Cruising into the eye of the Revolution.
The long-awaited Lowrider History Book is still in the works and we hope to have it published sometime this year. In the meantime, we are presenting a series of excerpts from the History Book that will hopefully answer a few questions regarding the history of the sport and give an indication of where we’re heading as we cruise into the future.
The far off land of Vietnam had become suddenly much more real as the decade of the 1960s cruised to a close. The draft had been enacted to fight in these far-off jungles, pulling lowriders off the boulevard in ever greater numbers. At home, the Chicano Movimiento was stirring things up on campuses across Aztlan; the Civil Rights Movement was making gains across the country.
Like the word “lowrider,” originally an insult aimed at cruisers too cool for stock suspension, Chicano had always been used as a racial and class slur. Thought to mean “poorest of the poor” in Nahuatl, the tongue of the Aztec empire, young Mexican-Americans embraced the term as a symbol of their defiance.
These self-proclaimed warriors for the Movimiento proudly used the word at the first National Chicano Student Conference. “El Plan de Santa Barbara” became the mission statement for hundreds of fledgling Chicano, Latino, Hispanic and Mexican-American organizations scattered across Aztlan. The lines of communication were forced open by these young, idealistic militants, and a concerted effort to liberate the Chicano people, before an impossible dream, was finally realized.
Some of these Chicano students, at the prestigious University of California, Los Angeles, unearthed an August 1967 report by economist Frederick Sturdivant entitled “Business and Mexican-American relations in East Los Angeles.” The graph and data-heavy report proved what many East L.A. residents had sensed all along, that area merchants, especially those who lined Whittier Boulevard, were economically exploiting the local population. It also linked the heavy policing of the area, done by Los Angeles County Sheriffs rather than local officials, with the protection of these businesses.
“Whittier Boulevard, because of its heavy commercial concentration, is heavily controlled. The exploiters’ property must be protected at all costs!” La Raza Magazine, among the first publications of the Movimiento, did not mince words, translating the economist’s findings into the language of the streets. “These same exploiters do not live in our community. They only come in to charge high interest rates, take our money, and invest it in their communities, thus resulting in a ‘money and investment loss’ for our community.” The irony apparent to these students, many of whom hailed from East Los Angeles, was that these were the very businesses accusing cruisers of being “outsiders,” evidence enough for Los Angeles Sheriffs to pull over and arrest the young lowriders.
“It’s a lie. It’s an excuse. The real outsiders are the merchants,” replied Chicano activist and part-time lowrider Carlos Montes. “I used to cruise in the mid-’60s. Most of the violence that I saw was police beating cruisers. It got so bad that in ’68, we held a rally on Whittier Boulevard to protest the violence.”
On the evening of July 3, regular cruisers noticed many new faces on Whittier. They were Chicano, certainly, and some even drove serious lows that would have done any lowrider proud, but these were not the usual cruisers that car club members were used to. These hardcore lowriders couldn’t help but notice the protest taking place, and many honked or scraped in support of la Causa. “The Boulevard belongs to Chicanos! Quit harassing us!” The young protesters shouted and paraded their signs, emboldened by the approving nods of local lowriders. But what was to follow made many of these more blue collar Chicanos feel used, betrayed by the Movimiento.
As the night gave way to early morning Independence Day, hungry protesters made their way to one of the many taco stands serving cruisers carne asada. County Sheriffs decided that this was the time to move in on the out of place students, fingering their billy clubs eagerly as they surrounded the group. Some of the students resisted. A fight broke out. Within minutes, tensions already present among the different car clubs began to escalate, and the Boulevard erupted in violence.
The wail of sirens was punctuated with the sound of shattered glass. A brick wall, torn down by the protesters, became ammunition for the otherwise unarmed students. The windshields of cop cars and cruisers alike were smashed, many fine lowriders damaged in the fracas. The window of Woolworths was taken out, followed by the storefronts of loan and insurance companies, department stores, markets and liquor stores, some, Chicano owned. And then, the boulevard began to go up in flames.
The chaos that ensued was too much for even the street-hardened Sheriffs, and reinforcements were called in. Fresh from putting down the Isla Vista Chicano Demonstration at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the Special Enforcement Bureau knew what to expect. The acrid stench of tear gas confused cruisers trapped in the legendary gridlock of the weekend Boulevard. Hundreds of young Mexican-Americans, protesters and lowriders alike, were taken into custody, several claiming to have been threatened, beaten and illegally held by overzealous officers.
Many were thrown into the East Los Angeles Station, where six Chicanos had “hung themselves,” under suspicious circumstances in previous months. This was far more serious than the equipment violations and altered suspension citations that cruisers were used to. For the next three nights, Raza rioted on Whittier, and blame was placed squarely on the shoulders of the car clubs.
Already criticized as “gangs on wheels” and worse, this left a bad taste in the mouths of many lowriders. “We heard that they wanted to close Whittier because of the riots, people breaking windows and stealing whatever they could steal,” recalls Roberto “Beto” Hernandez, then the president of New Wave Car Club. “It wasn’t right because they were doing all the damage. We wanted to cruise Whittier and we weren’t breaking the law. Sure, we backed the Chicano Movement, but not the violent stuff. We wanted no burning down of buildings, businesses, gas stations or things like that. But, that’s the way they wanted to do things.” New Wave members and other lowriders tried to find their own way to keep the Boulevard cruising.
