Inspiration is a rare commodity in our society these days. Even rarer are the times when that inspiration actually forces action, and even rarer still are the moments when that action transforms into a destiny. These are the instances when we say that a person has come “full circle.” Everything they have experienced in life has in turn come back to them, almost as if it was all part of a bigger plan to shape their ultimate reason for living. For some of us, our Lowrider passion for cars is just that; a passion. For Old Memories Denver Chapter President Fred Perez of Brighton, Colorado, the Lowrider Culture has truly engulfed his lifestyle and shaped the visionary man he has ultimately become. His Chicano heritage and life lessons he has learned throughout his career in Lowriding have propelled him to become the most precious of all resources for his community: a teacher.
While it would seem to make sense to compare him to legendary Latino educator Jaime Escalante, since they are both educators of Latino decent, doing so would be doing them both a great disservice. They are both very different individuals with different student age groups and teaching methods. What binds these two great men together? Its their genuine love for who they are, and where they come from? These men represent La Raza, they are part of the Gente, and they both realize the urgent need for higher education and better opportunities within their respective communities. The similarities stop there, however. After all, there are no murals of Fred Perez in Los Angeles, California. There is no “Stand and Deliver”-style Hollywood film starring Edward James Olmos that depicts his life and his service to his community. There are no community centers named after him, and no teaching awards given out in his honor. After spending an afternoon with him in his beautiful Northern Colorado home, it is evident to me that there should be. He deserves every bit of the accolades that past Latino leaders have received, and then some. Just like Chicano leaders shown in the “500 Years of Chicano History” poster that adorns his classroom, Fred Perez is a living, breathing, valuable part of that history. In fact, he is every bit as influential as Jaime Escalante, Hernán Cortés, Anthony Quinn, and the other Chicano leaders that his curriculum-based poster depicts, as he provides his students with a pride in who they are, and most importantly, he equips them for a successful future. In a society of all talk and no action, Fred Perez instead leads by example, encouraging his students to succeed and gives them the guidance they need to become our future leaders.
Respectful of the individual privacy of our interview subjects, I spoke with Fred briefly over the phone to coordinate a meeting time and place for our interview. Our goal as writers is to make our interviewees as comfortable as possible in order for them to feel open enough to communicate their stories to us. Fred chose a Starbucks Coffee shop located on the old 85/87 highway, 25 minutes north of Denver as our destination. Having been a resident of Colorado myself for 25 years and a student at the University of Northern Colorado, I was quite familiar with the location and his home community of Brighton, Colorado. As Fred arrived we shook hands and I felt a warm connection with him immediately, as he insisted we move the interview to his home, which was located just a few miles north of where we were. I agreed and hopped in my car eager to follow him to his home, already thinking about how nice it was for him to actually let me into his private world. It was just a glimpse into the champion of a man that I was about to meet, and what I saw next made my jaw drop to the ground lower then a parked ’64 equipped with air-ride.
As we walked up to his home, Fred threw open the door to a small, one-car garage, exposing the most pristine 1954 Chevrolet Truck I have ever seen in person. The truck had a vanity plate that read “El Profe” and the truck carried an original style Moss-green and cream two-tone paint scheme that took me back in time as if I was seeing this beauty roll straight off of the factory line. As if the truck wasn’t impressive enough, my eyes searched the rest of the garage and found every inch of it covered in antique, impossible-to-find spare parts, as well as past Lowrider spreads featuring some of his favorite feature cars from the 80’s and 90’s. It was clear to me that this guy was a true veteran of the culture, as this was not his only sanctuary. He guided me toward the two car garage located in the back of the house that featured a 1950 Chevy Fleetline, with a complimentary paintjob to the truck in the other garage, as well as an immaculate 1950 Bel-Air 2 door sedan. It was as if he had completed a set of Chevy masterpieces. The adjacent back yard also had a chassis from a 1941 Special Deluxe, as well as a 1948 Suburban that will one day carry his students to parades, sporting events, and school functions. To put it bluntly, every square inch of his home, inside and out was covered in vintage cars, and car parts, so much so that it was almost like a museum. His passion for the culture was obvious, so I sat down with him to find out more about what has made Fred Perez the man he is today.
