The Roots of Lowriding.
When the lights go up at today’s huge lowrider shows, hundreds of cars gleaming with triple-dipped chrome and gold plating, elaborate candy and metalflake paint jobs, rolling on custom-spoked wire rims featuring the finest spinners money can buy, fans throughout Aztlan (Chicano slang for the American Southwest) and all America, to Japan and Europe, gasp with appreciation and envy. As lowriding has taken the world by storm, it has also taken the mainstream automotive industry by surprise–no one seems to know where the world’s number one auto trend came from. Some automotive enthusiasts like to write the sport off as the new cruiser on the block, eyeing hoppers and their high performance hydraulics somewhat suspiciously.
Other custom car historians dig a little deeper, tapping out a few lines about the late ’70s, the television show Chico and the Man, and the first few issues of Low Rider Magazine evidence enough that lowriders have enjoyed at least a decade or two on the streets. But, lowriding’s roots reach far deeper into history than that, the result of two very different traditions, California car culture and Mexican cultura coming together in Southern California. Lowriding has always had a distinct Mexican flavor, hotter than hot rods and lower than customs.
Throughout many Mexican-American neighborhoods, called barrios, from East Los Angeles to El Paso, Texas, cruisers have been dropping Chevrolets to a sidewalk-scraping stance since the late 1930s. It was part of the “zoot suit” fashion, a trend popular among teenagers from every culture. Mexican-American zooters, cool from slicked back hair to highly polished shoes, called themselves pachucos. They cruised beautifully restored, older Chevys, decked out in their oversized zoot suits for a night on the town. Often just the back of the Chevy was temporarily lowered, using sandbags hidden in the trunk beneath strategically placed planks of wood, or permanently dropped all around, the springs shortened by cutting the top few coils or heated until they collapsed to a proper cruising height. They cruised through the streets, honoring a custom that may have been practiced since the heyday of the Aztlan Empire.
The paseo, still honored today in many small Mexican towns, is a tradition where young, unmarried villagers walking around the village’s central plaza, young women in one direction, men in the other, blushing and making eye contact. According to legend, the cruise is merely an automotive extension of this ancient tradition, practiced in Southern California long before it was ever a part of the United States.
After World War II, America’s economy was booming. Southern California’ the ’30s its comparatively strong economy during the Great Depression had attracted immigrants from the dust bowls of the Central United States and Northern Mexico–was ready to roll. Prior to the war, most “customizers” were interested in speed, not looks, making inexpensive modifications under the hood while removing heavy, “useless” extras like the fenders and roof. Early custom and lowriding (although the word would not come into use until the 1960s) enthusiasts, however, in particular the pachucos, were more interested in looks, class and style.
It was all on a Depression-era budget, but the seeds were being sown for modern custom trends. After World War II, the hard-driving economy fueled a new generation of automotive enthusiasts, these early styles began branching out, racers, now called hot rods, joined by lakesters, street rods, roadsters, customs, cruisers and finally, lowriders, each new style owing a debt to the cars that came before it.
By the late 1950s and early ’60s, what we would now consider lowriders were finally hitting Whittier Boulevard in great numbers. Such fine rides wouldn’t appear overnight, however. California car culture and Mexican-American cultura would both develop and grow, each enriching the larger American culture with every passing decade.
Pachucismo: Lowriding’s Well-Dressed Roots California, along with Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, as well as parts of Colorado, Nevada and Wyoming, were part of Mexico until the 1830s, when Mexico ceded the huge territory to the U.S. Many Mexican-American and Spanish families remained on their ancestral lands, continuing to speak Spanish and retain a distinctly Mexican cultura. Later, from about 1910 to the mid ’20s, a wave of new Mexican immigrants–approximately 10-percent of the Mexican population–fled the bloody Mexican Revolution and settled in many major urban centers of the Southwest, in particular, El Paso, Texas, and East Los Angeles. They came, like so many others to this nation of immigrants, seeking stability, peace, and a better life for their children. It was difficult, as it was for refugees from Eastern Europe or Ireland, but many managed to carve out a decent life for themselves in the land of opportunity.
Professor Ruben Mendoza points out that one of their means of surviving in the U.S. might be the basis of modern day car clubs. “After the Revolution, Mexicans were brought over to the United States to work in the mines, railroads and farms; many of these new workers were exploited, and without any type of job security or insurance, an illness or other calamity could destroy their lives. Many of these immigrants formed ‘mutual aid societies,’ or social clubs, where they would meet and socialize on a regular basis. The purpose of the group, however, was survival.
They would all contribute money, and if any of them got sick or in trouble, that could be used to help the ailing member out. That same type of organization. Within a single generation, the English-speaking children of these first immigrants were feeling more a part of American life. Part of the American dream of the ’30s and ’40s was owning a car, and when the family finally saved enough for that ride, it became almost a member of the family. Most of the cars cruising the barrios were second hand, and Chevrolets, less expensive and easier to repair, as well as more stylish compared to practical Fords, became the cars of choice.
