Lowriding in the Borderlands

Michael C. Stone

Definition

The term "low riders" refers to automobiles that have been lowered to within a few inches of the road in the expressive style of la onda bajita, "the low wave," or "the low trend." It also refers to the people who craft them and to those who own, drive or ride in them. On both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border and throughout the greater Southwest, low riders and their elaborately crafted carritos, carruchas, or ranflas -- other names for their vehicles -- contribute their particular style to the rich discourse of regional Mexican-American identities. Paradoxically expressed in automotive design, low riders' sense of regional cultural continuity contributes a distinctive social sensibility to the emergent multicultural mosaic of late 20th- century North America (Gradante 1982, 1985; Plascencia 1983; Stone 1990).

A synthesis of creative imagination and technical mastery pushed to their limits, cars with state-of-the-art hydraulic technology perform stunt hopping, but raise their "ride" for driving clearance. Skid plates shower sparks into the night when dipped to drag over the pavement, while neon art illuminates windows, trunk and underchassis. Cultural and religious icons decorate body and interior in bold murals and etched glass, as low rider caravans move slowly across a complex southwestern social landscape.

In films, print

Low riding first drew widespread attention in the late 1970s, sensationalized in "cruising" films like Boulevard Nights, burlesqued in Cheech and Chong's classic, Up in Smoke, and framed as cultural curiosity in print (King 1981; Trillen and Koren 1980). In a more serious vein, Low Rider magazine, together with the music of bands like "War," and the Luis Valdez film, Zoot Suit, evoked images of social and material realities of barrio life in shaping and broadcasting the bajito identity and style. As a public forum on Mexican-American identity, Low Rider magazine recast pejorative stereotypes -- the culturally ambiguous pocho-pachuco (Paredes 1978; Valdez 1978; Villareal 1959), the dapper zoot-suiter (Mazón 1984), the street-wise cholo homeboy, the pinto or prison veterano, and the wild vato loco (Johansen 1978) -- as affirmative cultural archetypes emerging from the long shadow of Anglo domination.

The style apparently arose in northern California in the late 1930s, but evolved in Los Angeles, where its innovators responded to Hollywood's aesthetic and commercial demands. Yet low riders also assume a critical stance. They distinguish "low-and-slow" style by asking, "Whose cars are high?" (Trillen and Koren 1980). They censure hot rodders, "who raise their cars, making all kinds of noise and pollution, racing down the streets killing themselves, if not others." By contrast, low riding expresses pride in hand craftsmanship learned through community apprenticeship and mechanical work in the military, auto detail shops, and garages, and pride in economy -- the practical need to maintain one's own vehicle inexpensively.

Social status

From southern California, migrants transported the style throughout the Southwest. Cesar Chavez recalls that by the 1940s, farmworkers found cars essential to moving quickly from job to job. Cars also embodied social status:

"We were traveling around.... You always wanted to go into the dance [looking] right... [to] come in with good cars -- we were migrants and the cars meant quite a bit" (Gutierrez 1980:43).

Migrants brought low riding east into Texas. Innovator Richard Salazar says low riders from Los Angeles founded an early El Paso club, the Imperials. Don Américo Paredes recalls that postwar Crystal City, Texas, aficionados would convene at the Dairy Queen to see which car was low enough to knock over a cigarette pack. But low riding was part of a broader "car culture" (Flink 1975) of antique and custom shows, hot rods, stock cars, drag racing, and demolition derbies. The Nevarez and Salazar brothers, early bajito creators, first exhibited in national custom shows that added El Paso to the circuit in the early 1970s.

Anglo/Cholo synthesis

Low riding selects from the symbols of the dominant Anglo culture, and asserts counter meanings values in Mexican- American experience. A San Antonio native recalls,

Culturally we lived in two worlds. Across the street from our house on Guadalupe Street, the jukebox from Julio's Cantina blared out Mexican corridos and conjunto music. We learned the words to Jorge Negrete's songs long before we ever heard of Frank Sinatra. The Malt House... was West San Antonio's most famous hamburger and chicken fried steak drive-in. It had a bilingual jukebox [where] we first heard Little Richard and Elvis Presley. No one forced us to choose; we easily accepted both musical traditions (Romo 1986:57).