“Eventually, we still got together with about 80 cars and parked at the Sheriff’s Station. We protested; we had signs that said, “Don’t Close Our Boulevard!” “Don’t Close Whittier!” They closed it anyway, so we went from Whittier to Atlantic, to Third Street and to Legg Lake Park.” From 1968 until the middle of 1969, lowriders were kept clear of the Mecca known as Whittier, and cruisers couldn’t help but blame la Causa.
Empowering the Lowrider Movement
Despite this first, difficult experience with the Chicano Movimiento, many lowriders soon began listening to what these students were saying. Lowriders, even those old enough to regard the word Chicano as the ultimate insult, began to accept or even use the term. Cruisers who had made it into college returned to Whittier armed with facts and a focus that impressed their hard working homeboys.
They explained that lowriding was a right, protected by the Constitution of the United States of America. The Right to Peaceful Assembly, the Right to Free Movement and the Right to Free Speech were all part of the Bill of Rights, written by the nation’s founding fathers to protect all of America’s citizens, no matter what their last name, skin color or language. Moreover, these young community leaders pointed out that the taxes that a lowrider paid, taxes attached to every aftermarket item used to dress up their rides, every mouthful of food purchased from a sidewalk taco stand, every ticket they paid for equipment violations, were used to pay the salaries of the officers who harassed them and to maintain the streets they were not aloud to cruise.
Perhaps most empowering of all, they brought to the streets the concept of Aztlan the idea embraced by Chicanos throughout the American Southwest that the land that they cruised was land they had a historic right to. “Aztlan is supposed to mean ‘the land of the blue herons’… According to tradition, Aztlan is in the region where four states, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet,'” wrote Lowrider Magazine publisher and former New Breed Car Club member Sonny Madrid, who explained that the mythological homeland of the ancient Aztecs was more than just legend.
“To believe in Aztlan was something heavy. If you flew the flag of Aztlan, you were proclaiming the independence of the Chicano. If you believed in Aztlan, there was no such thing as a wetback. “We are not a minority!” was a saying that captured the essence of Aztlan. To believe in Aztlan was to rebel, to tell the gavacho, “we are not culturally deprived or disadvantaged,” somos Raza, puro Raza.”
Even the most stubborn cruisers, who couldn’t care less what was going on off the boulevard, could not ignore the increasingly bloody war taking place in Vietnam. There were few lowriders lucky enough to know no one who had lost an arm, a leg or their lives in Southeast Asia. “From 1966 on, the Vietnam war was making its impact on Chicanos and many of us were drafted,” remembers Duke’s Car Club president Fernando Ruelas. “Some vatos came back and some didn’t… I think that all of the car clubs were dwindling in the late ’60s because of it.”
Although student groups and activists were preaching boycott and resistance, these were not the lessons lowriders were taking home. Many cruisers had noticed that students, by sticking together, were able to use their strength against politicians and police more effectively. The Whittier cruise had been closed down, and area lowriders knew that they had to come together if it was to ever open again. Using the methods of the Chicano Movimiento, they took the first step, their way.
“The Federation of Lowriders came about out of necessity, because we knew that the larger this thing got, the more the cops would win out,” says former Groupe president Ed Flores. Clubs and independent lowriders alike were beginning to realize that, like young people across the country burning draft cards and carrying signs, they did have the power to change things. They also understood that there was strength in numbers, something Groupe had always been aware of.
“The Groupe had a couple of successful football games, picnics or some other activities with the Bachelors and other clubs, so we would bring them in. They would know another club, and they would bring them in. We just spread the word around. We said, ‘let’s get together at meetings,’ and we took each other’s phone numbers and would contact each other. We had guys from Orpheus, New Wave, Klique and others. It wasn’t anything structured.”
But it was communication. “There never was a set peace talk, it just happened,” remembers Klique president Luis Martinez. “I was involved when the [club] wars were on. The thing that we realized was that we weren’t accomplishing anything.” But, together, the clubs were able to accomplish what the East Los Angeles Sheriff’s department couldn’t do in a decade of busting heads. The bumperjacking stopped, and lowriders were able to again risk the cruise without fear of damaging that $1,000 paint job just because of their plaque. Not that the cruise was suddenly 100-percent safe. Nowhere in Los Angeles, not in Beverly Hills or on Van Nuys Boulevard, were people free from violence completely. But with communication, the clubs were finally able to use their energy to making the Boulevard a better place.
“I was one of the leaders in the Federation of car clubs,” remembers Beto Hernandez. “We tried to clean up, hose down the street, take graffiti off the walls, trying to maintain the Boulevard as much as possible, because we felt that this was our boulevard. We had all kinds of media coverage, us, New Wave, Orpheus, Sons of Soul, New Breed and everyone else; channels 2, 4, 5, 7–all of them showed what we were doing.
“I had a lot of guys who were members who went to college and got very well educated in the Chicano Movement. Some of the other guys would complain, but I said, ‘No, if they’ve got to leave, I’ve got to leave,’ because what they were talking about was bottom-line true, from Zapata to Pancho Villa on up.