Lowrider Culture, or, Hacking a la mexicana

Image: Frank Romero, “Death of Rubén Salazar

What is a lowrider? It’s a technology, a history, a music, an art form, a community, an identity. Thus, a lowrider, the technological object itself, is only one aspect of lowrider culture, an ensemble of technologies, people, practices, and symbolic forms. In this lecture, I hope to give you a sense of the importance of lowrider culture to the Chicano experience in the United States.

In its most technical sense, a lowrider is a car that has been modified so that, as the name implies, it rides low—lower and closer to the ground than the car’s designers and manufacturers intended. Since they are so low, lowriders must be driven slowly, leisurely, luxuriously. Whereas the muscle car—the Ford Mustang, the Chevy Camaro—is a “hot” machine, a “hot rod,” a machine of aggressive speed and power, the lowrider is “cool.” You don’t race a lowriding Fleetline or Impala, you cruise while “dreaming casually,” to quote a popular lowriding song by the Chicano rock band Thee Midniters. The point is not to dash by, but to be seen, to be on display, to flaunt your inefficient slow-motion, to take pride in the beauty and craftsmanship of your car. In the words of one lowrider: “You don’t want to just whiz by, man. […] A car doesn’t look as good going fast, and you can see people better when you’re cruising slow. Above all, you must be cool.”(Note: I will use the term lowrider to refer to either the car or the person driving the car.)

I’ll now play some typical cruising music, which I think is essential to appreciate the rhythm and pace of lowriding. In terms of genre, most of this music is known within lowrider culture as “oldies,” a word that means more than just “old music.” More specifically, oldies are primarily the African American musics of the 50s, 60s, and 70s–the sounds of Motown, doowop, soul, rhythm and blues.  Many of these songs were collected in the late 1980s in a series of now classic vinyl records called East Side Story, which feature pictures of lowriders on their covers.

East side story covers

Covers of East Side Story, Trenton Music Corp., San Jose, CA

The importance of African American musics in these records is an important reminder of the bonds between black and brown peoples in the cities that created lowriding, and a reminder that the history of lowrider culture is in fact a co-history of African Americans and Chicanos. No song illustrates this co-history better than the anthem of lowriding, the appropriately named “Lowrider” by War. Although they were a predominantly black band, War first called themselves Señor Soul and dressed in sombreros. You’ll also notice that this African American anthem of Chicano lowrider culture incorporates the instruments and sounds of Latin American music.

Perhaps more characteristic of the casual pace of lowriding is Smokey Robinson’s “Cruising.”

Finally, the song I mentioned earlier, “Dreaming Casually,” by Thee Midniters, a Chicano band that sounds much like an African American soul group.

From a design standpoint, there is no good reason to lower a car so much that it can easily scrape the ground. It’s equally absurd, from this perspective, to give a car the exact opposite ability to rise, incline, hop, or drive on just three wheels. In the language of lowriding, this is called “hitting switches,” a phrase and iconography that was thoroughly popularized in rap videos in the 1990s (again signalling the contributions of African Americans). In fact, if you’ve ever seen a lowrider, I’m willing to bet that you saw it in a rap video. “Hitting switches” refers to a switch box that controls the car’s hydraulics, a system of pumps and springs that lift the car into the air, thus transforming it into a kind of airplane or spaceship. Lowriders thus fuse together two opposite techniques and impulses. They ride low and they get high. They cruise and they fly. They’re slow and cool, but they also express playful exuberance. As I will explain later, I think this is a metaphor for two tendencies in Chicano identity itself.

This mixture of cool and playful is captured by the comedians Richard Marin and Tommy Chong, otherwise known as Cheech and Chong, in their 1980 comedy Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie, which grew out of a period when lowriders first entered mainstream US popular culture. In this scene, Cheech and Chong realize that in order to get respect in the neighborhood, they have to turn their van into a lowrider. They not only lower the van, they also give it shiny rims and reveal a painting with Aztec iconography, which is another common feature of lowrider aesthetics. But when Cheech and Chong challenge another lowrider to a hopping contest, we see cool quickly turn into goofy.