One veteran explains his nostalgia for "oldies" music, period clothing, and cruising drive-in movies and burger joints as reminders of "the best decade of life... [my] teen-aged years" (Gradante 1985:73). Another says, "Low riding is the Chicano American Graffiti," referring to the popular Anglo "cruising" film. Low riding redefines these prevailing cultural forms with the fluid, multiple, and often conflicting meanings of its bicultural world, celebrating a Mexicano heritage that is also irrevocably American. Low riding also contests the conformity of mass youth culture, and softens the hard edge of industrial culture. As El Paso low rider alumnus George Salazar (now a Justice Department attorney, drug rehabilitation activist, and Rio Grande Food Bank chairman) observes,

The Latin can express his flair for the romantic almost anywhere, even taking a product off a General Motors assembly line and giving it an identity. Maybe... as more Mexican Americans... enter the governing institutions of our country, the same warmth will infect the system. Why not? If we can make something as American as a car reflect our culture, we can probably do it with anything (Weisman 1986:101).

Low riding is a declaration of cultural pride, an historically resonant expression of contemporary Mexican-American identity. Rooted in working class experience, low riders' hand-crafted improvisations upon industrial style are a self-affirming response to the homogenizing forces of mass production and Anglo cultural ideals.

Citations & Further Readings

Flink, James J.
1975. The Car Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Gradante, William.
1982. "Low and Slow, Mean and Clean." Natural History 91:28-39.
1985. "Art among the Low Riders." In Folk Art in Texas. Francis Edward Abernethy, ed. Dallas: SMU Press/Texas Folklore Society.
Gutiérrez, Jess.
1980. Interview: Cesar Chavez. Low Rider 3(12):43.
Johansen, Jason Carlos.
1978. "The Myth of the Bato Loco." Nuestro 2(11):6-7.
King, Wayne.
1981. "Low Riders Are Becoming Legion Among Chicanos." New York Times. 9 May
Mazón, Mauricio.
1984. The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Paredes, Américo.
1976. A Texas-Mexican Cancionero: Folksongs of the Lower Border. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
1978. "The Problem of Identity in a Changing Culture: Popular Expressions of Culture Conflict along the Lower Rio Grande Border." In View across the Border: The United States and Mexico, ed. S. Ross, pp. 68-94. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Plascencia, Luis F.B.
1983. "Low Riding in the Southwest: Cultural Symbols in the Mexican Community." In History, Culture and Society: Chicano Studies in the 1980s, ed. Mario T. García, et al., pp.141-175. Ypsilanti, MI: Bilingual Review Press.
Romo, Ricardo.
1986. "An Insider's View of the Westside." In Art Among Us/Arte Entre Nosotros, eds., Pat Jasper and Kay Turner, pp. 50-58. San Antonio, TX: San Antonio Museum Association.
Stone, Michael C.
1990. "Bajito y Suavecito: Low Riding and the Class of Class." Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 9:85-126.
Trillin, Calvin, and Ed Koren.
1980. "Low and Slow, Mean and Clean." The New Yorker 54:70-74.
Valdez, Luis.
1978. "Once Again, Meet the Zoot Suiters." Los Angeles Times. 13 August
Villareal, José Antonio.
1959. Pocho. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books.
Weisman, Alan.
1986. La Frontera: The U.S. Border with Mexico. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
Moreno Barrera, Francisco J.
1992. "La tradición oral de los mixtecos en Tijuana." In Entre la magia y la historia: Tradiciones, mitos y leyendas de la frontera, ed. M. Valenzuela. México: El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.

Author

Michael Stone is a doctoral candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, and holds an M.A. from Stanford University. He has published and has a forthcoming work in such diverse journals as Studies, Social Science and Medicine, Human Organization, and the Handbook of Texas.


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23 April 1996