinks of innovative ideas to make his cars stand out from the rest of crowd. He is breaking ground on race, you don’t have to be Mexican American or African American to low rider.  He basically represents all of the Asian race as far as a true low rider (interview by author, tape recording, Los Angeles, CA, 10 January 1999).

 

            So how has low riding impacted American culture? As a popular cultural practice, one can view the contradictory messages which come with the artistic expression that visualizes one’s cultural identity.   Lowriding emerged  out of social realities in which oppressed peoples were attempting to create identities which linked history and the present through cultural affirmation and pride.  George Lipsitz in his book Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture (1990) believes lowriders are organic intellectuals or grassroots teachers who attempt to create historical blocs which challenge the dominant culture through subversion.  Yet since popular cultural expressions are also “historical processes” they become contested terrains for ethnicity and power in the discourse of American-ness.  As  Chicanos have fought to challenge the notion of American-ness, they have also challenged  who has access to power in American society, which was especially evident during the Chicano movement as art was the medium to document this social movement.  Therefore,  Popular culture  is political as well and often carries with it contradictory and oppositional meaning, often along gender lines.  That does not mean that ultimately oppressed people in their search for “identity” are silenced, but often they are forced to look for new ways to subvert the system, which is a sentiment the lowriders of all cultures are continuing to embrace,  as well as add to as the lowriding tradition continues to evolve and grow in strength across the world.

 

 The Media and the Image of Low Riding:  Cruising

Often the contemporary image of the low rider lifestyle is shaped through the popular perception of the media.  Especially, now with the marriage of rap/hip‑hop and low riders and the news highlights often feature gang fights at low rider shows.  A nice example came from my own college students who when asked how they could define a low rider, said that lowriders are a gang members or a "cholos".  Then I gave them an article to read on low riding in Los Angeles and some of their initial perceptions changed. All of the men I interviewed for this project are hard working, family men. It takes money to build a low rider, and not many gang members are walking around with $10,000 for a top of the line candy paint job.   That is not say, that gang members do not lower their cars or try to pose as low riders as they cruise.  But, the true low riders who belong to the well respected car clubs and who win trophies at most of the top car shows, are far removed from the gang reality.  Yet, the truth is that low rider culture does interest some “gang‑bangers” and their presence at car shows is a reality and sometimes gang fights do occur.

The relationship between the police and low riders has always been a tenuous one.  There is long bitter history between police and Chicanos and low riders have often been the target of harassment.  Also, the police also fuel the image of low riders as gang members in their harassment.  Many low riders have related to me how they have been pulled over for the car they drive and how they are dressed.  And the police usually do not find anything wrong such as guns or drugs in their cars, so they will write them a ticket for a hydraulics violation or for driving too slow.  Some car clubs though have good relationship with the police and that is because the car clubs will not let any gang members or gang associates join their clubs.  The top low rider clubs are usually not harassed by the police and some car clubs even have policemen in their membership.  Also clubs like the Dukes or the Imperials have been around so long and have a good reputation that the police will not harass them. And some car clubs even have fund-raisers for the local police and some police departments even sponsor car shows, like the Azalea Festival in Southgate. As one club member told me, the police do know the difference between a true low rider and a “wanna-be”.

Yet, cruising has always been a sore spot for police.  Whittier Boulevard has never been the same after the famous riots in 1979.  The police arrested hundred of low riders and even beat up innocent people all over the fervor of the opening of the Chicano movie “Boulevard Nights”.  The potential for trouble since car clubs and gang members cruise the strip together also makes cruising unsafe in the eyes of many police.  Cruising strips are always shut down and strictly controlled by law enforcement.  In January of 1999, Crenshaw Boulevard was shut down and low riders are ticketed for cruising or stopping.  Yet, youth try to circumvent the police by trying to find another place to cruise, and then when the public complains enough, the police come in and shut that new strip down.    So historically there has always been a strong relationship between the police and low riders and it will continue as long as there is trouble at car shows or cruising locales.  But, as one low rider told me, a “ few bad apples spoil it for the rest of us”.

The sad part is that the positive side of low riding, that which brings families together or takes kids off the streets with something constructive to do,  that fact is often lost on public perception.  And even within the Mexican American community itself, I am sure that you could find the same sentiment that low riders are gang members since not all Mexican Americans participate in the low riding scene. Yet, the media is definitely a keep component in shaping lowriding means within the United States and abroad.

 

Conclusion

What the stories and the cars reveal is that these men are hard working Americans with steady jobs and who give back to the community by belonging to car clubs. They also have a voracious appetite for cars like other auto enthusiasts, but most important they are aware that they are keeping a tradition alive which began in the Mexican American barrios a long time ago. To understand low riding is to see it as the connection between people who share not only your passion for cars, but a commitment to la familia/ the family.  Low riding is about remembering. Remembering the pachucos who rode on the boulevard before you in the 1940's or celebrating the good times of cruising the boulevard in the present time.  Lowriding also involves giving back to one's community, whether it be through activism or teaching the next generation of lowriders the skills of their ancestors.  Just as the Aztecs have taught us about complex civilizations and spirituality, low riders teach us about the reality of urban life, the importance of family, and the need to continue a tradition that has its roots in the barrio.  Every time a low rider cruises the boulevard—bajito y suavecito—it is re-enacting a ritual which honors the past and  celebrates a multicultural future. Family, honor, and respect are the key themes that anchor the tradition of community and continuity.  Low riders are a perfect example of how the practice of everyday life creates art—an art that is full of life and stylized—a living a ritual that feed one's soul and the soul of the various barrios throughout Aztlan and beyond.

Another important facet of lowriding is the connection which is made between people and it is these relationships which result in the many memories that low riders can hold dear to their hearts.  It is a life long history of great people and great friends. When I asked Ernie Ruelas of the Dukes to tell me about the role the car club has played in his life he said: “Everyday I wake up and I remember certain friends.  That is most important.  That is what makes the car club, the people bottom line”.   Some other lowriders have had their lowriders longer than their own children.  As Mike Lopez told me, “I would never sell my child, so I will never sell my lowrider”. These men have a special relationship to their cars and to their clubs.  Lowriding is a life long passion that will continue after death of these men, as the next generation of low riders cruise the boulevards  bajito y suavecito keeping alive the low riding tradition.       C/S

 

 

 

 

 

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