Fred Perez was born in El Paso, Texas and lived there until he was 24 years old, a time in which destiny called and urged him to move to Colorado. The son of a hard-working mother and father, the Chicano lifestyle influenced him heavily in his younger years, as did Pachuco culture. “I got into Lowriders back in 1978, when I was going through the Lowrider magazines,” he says. “Every year I would go visit my cousin Danny Dominguez in the city of Commerce, CA, and he would take me cruising. Back then, I was 13 years old, and every summer I used to go with him on Friday nights to Whittier Blvd. I’d see Lowrider bikes, Bombs, vans, cars, and custom trucks,” he explains in a voice warm with memories. The experiences motivated him into delving into his first foray as a Lowrider bicycle builder back in his homeland of El Paso. “I went home and told my Dad I wanted to build a Lowrider bike and he said ‘how are you gonna build a bike, when you don’t have any money?’ So I started selling and recycling aluminum cans and I bought a ’69 Schwinn. It took about 2000 dollars worth of selling newspapers, collecting cans, and cutting lawns before I had it finished,” recalls Fred. While he worked on the bike, the nature of competition helped him to develop his building style. “I used to compete a lot with Nano from New Breed Car Club down here in El Paso, Texas. He had a three-wheel bicycle, and we always competed in the shows during 1980, ’81, ’82 and ’83.” Though they were competitive, Nano often served as Fred’s event guide as to when and where the next shows would be. “I’d travel for hours to do the shows with my bikes, from El Paso to Phoenix, San Antonio, Roswell, Espanola New Mexico, if my father would take me,” laughs Fred. Little did he know it at the time, but Fred’s hard work in the bicycle realm would eventually pay off in the form of a winter 1994 Lowrider Magazine pictorial on his “Grim Reaper” bicycle, a project he would come to build for his sons, Andrew and Freddy.
The builder’s lifestyle was slowly shaping his passion, while also making him realize how much differently the outside world was viewing him. “In 1980, when I started building my bikes, I was a freshman in high school and I had the interest in building the sheet metal. The school offered a lot of vocational classes like auto body, welding, fabrication, and those types of classes. I learned how to weld, how to do body work, primer, and basic mechanics,” he says. “At the time I used to dress like a Cholo, and since I wasn’t a part of the “normal”-dressing students, the teachers actually pushed me towards those classes. They assigned me to them. Looking back it’s been a blessing because it helped me learn to work with my hands.” Turning that almost racist negative into a positive, Fred continued his vocational education. “After I graduated, I took some electives at El Paso Tech, and my father also taught me how to sodder and work construction, so from those experiences I learned how to perform the work it takes to build a car.” Family commitments became his top priority, and it would be awhile before Fred Perez used these vocational skills and entered the car building arena.
“I got married in ’84 and stopped [building]for a while, but then in ’89 I moved to Colorado and saw that there was a little bit of a Lowrider Movement here, so I started taking my bike out with my sons and we started doing car shows again,” he reminisces. The car shows brought out his youthful hunger, and Fred was once again bitten by his builder’s bug. “As a kid I always wanted Bombs, I fell in love with them. However, when you’re older and you have a family to feed, a home to mortgage, and a job that doesn’t pay you the money to fix one up, you can only daydream of owning one,” he laments. Undaunted, Fred pressed on, working with his situation in the best way he could. “In 1990 I joined Unique Image Car Club here in Colorado, and I was with them for 5 years. They were mostly all mini- trucks, but I still had my bikes. It looked a little odd with me as this 30-year-old man with bikes and everybody else had mini trucks and ’62-’63 impalas.” Fred tried his best to fit in with the club, and decided to go the mini-truck route. “I bought an ’85 Chevy mini-truck, and I had front, back, side to side, the bed used to lift, and I installed all the hydraulics. The truck was primered so I couldn’t participate in the car shows. I saw a 1950 Chevy Bel-Air for sale for $5,000, and I sold my mini truck and bought it,” he explains with pride. That initial pride of owning his first Bomb would soon fade after he realized that his work as a lumber retailer was not enough to satisfy his needs for his hobby and his family’s needs. He simply did not have any money, and something had to give, and it did.
Divine intervention changed Fred’s life forever. “I decided to go back to school. It took me 10 years to become a teacher, 5 years at community college, and another 5 years through the University of Northern Colorado, where I got a Bachelor’s in Education, ” he says proudly. The support from his loving wife and father played a key role in keeping him motivated, but it was an encounter with an educator at UNC that enabled him to complete his schooling. “I met this man named Dr. Lawrence Aragon, and he encouraged me to go to school, he told me that he would pay for my school! God opened the door for me through Dr. Aragon, and he provided all my tuition from my Bachelors to my Master’s Degree, and I became a teacher, it’s the best thing I ever did.” Higher learning opened up new doors for Fred, and sparked a self-awareness and pride in his Chicano heritage on a level that he hadn’t felt before. “I knew about Chicano history because I lived through it in the ’60s and the ’70s,” he laughs. “I’m almost 50 years old, and the most I learned was when I went to college, and learned from Professor Roberto Cordova and Dr. Jose Suarez. Those two professors were my mentors, I saw them and thought, ‘Wow! Two Chicano professors and they were doctors, not medical doctors, but Doctors of Education and Philosophies, and I said Where were you guys in my life? I needed you earlier!” he jokes. “They used to talk about the Zoot Suit Riots and the Pachucos and I knew about it, because my father was a Pachuco back in the ’40s, and my brother and I were Cholos in the ’80s, but when they taught me, I got to learn even more about it than what I already knew. ” This eye-opening sense of self-awareness would not only help him through school, it would help to shape his mission as an educator. “Now that I am a teacher, I want to be that person for the kids I’m teaching. I want to get my PhD. I’ve learned about Chicano culture at school and in my own life experiences, and there’s so much that I want to teach them, the challenge is coming up with ways to do it so they’re interested,” he explains. “I’m not a normal teacher, I am different. There are excellent teachers out there, but in my classroom I like my kids to be different. If a kid sings I want to bring that out. If a kid is a leader, encourage them and find ways to get them involved with student government. If a kid likes art, integrate that into their learning.”
