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This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Sat, Oct 6, 2007

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

LA VIDA: THE LIFE The DeAlba brothers (Albert, Mario Jr., Greg, and Adrian) work together in their shop. The DeAlba Brothers Lowriding is about passion, corazón (heart), and respect. Los Angeles is its inspiration. In the history of this fascinating and complex city are the roots of this cultural tradition. Lowriders in Los Angeles reveal not only their passion for classic cars, but they also speak to the importance of visualizing and communicating cultural identity and community. Using their vehicles as canvases for creative expression within the urban landscape, lowrider owners document the rich and vibrant social and cultural history of nuestra ciudad (our city). In presenting LA VIDA LOWRIDER: CRUISING THE CITY OF ANGELS, the Petersen Automotive Museum celebrates lowrider cars, people, and culture, and the city that inspires so many, both nationally and internationally. What is a lowrider? The word is used to describe a car that is customized primarily to be low to the ground, usually containing a hydraulic setup for adjusting ride height, with a fantastic candy paint job, chrome features, and customized upholstery. Included among the categories of lowrider cars are "bombs" (American-made cars from the late 1930s to the early 1950s) and "Euros" (import cars such as Honda and Acura) among others. Many lowriding purists believe that classic Chevrolets are the only cars that, once properly customized, can carry the lowrider label, yet today virtually any kind of vehicle can be transformed into a lowrider. There are now lowrider mini-trucks, SUVs (sport utility vehicles), motorcycles, bicycles, and even scale models. Most importantly, the lowrider label is also used to describe people who participate in this car culture phenomenon. Lowriding is a way of life for many of its participants, and its practice varies across the United States and abroad. Lowrider BicycleWhen did lowriding begin? Almost everyone has a different story to tell and all of them add to the vitality of lowriding as a cultural experience. For example, in Espanola, New Mexico, the lowriders claim it began there and the town has proclaimed itself Lowrider Capital of the World. On the other hand, Chicano lowriders in Los Angeles claim it started here with the pachuco/zoot suit culture of the 1940s and that it accelerated in popularity after WWII with the rise of the automotive industries in Los Angeles. African Americans in Los Angeles also participated in the lowriding scene, and have been important innovators. There is a long history of interconnection between Black and Chicano communities in Los Angeles reaching back to swing and jazz scenes of the 1940s to the R&B scene of the 1960s and 1970s, which has influenced lowrider culture and continues to do so. Lowrider BicycleLowriding as a sport and cultural expression has undergone much transformation in the 21st century, especially in the popular media. Today, for example, there is a proliferation of car customizing shows on cable television, many of which feature lowriders. The History Channel has produced two documentaries on lowrider cars. Even mainstream Hollywood movies portray lowriders in unexpected and humorous ways, such as the two Chicanos in the movie Napoleon Dynamite (2004) who rescued the unlikely hero in distress with their lowrider. It is a memorable Hollywood moment that speaks to the human desire for connection and acceptance, regardless of race, ethnicity or class status. LA HISTORIA: THE HISTORY Chevrolet ImpalaThe rise of automobile culture in the United States has been discussed at length by authors such as Tom Wolfe, James Flink, Cynthia Dettleback, and Nora Donnelly, to name a few. A highly visible pursuit, lowriding is a ritual with roots in American automobile history and culture that blossomed during the postwar manufacturing boom and the popularization of leisure activities focused around the automobile. As the demand for new cars increased when automobile manufacturing resumed after WWII, a large number of used cars became readily available to anyone with limited means - WWII veterans, youth, the working class, and minorities. These second-hand cars provided motorists with an avenue to transcend the limits of territory, like the barrio or ghetto, through the mobility of their cars - and the postwar car culture exploded. As Ernie Ruelas of Los Angeles remembers in the documentary Low and Slow (1997), "You would buy a car in the '50s for fifteen dollars, it was easy to put dual pipes on it, you know, lower it and, if you messed that up, you go get another one." At the same time, many veterans learned mechanical skills through their work in shipyards, airplane hangars, and military motor pools. Many of these men were also part of the "52-20 club" where they received benefits from the U.S. government for their military service. As Michael Stone suggests in "Bajito y Suavecito: Lowriding and the 'Class' of Class" this extra income, which consisted of twenty dollars a month for a year, made it possible for veterans to purchase new or used cars. All of these changes allowed many working class youth the opportunity to purchase an automobile that typically represented "middle class status." 