Telling the lowrider story


Pasatiempo - - NEWS -

Son­nie Jaramillo has al­ways been into cars. As a kid in the 1950s, he spent Satur­day af­ter­noons at a hobby shop in down­town Santa Fe, com­pet­ing in model car shows. “It was by where The Shed is now, that area with por­tales. Th­ese two ladies owned it,” he told Pasatiempo. “I bought model cars there and chopped them down. I used to win.”

When Jaramillo was in the sev­enth grade, a new stu­dent from Texas, one year older and with no driver’s li­cense, would drive his mother’s sil­ver Fast­back Corvette to school. Jaramillo knew he had to own a car like that some­day. He learned all he could about cars from his fa­ther, his fam­ily, and friends in Santa Fe and in Chi­mayó, where his mother grew up, but mostly he taught him­self. He bought his first Corvette, a 1965 Stingray, when he was seventeen. “In to­tal I’ve owned 14 Corvettes. I like the older gen­er­a­tion of Corvettes — the Stingrays and Fast­backs.”

Jaramillo’s 1948 Chevy Fleet­line is in­cluded in Lowrid­ers, Hop­pers, and Hotrods at the New Mex­ico His­tory Mu­seum. Pho­tos of him and record­ings of his voice are in­cluded in an oral-his­tory com­po­nent of the ex­hi­bi­tion cre­ated by doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­pher Don Us­ner and Mered­ith David­son, cu­ra­tor of 19th- and 20th-cen­tury South­west col­lec­tions at the mu­seum. They recorded in­ter­views with mak­ers of lowrid­ers from Santa Fe, Al­bu­querque, Chi­mayó, Las Ve­gas, and Es­pañola. Edited au­dio from those in­ter­views plays in the en­try­way to the ex­hi­bi­tion as Us­ner’s pho­to­graphs are dis­played on elec­tronic screens.

Fred Rael from Es­pañola also took part in the oral-his­tory project. His fully cus­tom­ized 1967 Chevy Im­pala Con­vert­ible Supersport, named Liq­uid Sun­shine for its vi­brant orange paint job, was on the cover of Lowrider mag­a­zine in 2012 and has won nu­mer­ous best-in-show awards at car shows in Las Ve­gas, Den­ver, and else­where. Rael has been into cars for as long as he can re­mem­ber. “When I was five years old, we’d go on fam­ily trips and I could pretty much name ev­ery car on the road — if it was a Chevy, a Ford, or a Dodge.”

Lowrid­ers were ev­ery­where in Es­pañola in the 1970s. Rael fell in love. When he was in the sec­ond grade, he drew pic­tures of lowrid­ers and sold them to his friends. As soon as he was old enough, he rode his bi­cy­cle to the car wash on Sun­days to watch all the guys get­ting ready to cruise. He turned his bike into a lowrider when he was four­teen, and a year later he bought his first car: a 1971 Volk­swa­gen Bee­tle. Since then he has owned and built 15 lowrid­ers of his own and helped friends and fam­ily build 20 more. He is al­most al­ways work­ing on a car, tak­ing pride in fin­ish­ing ev­ery part of it, down to the nuts, bolts, and un­der­side, whether or not any­one will get down to look. He has re­built one 1964 Chevy Im­pala con­vert­ible three times. “The joy is mak­ing it as nice as you could pos­si­bly make it, to where you don’t see any­thing wrong with it and it’s just nice,” he said. “I don’t know if you’d call it a joy or an ob­ses­sion or a la­bor. When you’re do­ing it, it’s like, ‘What did I get my­self into?’ You start with a simple project and then it snow­balls to a grander scale, and you’re do­ing so much work that a one-year project turns into three years, or a two-year project turns into six.”