In the opinion of one German with whom I’ve discussed the topic, lowriders are neither cool nor playful, they’re “verrückt” [crazy]. He couldn’t understand why anyone would modify a car in these ways. For him, a car is a finished product. You drive it, insure it, have it fixed when something goes wrong, and otherwise maintain it, but there is no need to change its basic functionality. That’s the business of car companies and their teams of experts. Indeed, I think this view extends far beyond cars: it’s the dominant way that most people in the United States—and in other consumer societies—understand their relationship to technology. Most of us don’t understand our tremendously complex machines, some of which can even appear to be smarter than us. We may become expert users and consumers of technology, but only on rare occasions, if at all, do we participate in its design. It is against this background that I want to present lowriding as a form of working-class Chicano hacking, a way of intervening in and repurposing technology.

These tactics are “verrückt” only if you assume that technological design is the exclusive property of automobile executives and expert engineers. They aren’t crazy if you admire attempts to change technology in creative ways, as I do. I see lowrider culture as a means of participating in the design of technologies for people who often have limited access to advanced technical education and managerial occupations. Lowriding is thus Mexican hacking, or hacking a la mexicana. In the words of Americo Paredes, a pioneering scholar of Mexican-American studies, to add the word Mexican to a noun or activity “means doing [it] with wit and ingenuity rather than with much equipment and expense.” A tortilla is a “Mexican fork,” chile peppers are “Mexican vitamins.” And a lowrider is a Mexican spaceship.

My father had a Mexican spaceship. To be more precise, it was a 1964 Impala. No sooner did I learn to walk than I’d climb into his lowrider and play with the hydraulics.

As a boy, I was fascinated by the tattoos on my father’s hands.

Dad's left hand, cropped

Dad’s hands: “Madre,” praying hands, “E” for “east side,” butterfly

Although the ink has faded, the dreams and aspirations behind them have not. On one hand is barbed wire and a butterfly. My father has told me that when he was a teenager, the butterfly represented hope–the hope of escaping a world of barbed wire, that is, a world that felt like it was surrounded by a prison fence. Many of his neighborhood friends would indeed go to prison. But my father, like the butterfly, would make it over the barbed wire. Today he’s a mechanical engineer and designs robotic arms that doctors use in surgery.

So you can see why I think lowriding isn’t just “verrückt.” I think building and maintaining a lowrider gave my father an opportunity to pursue his interest in engineering, which was especially important for a young man who was held back in school just because Spanish was his first language, and who had given up and dropped out of school by the time I was born. His eventual success as an engineer wasn’t a break from his life as a lowrider, but an extension of it, a continuation of the butterfly’s journey.

But if my father’s story is an example of lowriding as a technological hack, of engineering a la mexicana, I also want to present lowriding as a cultural hack, a way of intervening in and repurposing Anglo-America’s perceptions of Chicanos, as well as dominant forms of cultural memory.

Lowrider culture emerged from the Chicano boulevards of California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. Although historical origins are notoriously difficult to identify, East Los Angeles, California, has been an epicenter of lowrider culture since its emergence in the 1950s and 1960s. In the early twentieth century, Mexican Americans, who are the largest group within the US Latino population, began to move to affordable land on the east side of the LA river. East Los Angeles, or East Los, has since become arguably the most significant Chicano community in the United States.

The lowrider culture that emerged from East Los grew out of the city’s older hot rod and custom car cultures. In the 1930s, young Angelinos began to buy older, cheaper Ford Model Ts, modify them, paint them with flames, and race them on the city’s dry lake beds. While these car cultures mostly died out during World War II, they returned and surged in the postwar period.