The desire to be different was no less apparent in Mexican-American communities than anywhere else in the country, and they, too, customized their cars to look unique. Rather than the fast looking “California rake,” these young pachucos would drop the back of the car for a sleek, mean look that turned everyone’s head. “They were family cars, but we used to fix them up,” remembers former pachuco and United Farm Workers co-founder Cesar Chavez. “We fixed up several. The one that we had for the longest period of time was a ’40 Chevy. In those days you went the opposite [of the hot rodders]–low in the back. We lowered the rear springs, had fender skirts, two side pipes. It was mostly cosmetic stuff in those days. You had to have two spotlights and two antennas, and a big red stop light in the back.
Hubcaps, oh, they used to steal hubcaps. The ones that we had, had just one bar across, and big wide whitewalls. When we got out of the car, we had a screwdriver to take off the hubcaps and lock them in the trunk. When we got back we would put them back on.” There were plenty of modifications for specific Chevys becoming popular in the barrios. The “alligator hood” looked great on models with hoods hinged down the center, like the ’39 Chevy. Originally, the hood would open up like wings, but this was converted to open from the front, like an alligator’s mouth.
For pachucos still customizing Fords, the bumper soon became a problem. Original Ford bumpers had a dip in the center that scraped the ground after the coils were cut or, by those with tougher bottoms, removed. The owner would either flip the bumper, remove it entirely, or switch it. “The most popular to switch was the ’37 DeSoto bumper with the five narrow ribs that matched the grille and chrome horn covers on the front fenders,” reminisces lowrider historian David Holland. “The ’37 DeSoto was a stupid looking car, but it sure had bad bumpers. Also, the ’41 Ford bumpers were popular.” still exists today in disenfranchised communities, as neighborhood groups, gangs and car clubs.”
Lowrider style has changed a great deal over the past 50 years–although you still have to take extra care of a car sporting a nice set of rims–but, as Cesar Chavez pointed out, Chicano cruisers have always customized their cars very differently from the speedier sets. “Lowriders do happen to alter a car in a way that makes it almost the precise opposite of a style long favored by Anglo car customizers,” noted Calvin Trillin in the New Yorker. “The California rake, which has a jacked up rear instead of a lowered one, outlandishly wide tires instead of tires that seem much too small for the car, and a souped up motor instead of one that has been filely ignored.” The “East L.A. rake” was part of a new style that was developing.
These cars not only looked clean, but they were also a way of showing defiance against the mainstream culture. The young pachucos cruising these beauties on Whittier Boulevard, the main strip in East Los Angeles, or on Boulevards throughout the Southwest, had also developed their own style of clothing and hair, which was stirring things up a bit. The zoot suit craze had been spreading across the country throughout the late ’30s, popularized by movie stars like Clark Gable. Blacks in Harlem, New York, popularized the look, an enormously oversized jacket over baggy pants with pegged legs. Young Mexican-Americans called them drapes, and often dropped the fancy fedora altogether. There was some concern on the part of the mainstream about the refusal of these young people to assimilate.
Older, more conservative Mexican-Americans also worried about their children’s new look. “I started wearing zoot suits when it became and issue,” Cesar Chavez explained. “The Chicano community was divided about the dress. Some people just wouldn’t wear them, because they thought everybody who did was no good. The girls also wore their trapos, even though people would say, ‘you’re no good.’ You see, the people that wore them eran los mas pobres, guys like us who were migrant farm workers.”
Patricia Alcala, who allowed the PBS documentary Low and Slow cover her daughter’s lowrider quincianera, had a similar experience. “Back in the ’40s, we couldn’t wear tight skirts, dangly earrings, or speak Spanish. If you did, you were labeled ‘bad.’ ” But, like so many young cruisers of their generation, Chavez and Alcala continued to wear the pachuco fashion and speak Spanish, at least when their teachers weren’t around. The car, the clothes and the language were all badges of pride for a generation caught between cultures, struggling to find their own identity.
What frightened many Southern Californians, however, was not just the pachucos’ rough and ready reputation. It was their ability to move through traditionally Anglo areas with ease. “Being strangers to an urban environment, the first generation tended to respect the boundaries of the Mexican communities,” writes historian Carey McWilliams of the pachucos’ first lows. “But, the second generation was lured far beyond these boundaries into the downtown shopping districts, to the beaches and, above all, to the glamour of Hollywood. It was this generation of Mexicans, the pachuco generation, that first came to the general notice and attention of the Anglo-American population.”
The attention that the pachucos got, with their cars, clothes and street slang, called calo, was notorious. “We went to the movies–we were just waiting outside–and the guy wouldn’t let us in with a pass,” said Cesar Chavez. “The cops came and then stood us against a wall and searched us. They ripped our pants–can you imagine? In those days the one that I had was a sharkskin suit and it cost me $45, a lot of money in those days–we’re talking about 1942 or ’43.” Cesar wasn’t the only one. “I was just hanging out [on the corner of 5th Avenue and Glendale Avenue] with my homeboys in a zoot suit, when a city of Glendale placa [police car] drove up and called me over,” Noni Maldonado told “El Danny” in an article for Barrio Breakthrough Magazine. “Our zoot suits, to us, were firme trajes, to go to dances and hang out with the pleve. We weren’t into gangs or pachuco fighting. We just automatically got stereotyped because of our clothes and our hair style, but that was us!”