Rael and Jaramillo both look at cars they want and eas­ily en­vi­sion how they will change them, think­ing in three di­men­sions about the fin­ished prod­uct, much like a sculp­tor, and putting in the same kind of time all ded­i­cated artists de­vote to the thing they love. Rael is a main­te­nance su­per­vi­sor at Brook­dale Se­nior Liv­ing in Santa Fe. He saves for years and then throws ev­ery­thing in his bank ac­count at his next project. When his bank ac­count is empty, he moves on to credit cards. He is pres­i­dent of Pres­ti­gious Car Club, a group of like-minded friends who work on projects and at­tend car shows to­gether. The qual­ity of their cars has af­forded them some ca­chet on the car show cir­cuit, but Rael ex­plained that even win­ning top prizes doesn’t off­set the cost of build­ing lowrid­ers. Money is no ob­ject to him. “Ev­ery­one has a pas­sion, and mine is cars. I al­ways try to do the best job I pos­si­bly can at work so I can af­ford th­ese mas­ter­pieces. I’m will­ing to spend $50,000 on a restora­tion.”

Jaramillo was less forth­com­ing about the fi­nan­cial as­pects of build­ing lowrid­ers, ex­plain­ing that he does it just for him­self and as a way to be closer to his son, Gabe, who died from can­cer in 2011, when he was twenty-three. He works in a small garage among a clus­ter of garages on Clark Road in Santa Fe, but the only cars he works on, other than his own, be­long

to friends and fam­ily. Many of his cars are painted by lowrider artist Rob Van­der­slice, whom Jaramillo calls a close friend and a very gifted per­son. “He painted my son’s car, a Chrysler 300. That one’s all Van­der­sliced out.” Though Jaramillo still at­tends car shows, his par­tic­i­pa­tion has de­creased since Gabe died. He is re­tired from a 34-year ca­reer as a pro­duce man, most re­cently at Whole Foods. Now he wants to pass on his skills to a new gen­er­a­tion, and he wishes the city of Santa Fe would al­low cruis­ing down­town again. Though the decades-old tra­di­tion was banned sev­eral years ago, he said, all it would take is a des­ig­nated date and time — and for the po­lice depart­ment to al­low it. “There’s noth­ing to do in Santa Fe for the kids. They’re cruis­ing around and the po­lice pro­file them and pull them over, but all they’re do­ing is driv­ing around, show­ing off their rides. I’d still like to cruise around and show peo­ple what I have.”

The Santa Fe cruis­ing cul­ture was never as big as Es­pañola’s, but even in the city that has been called “the lowrider cap­i­tal of the world,” cruis­ing is not as prom­i­nent as it once was. Rael doesn’t think this is a re­sult of po­lice crack­downs and traf­fic bar­ri­ers, but be­cause the younger gen­er­a­tion is more in­ter­ested in gad­gets and gam­ing than driv­ing around on the week­ends. “And the rest of us older guys, we have fam­i­lies and kids. We can’t be out cruis­ing un­til 2 o’clock in the morn­ing.”

As for lowrid­ers be­ing en­shrined as part of New Mex­ico’s of­fi­cial his­tory in a mu­seum, both men are thrilled. “That makes it ma­jor, the equiv­a­lent of some­one mak­ing up a word, and that word mak­ing it into Web­ster’s Dic­tionary,” Rael said.

“You know the Plaza Café?” Jaramillo asked. “We used to call ahead, and they would save us park­ing spa­ces out front and the front booth, so we could watch our cars. We would take like three of them down there. Peo­ple would swarm all over them and take pic­tures, and my son would go out­side and they would ask him ques­tions. We did a lot to­gether, me and him. He started work­ing on cars with me when he was twelve or thirteen. I would take a month off ev­ery sum­mer and we would go to Cal­i­for­nia. We’d get over to Flagstaff and get on I-17 to Phoenix, and I’d let him drive. The win­dows were tinted and all that.”

He rolled up his sleeves and showed off two tat­toos. On his right fore­arm is a por­trait of Gabe. On his left fore­arm is a cross with Gabe’s name on it. “I pray to the Lord a lot. I pray to my son a lot. I tell my son, Gabe, you know what? We’re not in car shows as much as we were when you were here, but you know what, son? We’re in a mu­seum now.”


Jen­nifer Levin

The New Mex­i­can

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