The rod hot culture of white California is comfortably nestled in contemporary US culture’s intense nostalgia for the early postwar period. I’m referring to the nostalgia for diners and rock and roll, drive-in movies and school dances—a moment of youthful innocence prior to the turbulence of the late 60s. Lowrider culture evolved alongside this hot rod culture of Anglo-American youths. After the war, Mexican American veterans came back to East Los or moved there from other parts of the southwest. Many of these veterans had acquired advanced mechanical skills in the military, which they used to modify cars such as the 1939 Chevy Master Deluxe, the 1948 Fleetline, and the 1950 Mercury Eight. In contrast to the hot rods of white Angelinos, the Chicano lowrider was customized to be “low and slow,” bajito y suavecito, low and smooth, as it cruised down Whittier Boulevard, which runs alongside the LA river and through predominantly Mexican-American neighborhoods. But while Anglo- and Mexican-American car cultures emerged side by side, the latter has almost no place in the dominant forms of nostalgia. To give you a better sense of this difference, I want to compare two cinematic treatments of early postwar car culture, both from the 1970s: George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973), and Michael Pressman’s Boulevard Nights (1979).

American Graffiti poster

American Graffiti poster

American Graffiti is the quintessential nostalgia film. Set in Modesto, California, in 1962, the movie is a loose fictionalization of director George Lucas’s childhood in the small town. As we can see from the poster, American Graffiti idealizes the 50s and early 60s, symbolized here by the diner waitress on roller skates, by her sassy smile and healthy rosy cheeks, by the All-American meal of hamburgers, fries, and Coca-Cola, by the backdrop of sparkling cars and Americana red. The movie follows a young man who enjoys one last night of cruising on the boulevard before he leaves for college in the morning. While he and his hot rod friends make mischief and get into some trouble with the police, it’s all in good fun. This is an America that is still innocent, an America that has yet to register the traumas of the assassination of President Kennedy and the Vietnam War and the race rebellions of Watts amd Detroit. And it is an America that is almost entirely white. Like the history of the town itself, whose name, Modesto, means “modest” or “humble” in Spanish, Chicanos and lowriders are mostly erased from the movie’s memory.

When Mexicans do appear briefly in American Graffiti, they are coded as gang members, criminals, hoodlums who are outside the movie’s idealized white community and who add a touch of mild danger to the plot.


Scene from American Graffiti: Curt and The Pharaohs

Curt, the protagonist, is confronted by three members of a car club, The Pharaohs. While the leader of the Pharaohs, Joe (on the right), is coded as white, the other two, with their black hair and ethnic English, are coded as Mexican. The script tells us that their names are Carlos and Ants. Carlos is “a short little kid about fifteen years old. He appears tougher than the rest with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.” Ants is “a tall, ghoulish-looking kid who probably got his name from the scar across his face which has recently been stitched to look like a party of ants marching across his cheek.” Mexicanness is also signified by its conspicuous absence: the Pharaohs confront Curt because he is sitting on the car of Gil Gonzales, who is mentioned but never seen, and whose Spanish name codes him as Mexican and reinforces the Pharaohs’ ethnic difference. By linking Mexicans, criminality, and car clubs, Lucas reproduces the dominant view of Anglo-America that lowrider communities are nothing more than Mexican gangs.

While the criminal otherness of lowrider culture is visible in American Graffiti mainly by way of allusion and conspicuous absence, it’s central in Boulevard Nights. Released in the crisis-ridden late 1970s, this film can no longer muster an idealization of the early prewar period, whose innocence is now long gone. Boulevard Nights was part of a cycle of gang movies in the 1970s that transformed Lucas’s rambunctious white teenagers into black and brown “armies of the night,” as this poster for the most controversial of the gang films, The Warriors, puts it.


Poster for The Warriors

While the first poster for Boulevard Nights focuses rather neutrally on the lowriders on Whittier Boulevard…

Boulevard_Nights 3.jpg

…the second one exploits the thrilling danger of urban racial violence in a way that closely resembles the poster for The Warriors.


On the one hand, Boulevard Nights is notable for being one of the first Hollywood films to be set in East LA, to be cast primarily with Mexican American actors and actresses, and to focus directly on the Chicano experience. “This is our ‘American Graffiti’” said one Chicano lowrider who was involved in the production of the movie. On the other hand, Boulevard Nights was a rather unflattering debut of the Chicano film. It tends to equate Chicanos in general, and lowriding culture in particular, with violence, thus echoing the view of the LA police that Chicanos go to Whittier Boulevard primarily to drink, fight, and kill one another. As one Chicano critic of the movie pointed out, rightly, I think:

[Boulevard Nights] manages to kill six people in the course of the script, with a good deal of bloodshed, as if this is the way Chicanos live. When a people have been so invisible, it’s reprehensible that the first exposure focuses on an exploitable aspect of the culture.

