Chapter Eight

The Tejano Connection

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.

Although dropped and chopped “shorts,” as Tejanos sometimes called their lows, have rolled the dusty Texas highways and byways for at least 50 years, the mists of time begin to burn off in the early ’70s. Hydraulics had already made their way to the Lone Star State, where they were modified for front and back lifts, and it’s certain that modern “lowrider style” had been in effect since the late ’60s. In El Paso, Texas, the first lowrider clubs began to come together.

When 12-year-old Armando “Mando” Santillan’s family moved from East Los Angeles, California, to El Paso, where Texas meets the Mexican and New Mexican borders, back in 1970, “Lowriders were barely starting.” Springs were being heated in backyards and behind shops throughout the Lone Star State, to achieve the long, low silhouette prized by careful customizers. But, it just wasn’t Whittier Boulevard.

“There weren’t many clubs, certainly not many lowrider clubs,” Mando remembers. “But it was a Latin thing–everyone was cruising.” The Exclusives had already made a name for themselves, riding on 14-inch rims lifted from ‘57 Chevys, and they reminded young Mando of the beauty of the Boulevard. They weren’t the lowriders that he remembered, but they were close enough. He had always loved cars, and dreamed of the day when he would have a low of his own, a real lowrider like “El Chuco,” as young Chicanos had years ago dubbed El Paso, had ever seen. Like many young men, he began hanging out at the neighborhood body shop, “George and Son’s–the best in town.”

“I met Richard Salazar, our club’s founder, in 1972. A group of us–we weren’t a club or anything–used to hang out at George and Son’s, the Salazar family’s shop. We had Chevys, Fords, Pontiacs. Nobody cared about the make and model back then. You just needed a clean car, nice paint, 14-inch rims and 5.20s. It was hard for us to get things. We didn’t have Rockets or Cragars. We got the cheapest rims that were still rims.” The crew, influenced by Mando’s tales of Whittier Boulevard, of twisted grilles, candy paint and hydraulics that could make your car come up off of the ground, decided that it was time to upgrade their little group.

“A bunch of us got together at George’s and were looking at Richard Salazar’s black ’64 Chevy Impala with a charcoal gray top,” begins Mando. “It looked so sharp, we painted all of the cars the same black with the gray, plus gangster whitewall tires. One guy couldn’t afford a car, so he had a hearse. We decided to cruise Ascarate Park, and we put him last.”

Ascarate Park was the place to cruise in El Paso, its horseshoe shaped road and plentiful parking beckoning hot rodders, truck clubs and every type of automotive enthusiast into their own little section for everyone to appreciate. The park allowed drinking, and the few rides which had hydraulics could hop and scrape without hassles from the police. It was a party every weekend, and this one seemed no different.

“We started to cruise, and two police officers thought we were a funeral. They began to escort us, stopping traffic for us.” The cruisers were content just to play along, enjoying the extra attention when they hit their destination. “When we got to the park, they gave us tickets because they stopped the traffic! We went to court and won. After it was over with, Richard said, ‘Let’s call ourselves The Undertakers.’ “

Soon, several other lowrider style clubs started appearing, New Breed, Image, Lords, Browns, Destini and more. Following The Undertakers’ lead, these clubs invested in jackets and plaques along with 14-inch rims and whitewall tires. Women’s social clubs soon followed, ladies without the means to buy a ride showing their support for the Lowrider Movement, which was getting hotter than the dog days of an El Paso August. And the style began to spread Eastward.

Odessa, Texas, lies almost 200 miles east into the prairie and scrubland from El Paso, neighbors by Texan standards. By 1973, Nick Hernandez had been watching lowriders cruise Odessa for years; he decided that it was time to start a real lowrider club. Influenced not only by the increasingly beautiful rides of El Chuco, but by the organizational skills of the Chicano Movimiento, Nick knew that there was strength in numbers. He called his lowrider car and bicycle club “Taste of Latin.”

Nick knew that by utilizing the different strengths of each member, whether metalwork or bondo, upholstery or paint, that each individual car would come together cleanly, earning the entire club respect. It also provided protection from young, overzealous police too eager to prove themselves; unlike the primarily Mexican-American metropolis of El Paso, where racism was seen as simply counterproductive, tensions sometimes ran high in little Odessa.

As the ’70s continued, disco transforming regular gauchos into rhinestone cowboys, lowrider clubs continued to organize themselves across Texas and the Southwest. By the late ’70s, lowriding was the new Tejano thing, hundreds of clubs cruising from Corpus Christi to Dallas and El Paso. Nick invited Odessa locals, Forever Car Club and El Barrio C.C., to join Taste of Latin in the parade, and the many independent cruisers of Crystal City weren’t shy as the rolled right up to join them. The caravan commemorated one of the great Chicano Movimiento victories in the history of Texas.

In 1978, Low Rider Magazine was still just a California publication. It had only barely broken into the Los Angeles market, and was delivered by hand throughout the California barrios. Still, issues somehow made their way to all corners of a cruising nation, from Espanola, New Mexico, to the tiny bordertown of Del Rio, Texas.

Del Rio, as you might guess from the name, grew up against the life-giving water of the Rio Grande, a stone’s throw from the border between Texas and the state of Coahuila, Mexico. Not far, as the lowrider cruises, from El Paso, Odessa or Crystal City, this small town probably had more lowriders per capita than East Los Angeles; they were Texas style lows, all independents who built more for go than for show, but Del Rio was definitely as low as the Lone Star got.

