A cruise through lowrider history in New Mexico
A CRUISE THROUGH LOWRIDER HISTORY IN NEW MEXICO
They announce their arrival with guttural growls and seductive purrs, their candy coats flecked with tiny metal flakes that glitter in the sunshine. With hoods topped by chrome airplane ornaments, they sport wild, vibrant stripes; Zia symbols; or the beatific face of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Inside, plush, psychedelic, crushed-velvet thrones await — with gleaming chain steering wheels, interiors lined with dangling fabric balls and accented by dashboard crowns, religious figurines, rosaries, and ornate cutout metal club insignia that declare a provenance and an affiliation. The ride is smooth — low and slow, gliding along with a chrome undercarriage 3 inches from the ground — until the moves get playfully bumpy. Cylinders compress air, pumping the body higher, then setting it back down again, easing it into a funky, calibrated rhythm of up and down. They have names like Liquid Sunshine, Duality, Rollin’ Malo, Woolly Bully, and Casanova, and their owners are living out a distinctively New Mexican dream, just like their fathers and grandfathers before them.
Opening Sunday, May 1, at the New Mexico History Museum, Lowriders, Hoppers and Hot Rods: Car Culture of Northern New Mexico tells a story of passion, creativity, pride, and tradition handed down over generations of car aficionados. The history of classic rides in Northern New Mexico reveals a singular culture and its customs, along with the imagination, skill, and community that go into transforming an old car into a stunning work of art. The exhibit runs through March 5, 2017, and the opening kicks off a season of lowrider-related events sponsored by the museum, including a mayor-designated Lowrider Day on the Plaza, complete with a car show, on May 22.
On the main floor of the museum, visible through the glass doors on Lincoln Avenue, Chuck Montoya’s royal-blue 1950 Mercury and Pete Vigil’s creamcolored 1931 Ford street rod invite passers-by in to gaze upon their lustrous paint jobs, gently sloping bodies, and pristine rims. Visitors to the exhibit on the second floor enter a starkly lit garage, complete with a chromed-out engine, hydraulics components, a hopping scale used to measure how high a car can jump, and rows of pastel-colored model cars owned by Robert Ortega from Chimayó. On monitors around the garage, 14 local car enthusiasts, customizers, and body shop owners take turns telling the colorful story of lowriders in Santa Fe, Española, Albuquerque, Chimayó, and Las Vegas, a collection of lilting northern accents rising and falling as they recount their obsessions. On the soundtrack, lowrider
Pam Jaramillo delves into the family tradition of bequeathing cars: “All my girls have already claimed their cars. Angel claims Bobby’s ’51, the blue one . ... She just liked the way the seats would bounce. And Bobby, well, she’s three, so she already claimed the orange one because her favorite color is orange. And Heaven, she claimed the other ’61 because her favorite color is red.”
Curator Daniel Kosharek said the original vision for the show stemmed from the desire to update and expand upon photographer Jack Parsons and journalist Camilla Padilla’s 1999 book of lowrider photos and essays, Low ’n Slow, published by the Museum of New Mexico Press. He also aimed to establish one of the first museum collections of lowrider photography. As he recounted, “Initially there were just four or five photographers involved, because there just isn’t a lot of photography of lowriders. I called places like Denver, Phoenix, L.A., all over, trying to find a body of lowrider work; nobody has a collection of lowrider material. So that’s when I started trolling the internet, finding images and tracking down photographers.” The show now has works from 31 different photographers, including Parsons, Alex Harris, Corey Ringo, Norman Mauskopf, Dottie Lopez, Gabriela Campos, and Meridel Rubenstein, the vast majority of whom have donated prints to the museum’s permanent photo archives.
Once a large exhibition space became available in the history museum, Kosharek began to dream bigger, realizing that with a little elbow grease, a freight elevator in the building just might be able to haul a couple of vintage cars onto the second floor of the museum. Now, when visitors venture further into the space, they encounter the crown jewels of the show: museum guard Orlando Martinez Jr.’s ’83 Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Sonnie Jaramillo’s ’48 Fleetline. Getting the cars into the elevator necessitated removing the entire front end from the Monte Carlo and sawing down the Fleetline’s tailpipes, but the owners were all too happy to comply, as it meant that their cars would soon become actual museum pieces.
Consulting curator Don Usner, who grew up in the auto-obsessive town of Chimayó and whose photographs appear in the show, put Kosharek and oral history project curator Meredith Davidson in touch with lowriders in Chimayó and beyond, from whom they gathered stories and leads on other car aficionados. Usner told Pasatiempo, “I call it the most homegrown lowrider scene around, in that it really comes out of the place and out of the culture.”