To be sure, Chicano gang violence is a major problem in LA, lowrider culture does partially overlap with gang culture, and there were fights and murders on Whittier Boulevard. But of course, not all Chicanos are gangsters and murderers, and neither are all lowriders. The fact that I have to spell this out reveals how racism works. No matter how many white men commit mass murders with guns at universities and schools and movie theaters, whites don’t have to deal with the racial stereotype that all whites are potentially killers. They get the benefit of the doubt, and this is one of the many privileges of being white in the United States. Conversely, Chicanos, like other minorities, are subject to constant generalization. The bad deeds of individual gang members produce a generalized suspicion that all young Chicanos are potential criminals. It’s not just bad logic, though – it’s the result of a long history of deindividualizing nonwhite people and representing them as an undifferentiated mass.

A much more complex representation of the period’s lowrider culture can be seen in the photography of the Italian immigrant Gusmano Cesaretti. His series “East LA Diary” grew out of the time he spent in East Los with the Klique car club. Cesaretti’s stark black and white photographs capture the shimmering beauty of lowriders. They also don’t shy away from the reality of violence, which, even if not actively pursued, must be prepared for. The members of the Klique car club are “graduates of street gangs,” Cesaretti explains. They “don’t like to fight, but they will.” But, ultimately, the true subject of Cesaretti’s photographs is not cars, or weapons, or gangs. It’s people. His lowriders are not masses, but individuals with faces.

One way to resist racism is to do what I’ve just done–to debunk it, to show that it doesn’t capture the full reality of what it means to be Chicano. But another important form of cultural resistance among minorities has been to invert Anglo-America’s stereotypes, to turn the dominant value system upside down by praising what it fears. This was one of the strategies of the Chicano nationalist movement in the 1960s and 1970s. I said before that lowriders have almost no place in popular nostalgia for the early postwar years. But the Chicano nationalist movement has been quite successful in producing a kind of minority nostalgia, a counter-nostalgia that idealizes the lowrider as the very gangster or cholo of Anglo-America’s nightmares. In constructing the lowrider cholo as a kind of cultural rebel, the Chicano nationalist movement also connected the figure to an earlier one, the zoot suiter or pachuco of the 1940s.

Consider two canonical texts of Chicano studies, J.L. Navarro’s poem “To a Dead Lowrider,” and Luis Valdez’s play “Zoot Suit.”

“To a Dead Lowrider” first appeared in the Chicano magazine Con Safos, or “with respect,” which was published in LA in 1969. It’s a eulogy to a lowrider named Tito, whom the speaker praises for his individuality, his coolness, his toughness, his womanizing, and perhaps most importantly, his refusal to submit to the police, which eventually costs him his life.

Pages from Con Safos March 1969

Pages from Con Safos March 1969-2

J.L. Navarro, “To a Dead Lowrider,” Con Safos, 1969

Tito is vulgar and violent; he abuses hard drugs and women. He is precisely the hoodlum that Anglo-Americans, and even some Mexican Americans, imagined the lowrider to be. But that’s the very reason the speaker of the poem celebrates Tito’s life and mourns his death. For Tito embodies above all the pride, the shameless self-respect, that Chicano nationalists saw as a necessary countermeasure to white America’s disgraceful images of Mexicans.

While I can see the appeal of Tito’s pride, I’m much less impressed by the way he and the speaker of the poem identify self-respect with an exaggerated masculinity that treats Chicanas as little more than sex objects. Unfortunately, this same objectification of women pervades lowrider culture. The most influential magazine, Lowrider, is known just as much for its sexy women as for its custom cars. Even when the magazine tried to include Chicana lowriders, as it did in a 2004 issue, it still placed the usual bikini-wearing model on the cover, as if to assure male readers that the inclusion of a Chicana lowrider would not interfere with its being a soft porn magazine. I’ll revisit this point later.

