Lowriders Are the Beating Heart of Chicano Culture in the Southwest
Chicano men have been self-customizing American bombs and muscle cars into lowriders since the 40s. In recent years, the car culture has been particularly vibrant in New Mexico, cementing itself into predominantly chicano/hispanic neighborhoods.
All photos by Gabriela Campos
Outside El Santuario De Chimayo, 20 miles north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, Arthur "Lowlow" Medina leans forward on his wooden staff. The local artist and one of the pioneers of New Mexico lowriding motions toward his prized 1976 Cadillac parked just up the street from the Chimayo church, the spiritual center of hispanic/chicano culture in the Southwest.
"It's my Holy Week car," says Lowlow, 52, running his free hand over the the soft blues, pinks, and whites that make up a dazzling (if cluttered) candy painted canvas of Christian imagery covering the car's exterior. "People come from all around to visit the Santuario" during the last week of March, says Lowlow. "And to see my car," he adds with a smile.
Lowlow's self-customized lowriders—tricked out vehicles with wire wheels, glittered paint jobs, and hydraulics—have been featured in magazines, art books, and academic journals. The lowrider tradition originated in the Mexican-American barrios of East Los Angeles in the late 40s, pioneered by young zoot suit-wearing chicano men who began self-customizing the American bombs and muscle cars of the time into "baroque automobiles." By the 1960s, the cultural tradition had made its way to New Mexico, cementing itself into the predominantly chicano/hispanic neighborhoods of the northern part of the state.
From the beginning, lowriding was associated (often wrongly) with violence and gangsterism, mirroring the stereotypes surrounding the young chicano men who drove them.
"These vehicles were long viewed as something as marginal and anti-social, as lowriders acted outside of normative culture," says Andrew Connors, curator of art at the Albuquerque Museum. In recent years that has begun to change, as a growing respect for the self-taught artistry and cultural importance of these vehicles has emerged. "What else combines a self-taught knowledge of painting, upholstery work, and even hydraulics?" says Connor. "This is a pretty transgressive art form... in the best possible way."
For lowrider diehards like Lowlow, each whip is a canvas to display his culture, faith, and family bonds (his wife, Joan, and daughters, Anamaria and Marisol, help him soup up his cars), as well as a reflection of the evolution of the lowriding culture in New Mexico at large.
"For a long time anyone that had a lowrider was considered a gangster or drug dealer," says Sean Daly, owner of Straight Street Automotive—one of the preeminent lowrider customization shops in New Mexico. "Now our cars are in museums. The art and culture has come a long way."
"They represent the evolution of the culture," says fellow lowrider Rollan Salvas, noting how the Lowlow and the Medinas embody the family tradition now common in the elder lowrider generation. "We made it through our troublemaking days in Espanola [the de facto lowrider capital the world] and came out the other side. Now we have lowrider families."
The Medina compound—part pastoral auto park, part art studio, part Christian shrine—is located a few miles east of the Santuario church. Its interior is a cozy labyrinth of spaces—two garages, an art studio, bedrooms, and four separate prayer rooms. At home, Lowlow puts in countless hours working on his cars, often with the help of his family.
"Our house was built around these cars," explains Joan, standing next to a piece of glass where her girls had been practicing pinstriping. "[Lowrider culture] is all about family, art, and faith. We do everything together."
Outside, nestled in nearly every corner of the yard, are some prized pieces of Americana: a 1967 Pontiac Grand Prix, a 1947 Chrysler Windsor, and a 1963 Jeep postal truck. "That's gonna be my lowrider ice cream truck," says Lowlow, who plans to turn the Jeep into a Mister Softee-style whip. "It's gonna be bad, bro."
"He's a lowrider farmer," jokes Joan, motioning toward the six cars that share the space with a few farm animals at the Medina's home. "They [the cars] are like family members," says Joan. The family has had dozens over the years, but Lowlow's narrowed his collection as of late.
"My daughters and their kids will each get one," says Salvas, speaking to VICE at the monthly "Show & Shine" car show the next day in nearby Espanola. "This is something I can pass down to my children and my children's children."
"I gave my older daughter the Pontiac for her Sweet 16," says Lowlow, arriving at the show in a newly-washed Grand Prix, family in stow. "These are part of our culture," he adds, motioning toward the dozens of vehicles in the parking lot. "We took something from there [LA, where lowriding began] and made it ours."
"Lowriders are the quintessential American art form," says Connors of the Albuquerque Museum. "It starts with a medium [the automobile] that didn't exist anywhere else but the US, and is taken in a direction that completely defies the functionality of the object. It's almost a surrealist approach to sculpture—a folk art tradition deeply tied to the culture, faith, and families of these communities."
"I was six years old when I first saw a lowrider... I was hooked," says Sean Daly of Straight Street Automotive, speaking to VICE from his garage in Albuquerque. Daly, in his early 40s, is of a newer generation of lowriders, which comes across in the pristine, "radical" style of the cars found in his garage. "Six years of work and 70K," explains Sean, standing next to his glistening '63 Chevy Impala SS, nicknamed "Cochina." "I'm about doing new and innovative things."
When asked about Lowlow's style, Daly replied, "Religious-themed cars are more of a traditional thing. But any true lowrider appreciates different styles. We all respect each other."
Like Lowlow, Daly sees his cars as foremost a "canvas for self expression."
"These are not 'good' investments," he laughs. "They are passion projects. I think of them as my kids sometimes."
Some treat it as work of art, others as work of life," says Connors, noting the differences in the tradition. "As a folk art without regulation there is a lot of variation within the tradition. Those variations don't kill the tradition, they move it in different directions."
Back at the Medina compound, Lowlow ushers us to a long, rectangular building attached to the side of the house.
"I haven't shown anyone this before," says Lowlow, his eyes brightening as he opens the door to his lowrider museum-in-progress, a makeshift space that he hopes one day can be used to promote lowriding culture and teach kids about "cars, art, and god," he says. The interior is covered by dozens of his religious paintings. At the center of the room sits a beautiful 1988 Chrysler limousine lowrider with a busty naked blonde woman painted on the hood and trunk.
"I was younger when I did this," says Lowlow, noting with some regret a different period of artistry and identity in his life. "My daughters are older now. It's time to cover them up," says Lowlow. "Maybe I'll put wings on them. Make them into angels."
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