In 1978, LRM received a letter from Sylvia Ramirez and sisters Mary Jane and Veronica Mojica, three Del Rio cruisers. “Nosotros somos de Del Rio, Texas, and we have been trying to organize a lowrider club since 10/26/78. We organized 21 cars to enter our annual Fiesta de Amistad parade. We called our club Border Riders de Del Rio. Everyone enjoyed it very much, you could see Chicanos and some Gabachada taking pictures and cheering on the cars.”

The LRM staff–flattered that their publication had crossed miles of mountains, deserts and prairies and fallen into the hands of dedicated Del Rio lowriders like these–headed into Texas to see what was up. Sonny Madrid, “El Larry” and the rest of the crew couldn’t believe their eyes–from El Paso to San Antonio, lowriders began cruising out of the barrio and into the pages of the magazine. With the help of San Antonio lowrider George Velasquez, Sonny set up a permanent Texas bureau to keep a finger on the pulse of a lowriding nation.

Even further East, hugging the Gulf of Mexico in a warm and sticky embrace, Corpus Christi could not have known what was rolling in from behind. In 1978, two younger members of Taste of Latin-Odessa moved to Corpus Christi with their family, their raked, twisted and chromed bikes in tow. Within a year, brothers Abel and David Leal had hooked up with local cruisers like Joe Ramos, who had a lowrider style ’65 Chevy with a tilt front end, and decided to start a new chapter, Taste of Latin-Corpus Christi.

The Leals had been to San Diego, California, and cruised Chicano Park, and were used to the uneasy acceptance of Odessa lowriding. Corpus was a whole new ballgame. “It was slow,” remembers David, president of the new club. “We used to get a lot of stares and bad looks, but I started making friends who were interested in lowriding.”

Within six months of moving to Corpus, the Leals had lowered enough cars and introduced enough gente to the idea of lowriding that Taste of Latin was joined by other local clubs on Port Avenue and Ocean Drive. The city was soon the sight of LRM’s easternmost distribution, the farthest shore of Aztlan. Inspired by Odessa chapter president Nick Hernandez, the brothers soon began to involve lowriding with local politics.

Lowriders were showing up everywhere. In Laredo, south of Del Rio on the Rio Grande, Jesus Martinez had founded the Brown Impressions. In Houston, northwest of Corpus Christi, lowriding had exploded onto the scene. West Heimer Street and Memorial Park were soon alive with lifted lows from Latin Attractions, Los Magnificos, the Finest Few, Latin Image and Mystical Car Clubs.

The Houston scene had hookups for hydraulics, thanks to Art Lee in Arizona who sent out setups with instructions for installation by local mechanics. Almost everyone was still on Cragars–when Texans liked a style, they were slower to give it up than the fashion-conscious California cruisers. One of the nicest rides on the road was painted at Garcia’s Body Shop, a popular Houston lowrider hangout. Nick Ochoa’s ’64 Impala, “Red Devil,” proudly flew the Finest Few placa, rolling with club president David Doria’s ’64 for a sight that few lowriders would ever forget.

In every corner of Texas, people were hearing about the new style, seeing rows of lows cruising the boulevards. The police tried to keep it underground in some towns, while other boulevards continued rolling proudly through places with a developed Chicano community consciousness. The lines of communication were opening; Low Rider Magazine was beginning to be available in busier barrios, giving Tejanos tips on California lowrider style, from custom paint tricks to rims that could survive the hop. Even better, retail hydraulic stores offered mail order service, allowing many Texans to finally buy the setups that they had only heard and dreamed about.

The first lowrider club in history was ready to make its presence known in El Paso. “This guy from the club, Benny Ramos, moved to El Paso with his two brothers,” said Jesse Valadez, president of lowriding’s oldest and most respected organization, the Imperials Car Club, who wasn’t sure how to handle their request. Other clubs had been starting new chapters across the Southwest; he didn’t want his club to be bound by tradition, but at the same time wouldn’t want anyone to sully the Imperials spotless record. “Then we said, well, if you guys want to start another chapter, you had better go by our rules. And everything worked out.”

It was a step up for El Paso, and the Imperials Car and Bike Club (both were welcome) worked at improving the quality of lowrider customs for everyone in the city. El Paso was already far friendlier to lowriders, and Chicanos, than most of Texas. “El Paso was probably 85-percent Mexican,” says Undertakers president Mando Santillan. “Blacks and Mexicans grew up together–everyone was speaking Spanish and into lowriding. We really didn’t have any problems with the police, as long as our cars were legal. A lot of us tried to make our rides custom, smaller steering wheels, cars lowered below the rims, and the police would bust us for that. But, there wasn’t really the racial harassment, the racial discrimination that other Chicanos may have had to deal with.”

This relatively peaceful environment, right on the border between two very different culturas, was a perfect environment for lowriding to grow in. And, across the state, lowriders in less hospitable places were coming up as well, supporting each other and the Lowrider Movement. As the ’80s, “The Decade of the Hispanic” began, Texas lowriders were professionalizing, opening shops, throwing shows and becoming more involved, at every level, with the national lowriding community.