1964 Chevrolet ImpalaMany car customizers utilized vehicles to express resistance to the culture of conformity that existed in the 1950s, and an environment was created that fostered a strong bond between American males and their cars. During this period, different groups developed their own styles of customizing. Whereas, hot-rodders customized their cars by raising them off the ground and enhancing their speed, lowriders reversed the aesthetic by lowering their vehicles and cruising as slowly as possible (Low and Slow/Bajito y Suavecito). The speed, the look, and the sound of one's car became a symbol of cultural resistance and the work done to one's car became a means of artistic expression. Lowriders transformed the style of an already manufactured item, an American automobile, by infusing it with certain meanings of urban life. Before hydraulics, customizers lowered car by cutting the suspension coils and installing lowering blocks for the lowest profile possible, a style that became known as "OG" or old guard. Many car owners were 1964 Chevrolet Impalaalso known to put heavy objects such as sandbags, bricks or bags of cement in their trunks to achieve the desired look. The goal was to bring a car as close to the ground as possible. Some would even install street scrapers on the bottom of their car, so sparks would fly out from underneath the chassis. Hydraulics marked the beginning of a new era of lowriding. In 1958, Ron Aguirre, a Chicano from Los Angeles, installed the first hydraulic system in a 1957 Chevrolet Corvette. The setup allowed his car to be lowered or raised with a flip of a switch, an important innovation in the lowriding scene. The hydraulic parts, surplus from WWII fighter planes, consisted of hydro air pumps and dumps, which assisted in lowering and raising the wing flaps of the fighter aircraft. These surplus parts were a valuable asset to the lowriders, since they could ride as low as they wanted to on the boulevard then return their cars to a legal ground clearance with the flip of a switch if the police were noticed. Because the California vehicle code stipulated that no part of a car could be lower than the bottom portion of the wheel rim, the police often wrote tickets to lowriders, some of their favorite targets. The lowrider label began its use in the 1960s and according to Lowrider Magazine the term was first coined by the police after the 1965 Watts Riots. Jack Kennedy relates in Lowrider: History, Pride, Culture th were using the term 'lowrider' as a derogatory term for the young black kids that were causing all the trouble...They said that they were kids who drove cars with no springs and no seats so they could ride low." The term "lowrider" which began as an insult, took on new meaning as youth and young adults redefined it as an expression of cultural pride. CUENTOS: STORIES Cruising As an everyday practice, lowriding is fundamentally a family tradition. Many lowriders believe that the construction of custom cars fosters close relationships among relatives, especially between fathers, sons, and brothers. Parents give their children opportunities to discover the feelings of pride, satisfaction, and self-fulfillment by sharing their own lowriding experiences, passing on mechanical knowledge and technical skills, and encouraging creativity. The tradition instills a sense of responsibility in young people by demonstrating the rewards of dedication and a strong work ethic. It also encourages ingenious innovations as lowriders design cars that ultimately qualify as works of art. Describing how he felt when his father introduced him to lowriding, Albert DeAlba of Montclair, California said, "It was a whole new world. It was something to do, and you wanted to get better at it because you wanted to have the best stuff on the street." A prime example of a strong family lowriding tradition, the DeAlbas have an automotive business where the four sons and grandsons work together with their fathers fixing cars. LowridingThe importance of carnalismo (family and fraternal relationships) among lowriders is reflected in the formation of their car clubs. Generally referred to by members as second families, most clubs were established by small, close-knit groups of custom car enthusiasts consisting of either blood relatives or individuals from their neighborhoods. In addition to establishing a sense of solidarity among lowriders, these associations also support friendly competition among members who try to outdo one another in creating the "perfect" car. While club politics do exist within the lowriding scene, each member shares a familial bond that fosters respect and pride for their cars. And because of the emphasis on these themes, their longevity as car clubs is often the result. Some car clubs, like the Dukes of Southern California (the oldest lowrider