Most lowrider historians agree that the tradition has its origins with Mexicans and Mexican Americans in El Paso and Juárez in the 1930s and ’40s. After World War II, many ex-military men in the Southwest migrated to Los Angeles to work in aircraft factories, bringing along their passion for customized rides and meeting up with the pachuco culture in the barrios of East L.A. Custom hydraulics evolved out of the necessity to evade police officers, who quickly targeted lowriders as troublemakers. “There was a law passed [in L.A.], I think in ’59, where you couldn’t have a car whose chassis was lower than the wheels,” Usner said. “So there were people in the aviation industry who had been working with hydraulic lifters for plane flaps, and they realized they could adapt those so they could be legal when they needed to and when they could get out of sight, they could drop it down again. So it had kind of a dual purpose.” The use of hydraulics was quickly adopted by Hispanics in Northern New Mexico, where they served another function. “Several guys told me that they found it great here, because there were rough dirt roads. They developed a technology and invested in it because they could get up high to go home and then get on the highway and drag the car down.”
In the 1960s, lowriders became identified with the Chicano movement, as these cars began to symbolize a proud cultural identity. “There was a lot of traffic between New Mexico and L.A.,” Usner said. “What spun off here was also very unique and in some ways, went both ways — ideas and inspirations here were picked up there and vice versa.” New Mexico iconography like religious subjects and local landmarks, including El Santuario de Chimayó, made their way onto cars in the style of santero paintings. Some cars became mobile retablos of a sort, memorializing family members and lost loved ones. Local historians have also speculated about the cars’ aesthetic relationship to Spanish conquistadors. According to Benito Córdova, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of New Mexico, the origins of the lowrider may go back to the Moorish habit of decorating horses with polished silver saddles and draped roses — a custom Spaniards brought with them to the New World — and anyone who’s seen a line of cruising lowriders rounding the Santa Fe Plaza can testify to the conquistador-like self-satisfaction their drivers display.
In Española and the surrounding towns of Northern New Mexico, a springtime tradition developed whereby a procession of lowriders would cruise a pilgrimage to the Santuario on Good Friday, waiting for a priest to come out and bless the cars with holy water. “I was just in Española on Good Friday and they tend to gather more there now than the Santuario, because
it’s too choked up [with traffic],” according to Usner. “They don’t allow them to get too close to the church now.” Instead, he said, this year families congregated at Home Run Pizza on North Riverside Drive, sharing slices and catching up on the latest adjustments to their friends’ rides.
In the early ’90s, mainstream news outlets began taking notice of Española’s reputation for lowriding, and MTV News and National Public Radio both ran stories declaring the town “the lowrider capital of the world.” In 1990, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., got in on the local action by acquiring Dave’s Dream, a ’69 Ford LTD owned by Dave Jaramillo of Chimayó — which included an interior color TV and an exterior portrait of the Jaramillo family — for the museum’s permanent collection.
Many area lowriders were born into this rich tradition, with fathers and grandfathers who worked on cars for a living and passed along the trade. Famed Albuquerque car painter Robert Vanderslice’s grandfather was the mechanic and paint and body specialist for Sears and Roebuck’s fleet trucks. As a kid, Vanderslice loved to destroy his own toy cars. “My big thing was taking a hammer to my Hot Wheels, literally. I would melt my dad’s models — that he spent hours working on — on the stove and make them look wrecked,” Vanderslice told Pasatiempo.
“My uncles were into lowriding,” said Orlando Martinez Jr. “I was in elementary, and they’d go cruising all night and sleep in late, so I’d sneak out there in the morning and play with their hydraulics and stuff before they’d wake. … It was cool. I used to like the attention they’d get when we’d be out cruising.” These days, when Martinez is out and about, people stop and tell him that his own cars “remind them of Christmas in the middle of July.”
Mike Roybal, who owns a paint and body shop on Railroad Avenue in Las Vegas, took over the trade from his father, who was a mechanic for more than 30 years. Roybal’s father was good friends with famed lowrider Orlando “Orlie” Coca, and Roybal remembers childhood visits to Coca at his first lowrider shop in Long Beach. Soon enough, Roybal acquired his first lowrider, a ’78 Cutlass Supreme that he bought in 1989. He’s still working on it 27 years later. “I always see more ideas in that car,” he said ruefully. “I bought it just to drive it around, and the years went on, and we go fixing it, painting it, put hydraulics on. Next thing it was a Hollywood top, then a convertible, and before you know it, it was radical.” At this point, he mostly only enters the car into shows, as it’s now too “radicaled out,” in his words, to drive.
