A cruise through lowrider his­tory in New Mex­ico


Pasatiempo - - NEWS -

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

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