Despite his new found profession, Fred still found time to maintain his passion for Lowriders, and, although he felt a bit out of place sometimes, he ultimately found a way to balance both. “In 1995, I went to the Lowrider Supershow at the L.A. Coliseum, and that was an eye opener. The people, the Cholos, the gente, I felt weird because everybody had their shirts off and they had tattoos, and I took mine off and I had no tattoos,” he laughs. “I dressed like a Cholo to survive the streets, but once your environment changes, I think you have to adapt, but it doesn’t mean you have to change 100 percent,” he explains. Though he may not have dressed like everyone else, he still impressed the car show circuit with the projects he restored while simultaneously working towards his teaching degree. “Between ’95-’00, I started going to Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Denver, and Wyoming, to compete in regional shows and I won first place “Original” with my 1950 Chevy Bel-Air,” he recalls proudly. Not only were his ’50 Bel-Air and ’50 Fleetline earning him respect, and finding their way into the pages of Lowrider, they also impressed his peers enough to earn him the chance to find his way into the perfect car club for his taste. “In 1999, a friend of mine, Augustine Romero and I went to California, and they used to have the old Bomb car shows at Southgate, I was in heaven, ” he waxes fondly. ” Augustine and I talked with my cousin Danny, who at the time was the President or Vice President of Old Memories, East Side Chapter, and he called all the other chapters and mentioned that I wanted to start a chapter here in Colorado. They all said okay. We just had our tenth year anniversary, and I am the current President of about 13 members,” he says.
With his many trophies and titles earned on the car show circuit, and his identity as “the Bomb man” solidified in his four-corner region, the time had now come for Fred to also come full-circle in his profession as he began teaching third graders in his hometown of Brighton, Colorado. His eyes light up when he talks about the classroom. “My dad said ‘Never say you can’t.’ That’s what I like to teach the kids, I like to integrate the subjects they’re naturally good at with the subjects they need to work on. As a teacher, you have to find ways to reach these kids, you can’t judge them by their appearance, their clothing, or even their parents, and I have to prepare them for them to move. I love 3rd grade because you can plant a seed and you can see it grow with them, at 8 or 9 years old they can really absorb it.” And absorb it they do, thanks to Mr. Perez’ unique teaching methods. “At the end of the year I give my Lowrider trophies to the kids who are most proficient in reading, math, and art, and it really encourages them. I’ll take the LRMs that I’ve been featured in and show the kids and they really like that. I also buy Lowrider Arte to show the kids the drawings,” he beams. Test time in Mr. Perez’ classroom is signified to the students when he turns on the radio and plays “Lowrider” by WAR, or, as it’s known to the kids, “the song from the George Lopez Show.” The kids hunker down and know it’s time to do their best. Perez also reads passages from a poem by Rudolfo Gonzalez entitled “I am Joaquin.” “It came out of the Chicano Movement, he says, adding “it gives me information for my social studies curriculum on the Latino leaders.” He believes strongly in equal curriculum. “The kids need to know the history of both sides, Mexico, and the United states, from Abraham Lincoln to Washington and Cortez and Montezuma.” During math time, Perez relaxes the students’ minds with tunes from East Side Story, During art, the children color in an Aztec Calendar with seven different colors. Science and electricity even have a touch of Perez in the form of model cars with electric hydraulic systems. This dedicated teacher even takes deserving students to Rockies games, and car shows, and gets as involved as he can by donating time and energy to their extracurricular activities. He exercises his responsibility as an educator to the fullest. “I get a lot of kids whose parents have been divorced or they don’t have a father, these are the kids I love to have in the classroom, I want them to see me as a role model.”
With a rewarding career, a beautiful and supporting wife, two amazing sons, a positive hobby, and an impact on his community that will shape its future for the better, Fred Perez is just that; a role model. His life has come full-circle, and the people surrounding him are better off because of it. His two sons Freddy, and Andrew, are already following their mother and father’s footsteps into college, and following their own dreams in Architecture and Business. His relationship with his father is as tight-knit as ever, as they formed an inseparable bond while working together on Fred’s many automotive masterpieces, and the children of Brighton have a chance at a better future thanks to the efforts of the man they call “El Profe.” He remains humble in his success, assuring me that without his loving wife, Martha, none of it would be at all possible. As far as the car show trophies go, they’re not why he does what he does on the show circuit. He builds Lowriders for the same reason he does everything in his life; to inspire other people. His road in life isn’t finished, Fred Perez also wants to earn his PhD and eventually purchase property that will better fit his automotive needs, but that will have to wait, as for right now, there are children to teach. “I don’t consider myself a leader,” he says. “I just do what I like and hope people will follow.” After seeing the evidence of how he has succeeded in life and become such a positive influence on his community, I finally get to say something to him that we’ve all wanted to tell our teachers for years; he’s wrong.