Telling the lowrider story
TELLING THE LOWRIDER STORY
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.”
I DON’T KNOW IF YOU’D CALL IT A JOY OR AN OBSESSION OR A LABOR. WHEN YOU’RE DOING IT, ’ , “INTO?” YOU START WITH A SIMPLE PROJECT AND THEN IT SNOWBALLS TO A GRANDER SCALE.— FRED RAEL
The New Mexican