club in continuous existence), demonstrate their strong commitment to community activism by sponsoring fundraisers and charity events that have benefited local churches, benevolent societies, and social movements like the United Farm Workers Labor Union. The Dukes celebrated their 40th anniversary in 2002. At the heart of this car club is the Ruelas family, who are regarded as the "godfathers of lowriding." Petersen Automotive Museum director Dick Messer remarked in the June 2007 issue of Lowrider Magazine that "Every discipline, no matter what it is, needs some icon to be the one everyone turns to. In hot rodding, it's Wally Parks. In NASCAR, it's Tony Stewart, and in lowriding, it's the Ruelas brothers." During the 1950s and 1960s, the Ruelas brothers grew up in a South Los Angeles neighborhood where Hispanics were less visible and Blacks dominated the cultural landscape. Ernie Ruelas explained in the July 2006 WEST Magazine that they "...were known as the 'Black Mexicans.' Our Black brothers respected us for having courage." In the same article, Terry Anderson and Ted Wells (both African American) remember meeting the Dukes in the early 1970s, an event about which Anderson remarked, "These guys had me at their home for quinceañeras (teenage girl coming of age celebrations), funerals of car club members, and holidays. They took me into their family." Demographically, South Los Angeles is today predominantly Latino (54 percent), while the African American population is now 38 percent. This demographic shift was not lost on Ted Wells, who told WEST Magazine, referring to the racial conflicts during the 1960s and '70s that " was seldom Black on Brown. Instead it was Black on Black, Brown on Brown. It's not like that anymore. Back then a black eye, a bloody nose...but (we) hugged up together in the end." Documenting and understanding Black and Brown cultural histories of Los Angeles through the study of lowriding can help illuminate the present dynamics and offer possible solutions to the problems created by cultural tensions that often plague our urban landscape. EVOLUCIÓN: EVOLUTION Lowrider Magazine (LRM), which celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2007, has played an integral role in the documentation and transformation of lowrider culture. From its debut in 1977, the magazine has provided Chicanos and other aficionados a means to capture and document their pursuits. Many Chicanos responded enthusiastically to a periodical created by Chicanos for Chicanos, and the magazine featured lowriders, pachucos, cholos, and cultural symbols of Chicano barrio life. Over time, LRM made it possible for lowrider culture to expand across ethnic, class, gender, and geographic boundaries. Such outreach has brought lowriding to African Americans, Asian Americans, and members of other cultural groups, adding to its vitality. Though other magazines endeavor to capture the lowrider lifestyle, LRM has achieved international popularity, creating a means by which all lowriding enthusiasts can unite and celebrate the culture. Pedal CarOn an international level, there are lowriders in Japan and Europe. Japan has a particular affinity for lowrider culture, and there is even a Japanese Lowrider magazine. Many of the Japanese youth adopt certain fashions associated with barrio culture such as baggy pants, bandanas, and zoot suits. They even wear T-shirts that say "Chicano Pride" or those bearing images of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Many Japanese are also buying lowrider cars from the United States and bringing them to Japan. In the process, many aspects of lowrider culture have changed as lowriding has moved out of the barrios, into the suburbs and across the globe. Photographer Estevan Oriol and artist Mister Cartoon have played important roles documenting and creating art that examines the intersections of lowrider culture, Japanese culture, and hip hop culture. Music and art have become important facets of la vida lowrider and they will be featured in the upcoming Petersen exhibit. Customized Chopper with Lowrider FlavorWhat began as a rolling celebration of urban life on the boulevards of Los Angeles has evolved into a cultural expression and way of life that has come to unite people of all cultures. It is a tradition that brings together the socio-cultural experience in the boulevards of the past, present and future. Bajito y Suavecito (Low and Slow) is a way of life that requires passion, corazón and respect. It is a cultural pursuit that is both fluid and active. It is also about being seen; beckoning the viewer to look and discover a cultural expression that remains an integral part of Los Angeles. La Vida Lowrider: Cruising the City of Angels is an exhibition ripe with many exciting surprises, and the cruising has only begun. ¡Que Viva Lowriding! Denise M. Sandoval, Ph.D. Guest Curator and Community Researcher La Vida Lowrider: Cruising The City of Angels will be on view October 27, 2007 through June 8, 2008 in the Grand Salon. For more information, click here.

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