A unifying aspect of the car culture are the clubs — many of them having expanded from original chapters in Southern California. Roybal started his car club,
Latin Dezire, in Las Vegas in 1989, inspired by iconic organizations like the Imperials (out of East L.A.) and the Dukes from Albuquerque. Recognizing the metal club plaques attached to these cars was an early pastime of many fledgling lowriders. “We used to say, ‘Hey, there go the Dukes!’ ” Roybal said. He always knew the club Rollerz Only, named Car Club of the Year multiple times by Lowrider magazine, by its signature paint jobs, many of them done by Vanderslice and called “Rob jobs” for short. While car clubs can have strict dues, sometimes requiring younger members to sign pledges eschewing drugs and alcohol, Latin Dezire is more relaxed. Roybal said, “Our car club is family first,” meaning that he doesn’t put pressure on members to enter every show and understands the importance of budgeting to prioritize child-care expenses over cars. “It eliminates the stress of trying to please your car club and your wife at the same time.” He said several of the older members in his club are pursuing a new passion for restoring “bombs,” older cars from the 1930s and ’40s. “You’re old school, you’re a veterano in the club — sooner or later, you start to want to build bombs,” he said, noting that these machines are both more affordable and more of a challenge to customize.
As the classic War song “Low Rider” goes, “All my friends know the low rider.” But lowriders have enemies, too, in the form of police officers and people who are quick to associate lowriders with gangs and drugs. Martinez said that sometimes the attention his car gets is not positive. “There’s still a stereotype. Movies have portrayed it. … Law enforcement still see it as we’re up to no good.” He said lowriders in Española, where he grew up, get extra attention on Good Friday, and cops are quick to break up gatherings if the participants don’t have a permit. “I don’t see that changing anytime soon. If we were having a political rally, I don’t think they would come bother us. Or if we had a bunch of Ferraris or Porsches, I don’t think they’d treat us the same way. That’s just the way it is.” He added that the scrutiny is worse in Albuquerque than in northern towns. “A lot of people come from Albuquerque to cruise in Española, because over there, they really crack down on it.” Gang affiliations certainly exist among lowriders, along with the violence that comes with the territory. In 2004, George Jaramillo, then-president of Rollerz Only and identified by police as a gang member, was found murdered in his Paradise Hills home. According to the Albuquerque Journal, “Jaramillo had been convicted of shooting from a motor vehicle, and just before he was killed, police served a search warrant at his body shop and found a quarter-ounce of cocaine.” Vanderslice said that he ultimately gave up his shop because of the gang and drug-dealer drama that accompanied the lifestyle, though he still does custom paint jobs.
But many maintain that car culture has kept them on the straight and narrow. “I just want to be a positive influence on the younger kids,” Martinez said. “If they get into car building, it will keep them out of trouble.” Mike Roybal remembered a younger neighbor whom he and Latin Dezire members adopted into the club in an effort to keep him away from the gangs that permeated Las Vegas in the late 1980s and early ’90s. That member has now started a Latin Dezire chapter in Roswell. “We became a family,” Roybal said. “Our kids grew up around this and now a lot of them are into it, too. Because of the car club thing, a lot of people got together as far as relationships, and now everybody has beautiful families.”
Martinez agreed that working on his Monte Carlo has fostered quite a set of associates. “I feel like a movie producer, because I have all these different [collaborators] — a painter, the etching guy — and it’s all coming together.” Kosharek added, “One guy may be a hydraulics guy, another guy’s an upholsterer, another guy’s a pinstriper, so that whole idea of ‘It takes a village’ really applies to this community. They support one another.” The passion is shared and propagated, adding to the enduring vision of these master practitioners of an artistic legacy. But in the end, it really comes down to the quality of the ride. Lowrider Floyd Montoya of Cordova sums up the unchanging desire for a truly fantastic voyage in a quote featured in the exhibition. He said, “How can I describe the feeling I have when I’m in my lowrider? It’s like everything in the world stays behind me when I’m going forward in my car. One day, if the Lord gives me the time, I plan to cruise this car for three months straight. I plan to just keep driving without ever coming home.”
Bob Eckert: Christ painting on Joe Martinez’s 1953 Chevy Bel Air, Chimayó, 2014 Opposite page, top left, Annie Sahlin: Jesus on back of Victor Martinez’s Ford, Chimayó, 1991; top right, Katharine Egli: Joseph Chacon’s 1981 Cadillac Coupe Deville at Tomasita’s car show, 2013; bottom left, Annie Sahlin: Dave’s Dream Interior, Española, 1991; bottom right, Katharine Egli: Recuerdos, memorials of loved ones at Tomasita’s car show, 2013
Pete Vigil’s 1931 Ford hot rod (on view in NM History Museum), photo Blair Clark Opposite page, top, Elliott McDowell: Fleetwood, 1976; bottom left, Hunter Barnes: Jeff, 2003; bottom middle, Norman Mauskopf: Arthur “Lowlow” Medina, Chimayó, 2003; bottom right, Kitty Leaken: Hanging out in Chimayó before cruising to Española, circa 1990