South American Cho-Low
SOUTH AMERICAN CHO-LOW
The cholo and his lowrider have come to Brazil at last, arriving in style as a luxury import from the Chicano street culture of the American Southwest. “Alemão was the first cholo in Brazil,” says a voiceover at the start of the short documentary South American Cho-Low, which surveys the emergent lowrider scene in São Paulo. Alemão — or “The German,” a reference to his light skin and light eyes — is the nickname for Antonio Carlos Batista, a muscular, mustachioed, middle-aged, lifelong resident of São Paulo, whose love for lowriders has not only transformed his life, but has also kickstarted the formation of several lowrider clubs throughout the megacity.
A clothing designer for international brands, Batista became both a godfather and tastemaker to the nascent Brazilian car scene. He tattooed his arms in American Chicano style and began introducing new looks to his cars and his clothing. “Internet and books are things that keep you updated or help answer questions,” he says in the film. “Maintaining the cultural element is my biggest quest.”
The 16-minute documentary will be shown in a continuously looped screening at the Sunday, May 1, opening of the Museum of New Mexico exhibition Lowriders, Hoppers, and Hot Rods. Beyond the film’s endearing picture of a Brazilian lowrider club that would not look out of place in Española, filmmaker Phuong-Cac Nguyen said her documentary is “a testament to who we are as a global culture.”
Brazil isn’t the only foreign country to adopt Chicano lowrider culture. Google “lowrider” alongside Tokyo, Jakarta, or Jeddah to get a feel for how globalized the 50-year-old American Latino car culture has become. But among the world’s lowrider cultures, Brazil may be the one most obsessed with authenticity. Wearing Nike Cortez sneakers and Dickies chinos, sporting fine-line black-on-gray tattoos, and driving souped-up Monte Carlos with candy apple and purple chameleon paint jobs, the Brazilian lowriders are obsessed with recreating every last detail. They draw inspiration from magazines, American movies, YouTube sites, and visits to Los Angeles and Phoenix.
When Nguyen, the film’s director and a Los Angeles native, first encountered Brazilian lowriders during her stay in the country, she did a double-take. “When I lived in Brazil, I came across these guys in downtown São Paulo standing outside a mall popular with subcultures like hip-hop, heavy metal. They looked just like Chicanos from L.A. — the Dickies pants, the jerseys, the Nike Cortez shoes. I thought they were Mexican-American Brazilians, maybe. I was completely baffled. But I didn’t speak Portuguese at the time and didn’t get to ask them.”
Over repeated visits to downtown São Paulo, Nguyen began to see that the lowriders weren’t a fluke but an emergent movement. As her film reveals, the lure of Chicano lowrider culture went far beyond flashy cars. At its heart, lowriding is a cultural practice that lionizes working-class values — family, fraternity, and a DIY ethos of fixing and transforming your own vehicle. “They are all about family. It’s a big part of lowrider culture,” said Alfredo Ritta, the film’s producer and video editor. “We felt it was very important to include the stories of families.”
The filmmakers profile Mariana, who is not only the wife of a lowrider but an expert lowrider-bike customizer herself. “She’s a strong woman and she is a pivotal part of the lowrider club in the film,” Ritta said. In one scene, her toddler son walks through the family living room, wearing a black baseball cap with “Mexico” written across the brim in Old English lettering. Though it’s not explicitly spelled out in the film, both Ritta and Nguyen stressed the considerable expenses that come with being a lowrider in a foreign country. “It was a financial sacrifice for them. In Brazil, it is incredibly expensive to get materials to build a lowrider bike,” said Ritta, citing the country’s high import tariffs and low wages. Several subjects in the film also point out that they want to make sure that the Brazilian lowriding scene steers clear of gang affiliations that have sometimes marred the American lowrider culture. “They didn’t want to bring the blue and red dynamics of gang culture to Brazil,” said Ritta.
Of course, there’s always a rancorous debate over lowrider “realness.” “There are still rivalries between clubs over who is doing it more authentically,” Ritta added. “There’s a politics in any subculture. But what we’ve seen since the release of the film is Brazilian lowriders realizing that their clubs have to come together.”
For director Nguyen, both her film and its popularity were unforeseen outcomes when she started this project. “My background is as a print journalist. I was supposed to write a story. But it was so visual that a film made sense,” she added. “When I originally shot the film, it was just supposed to be a five-minute video. I had no idea so many people would be so interested in it. It was a happy surprise. Out of nowhere The New York Times became interested in it and wrote about it.”
It also helped that the film featured commentary from Estevan Oriol, a well-known director of rap and punk videos and a highly accomplished photographer of global street cultures. In the film, he states that he has documented lowrider clubs across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, a phenomenon that as a native Chicano Los Angeleno, he deeply appreciates,
For Ritta, the film demonstrates how much an American working-class, street culture can mean to strivers across the globe. “For most foreigners, they dream of coming to California and going to Hollywood or Disneyland. The guys in this film want to come to Los Angeles and Southern California, too. But what they want is to just hang out in Latino neighborhoods with lowriders, wait on the street corners, watch, and soak up what is going on.”