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Low & Slow: The Groovy Saga of Lowriders

Low & Slow: The Groovy Saga of Lowriders

Historica Lowrider Culture
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Lowriders have colored American streets for the last 50 to 80 years, creating a jubilant spectacle on par with any circus or carnival. The name Lowrider usually refers to a vehicle deliberately lowered to ride mere inches off the pavement. However, the term just as often refers to the drivers and builders of the cars themselves. Sometimes, lowriders cruise alone. Other times, they may be seen “rolling deep,” cruising the boulevards in large numbers. However they choose to do it, it is a sure bet that they will turn heads.

Lowriders rolling deep

Lowriders create a feast for the senses. The candy-coat paint jobs, crisscrossed by pinstripes, shine vibrantly. The hoods are often adorned with elaborate murals. Leather or velour upholstery makes the interiors equally intriguing, and deep bass notes thump out of customized stereo systems above the rumble of the engines. All this is impressive enough, but the main attraction will always be how the car dances upon a complex system of hydraulic lifts.

Such displays often evoke appreciation from fellow motorists and pedestrians. However, while many people can recognize a lowrider when they see one, few genuinely understand the rich history and social significance of this unique niche of American car culture. Lowriders are far more than just cars; they are works of art and unique expressions of personal identity.

Exactly where Lowriders began is a matter of contention, as California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona all lay claim. Some even accredit Tijuana, Mexico, as the Lowrider land of origin. This is hard to determine since each city and state’s Lowrider scene has a unique story. Still, regardless of who did it first, all these regions played significant roles in the greater history.

Mexican-American identity and the origins of Lowrider Culture: 

Tension between Mexican and Anglo-Americans has existed at least since the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). When the smoke from the conflict cleared, the Treaty of Guadalupe (1848) was signed, and the United States absorbed over half of Mexico. Despite being there first, Hispanic residents of these acquired regions were treated as outsiders. Mexican Americans found themselves frequently victimized and pressured to assimilate into Anglo-American culture for nearly a century until a new generation began to push back.

In the 1930s, the influential “Pachuco” movement began in El Paso, Texas (or “Chuco town,” as it is colloquially known). There, young Hispanic men made fashion choices in direct opposition to mainstream American norms. Most famously, they borrowed a look from Harlem Jazz singers and gave it a Hispanic flare to create a unique style known as the Zoot Suit. The Zoot Suits’ larger, baggier cuts contrasted sharply with the slimmer fit of American styles, making the pachucos stand out.

The Pachuco movement spread west through until it reached the California coast. It all culminated in Los Angeles’ infamous “Zoot Suit Riots.” In the summer of 1943, five days of coordinated attacks on Hispanic youth were orchestrated by police departments and carried out by American servicemen. Thankfully, despite numerous injuries and over 500 arrests, no one was killed. The plan also backfired, turning Pachucos into folk heroes that would help fuel future social movements. They also provided a model of the Hispanic counter-culture.

Styles changed with the years, but defying Anglo-American expectations remained a staple of Mexican-American pop culture. The Chicano movement of the 1950s and 1960s continued the tradition of defiance. Chicano championing of Hispanic dignity and resistance to cultural assimilation eventually gave birth to even more Mexican American movements and sub-cultures. Caesar Chavez famously channeled Chicano energy into political action. Furthermore, an urban subculture known as the Cholos (or Cholas for female participants) emerged to pick up where the Pachucos left off, often gravitating toward street gangs. Meanwhile, more law-abiding jacket clubs were formed to create social networks in places like Southern California.

All these Chicano groups shared the common goal of crafting a Hispanic aesthetic distinct from and contradictory to whatever mainstream America was doing. Cars proved to be no exception to this. Many jacket clubs soon became car clubs, giving birth to lowriders.

Lowriders are deeply intertwined with Mexican-American identity

Fast and Furious vs. Low and Slow

After World War II. American veterans of all backgrounds sought to put their G.I. bills to good use by buying houses and cars. The auto industry wasted no time in responding to these consumers. Manufacturers like Ford and GMC quickly sprang into action, producing cars for an emerging American middle class.

Young veterans were also anxious to put the skills they learned in the military to recreational use by modifying their new rides. The automotive enthusiasm from the Greatest Generation (born ca. 1900-1925) soon spread to their children, the Baby Boomers (born ca. 1946-1964), who took it to another level. And so, the era of the “hot rod” was born. Car culture was celebrated everywhere, from James Dean and Steve McQueen films to Beach Boys songs. But, while a love of cars transcended race in mid-century America, Chicanos once again distinguished themselves stylistically.

The love of cars was nationwide, but California was indisputably the hotspot. The state also held another advantage for Spanish speakers in its proximity to Mexico. Mexico was playing host to many major automotive plants at the time, and the prices of new and used cars and car parts were cheaper south of the border. Therefore, Hispanic Americans often took a short cruise down to border towns like Tijuana, where a better deal awaited them.

Cars purchased in Mexico were modified or “tricked out” back in California. Chevy and Oldsmobile stamped their emblem all over this era, producing the best balance of style and affordability. They were also the easiest to modify. Models from these years, like Chevy’s Impala and El Camino or Oldsmobile’s Cutlass and Monte Carlo, remain popular for lowriders.

True to form, Chicano car enthusiasts went full throttle in the other direction than the rest of America. Hot rods rode high and fast with drag races in mind, but Chicano gearheads saw no reason to hurry. They were content to savor life, cruising the streets slowly so everyone could see them. To this end, the practice of lowering cars began, sometimes practically down to the pavement. Early on, this was achieved by cutting the coils or filling their trunks with bricks and sandbags. Riding that low made a slow pace a necessity as well as a style. And thus, the name “Lowriders” was coined.