For now, I want to return to the beginning of “To a Dead Lowrider,” where the speaker calls Tito a “pachuco.” We can see the further identification of the lowrider and the pachuco in Luis Valdez’s “Zoot Suit.” The first play by a Chicano author to appear on Broadway, Zoot Suit is a dramatization of the LA Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, when mobs of white sailors stripped young Chicano pachucos of their zoot suits, with the aid or tacit permission of the police. The pachuco and pachuca were characterized by their large, bright, flashy, oversized jackets and pants, which mocked wartime rationing and shocked both Anglos and Mexican parents. In this scene from the great wall of LA, a large mural that chronicles the city’s history, we see the pachuco’s deep humiliation after his zoot suit has been stripped away. Perhaps we can better appreciate Tito’s pride in comparison.

Great Wall of LA section 1.png

Section of the Great Wall of Los Angeles

In 1981, Valdez directed the movie adaptation of “Zoot Suit.” In the opening scenes, we see people arriving to watch the play. The camera follows a lowrider. Once the play starts, and the character El Pachuco, played by the great Edward James Olmos, steps onto the stage, the camera again singles out the lowrider in the audience. What the camera is subtly telling us is that the male lowrider is the movie’s intended viewer. The story is aimed at him and other lowriders, in order to show them their Chicano history, to show them that they are the descendants of the old pachucos. As the film identifies lowriders with pachucos, it seeks to create a minority cultural memory of the 1940s that will inspire Chicanos to continue the pachuco’s rebellion against US racism.

Ladies and gentlemen

the play you are about to see

is a construct of fact and fantasy.

The Pachuco Style was an act in Life

and his language a new creation. […]

I speak as an actor on stage.

The Pachuco was existential

for he was an Actor in the streets

both profane and reverential.

It was the secret fantasy of every bato

in or out of the Chicanada

to put on a Zoot Suit and play the Myth.

But what I find especially insightful is Valdez’s presentation of the pachuco as a self-conscious performance. When El Pachuco enters the stage, he breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the audience, reminding them that what they’re watching isn’t reality, but a mixture of “fact and fantasy.” El Pachuco tells us that we cannot understand the figure of the pachuco unless we grasp its “stylization.” To wear a zoot suit is to indulge a “secret fantasy,” to “play the myth.”

Thus, while both “To a Dead Lowrider” and “Zoot Suit” subvert stereotypes by appropriating Anglo-America’s fears, I think “Zoot Suit”’s emphasis on performance is an important corrective to Navarro’s and other Chicano nationalist’s fixation on masculinity. The crucial difference between Navarro’s Tito and Valdez’s El Pachuco is that Tito is a “real man,” a real tough guy or dude, while El Pachuco is an actor, a fantasy, a style. Tito represents the idea that Chicano identity is fixed, while El Pachuco represents the idea that identity is a role we play, a performance, an invention. I see these two figures as representations of the two tendencies in lowriding itself, the one low and proud and cool, the other playful, excessive, reaching for the sky. In fact, this latter tendency is perfectly symbolized by Edward James Olmos, who would go on to be one of the first lowrider pachucos in space as captain Adama in the TV series Battlestar Galactica.

Given the tendency in the Chicano nationalist movement and lowrider culture to restrict Chicano identity to hypermasculinity, I think the better way that Chicanos can resist racist stereotypes is to treat both the pachuco and the lowrider as performances, as myths that we can play with in order to reconnect with our history, to rejuvenate our pride and dignity, and to salute our creativity. But they are only two aspects of our immense diversity. Let us take as our motto the words of the great democratic poet Walt Whitman, who was greatly admired across Latin America: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” Or to put the same idea slightly differently, I will end with the words of the current poet laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Herrera, who celebrated his new post with the first Poet Laureate Lowrider Parade:

you build border walls by the minute

every minute we cross a thousand.

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