“Bajito y despacito. Limpio y lindo” (Low and slow. Clean and mean). ~Lowrider Saying

As lowriders and hot rod culture squared off on American streets in a tortoise-and-hare style dynamic, both drew crowds of onlookers. Sidewalks were frequently filled with admirers and spectators every weekend as flashy cars filled the streets. The commotion soon attracted the attention of law enforcement.

While hot rods could be curbed through basic speeding citations, California’s legislature took deliberate action to curtail lowriders. In 1958, California Vehicle Code 24008 outlawed any part of any car from riding below the bottoms of its rims. Whether this was done out of concern for the safety or an act of deliberate sabotage is hard to say. However, if it was the latter, it backfired tremendously and created another iconic lowrider feature.

In 1959, an industrious car enthusiast named Ron Aguirre engineered a loophole. By installing the Pesco hydraulics from an old B-52 Bomber in his ’57 Corvette, “the X-Sonic,” Aguirre could lower and lift the vehicle’s frame from the wheels. With this customization, any lowrider could now become street-legal with the simple flip of a switch. Hydraulic systems gradually grew more complex as customizers like Orlie Coca became more creative, even lifting each corner of the car individually. Soon, lowriders could hop, shuffle, and even ride on three wheels as if in a victory dance. This also provided a way to compete without racing, as lowriders engaged in hopping contests for enthusiastic crowds.

Show car with mural on hood

Tricking out in the 1970s and 80s

By the 1970s, Lowrider culture had come into its own, as evidenced by the iconic status of the 1975 song “Lowrider” by the band War. Lowrider car clubs could now be found from Oregon to California, throughout the Southwest, Texas, and even on the East Coast. And as the scene grew and developed, so did the art.

The lowrider styles shifted to mimic other fashion trends of the era. Metallic flaked paint jobs sparkled like disco balls. The imagery that adorned the hoods and other surfaces of the car also grew more elaborate to reflect popular Chicano themes of the time. Pro-Pueblo paintings, Mayan and Aztec symbols, and the Mexican flag’s tri-color bars were among the most popular themes.

Lowrider culture grew beyond its initially male-dominated stigma as all-female car clubs emerged. Some notable lady lowrider clubs included “The Specials” and “Ladies Pride” in San Diego and the “Lady Bugs” in Los Angeles. Cruising, it seems, could be a girl’s thing, too.

Chicanos of the Boomer generation began to mellow and domesticate with age as the 1980s approached. Still, one thing remained the same. They still loved working on their cars. And so, the Boomer generation of lowriders passed their automotive passion to their children in Generation X (born ca. 1965-1980).

By this time, lowrider car clubs had also become active in addressing social issues. They raised money for social services, labor unions, public health, and other causes specific to their local neighborhoods. Yet, despite their civic virtue, lowriders saw their reputations begin to sour. Movies like Boulevard Nights (1979) and television police dramas portrayed lowrider clubs as violent gangs. This misrepresentation only worsened throughout the following decades.

Diversification and villainization in the 1990s and 2000s

By the 1990s, lowrider culture had spread to other minority communities. There was a distinct interest in lowriders from African Americans of the inner cities, particularly in Los Angeles. These communities’ adoption of the Lowrider style eventually prompted the National Museum of African American History and Culture to feature “Daves Dream” as an exhibit. Dave’s Dream is a modified 1969 Ford LTD that once belonged to lowrider enthusiast Dave Jaramillo of Chimayo, New Mexico. It is a beautiful specimen of a lowrider, and its presence in the NMAAHC speaks to lowriders’ shared significance in African American and Hispanic communities.

The spread of Lowrider culture across urban scenes also coincided with the rise of Rap and Hip-hop music. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, MTV and radio stations flooded the airwaves. Artists like Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Cypress Hill, N 2 Deep, and many more featured lowrider references visually and verbally in their lyrics and music videos. Of course, this came alongside references to other, less savory aspects of inner-city life. Among these were gang warfare and drug use.

The adjacency to street gangs and urban crime did not improve the Lowrider’s image. Films like Boyz n the Hood (1991), Blood in Blood Out (1993), Menace II Society (1993), and news footage of the L.A. Riots (1992) also furthered negative stereotypes and the perception of inner-city neighborhoods as violent, lawless wastelands. Lowrider culture (as well as rap music and many other facets of inner-city life) saw their already skewed reputation suffer by association.

Cities soon declared war on lowriders by instituting anti-cruising ordinances. National City, a suburb of San Diego, was a leader in this trend,  requiring its police department to enforce obscure automotive regulations through traffic citations. Lawful protests by targeted communities amounted to little. For a time, it seemed that lowriders might be permanently impounded.

Cruising into the Future: 2010s to the present day.

Despite attempts to legislate lowriders out of existence, the culture persisted. Anti-cruising laws could not shut down car shows or ticket showpieces for moving violations. A few towns like Kansas City passively encouraged peaceful cruising in limited areas. The Millennial generation (born ca. 1981-1996) was, therefore, able to appreciate and participate in the scene along with their elders.

Pro-Lowrider campaigns also rose to change people’s hearts and minds. Their message is consistent. Lowriders are not symbols of gangs, crimes, or hooliganism. They are rolling works of art and self-expression. Furthermore, they symbolize Chicano identity as much as Caesar Chavez’s words, Diego Rivera’s art, and Richie Valens’ music. By 2013, even San Diego County acquiesced and allowed cruising to return to the famed Chicano Park area on the last Sunday of every month.

Today, lowriding has even gone international, with a notable interest growing in countries like Indonesia, the U.K., Brazil, and Japan. It is hard to know what the future will bring, what models of cars will be modified, or what sort of artwork will be used to decorate them. Still, no matter who does what to which kind of car, the roots of lowriders will always be planted firmly in Chicano soil.

 

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