THAT SLOW SOUTHERN STYLE
LOWRIDERS IN THE BORDERLANDS
the New Mexico History Museum, there’s an important caveat lurking in the title of its popular, summer-spanning exhibit Lowriders, Hoppers, and Hot Rods: Car Culture of Northern New Mexico. Hint: It’s the word “Northern.”
“Let’s face it,” said Denise Chávez, a well-known author from Las Cruces and tireless promoter of southern New Mexico borderland culture. “There are various New Mexicos.” Down south in Las Cruces, some 300 miles south of Española, a lively lowrider culture has been flourishing for decades. But elsewhere in the state, few New Mexicans have taken notice.
Chávez hopes to rectify that situation with a presentation called “¡”rale! Border Low & Border Slow,” a regional take on the museum exhibit’s display of the work done by New Mexico Hispanos, who use a mix of automotive and aesthetic skills to create and modify classic American cars. The event will take place on Sunday, June 19, at the New Mexico History Museum as part of a summerlong series of events celebrating the museum’s Lowriders exhibit. Chávez’s talk — presented in tandem with a collection of Las Cruces-area lowrider culture images taken by her husband Daniel Zolinksy, a fine-art photographer — will compare and contrast the state’s southern lowrider scene with the car culture of its northern nexus, Española. “Lowrider culture can be presented so glossy. I want to show the grit,” Chávez told Pasatiempo.
Like all lowrider car cultures, the scene in Las Cruces is suffused with nostalgia. After all, restoring a classic car is, in many ways, a way of rehabilitating the past — of letting another era live again, albeit through candy-apple paint jobs and finely polished rims. Speaking very broadly, Española’s lowrider culture looks toward the 1970s and early 1980s, when the roads were ruled by the decadent land yachts of Caprices, Impalas, and Monte Carlos, with their wood-grained steering wheels and hoods the length of queen-sized beds. While such cars remain prestigious in Las Cruces as well, the southern city’s car clubs have their own love affair with 1940s and 1950s steel horses. Think of midcentury America and its commanding Buick Roadmasters and Cadillac Fastback coupes, distinguished by their torpedo-like bodies and audacious steel grilles.
According to Chávez, Las Cruces lowrider enthusiasts like showing off restored versions of these vehicles at car shows, often dressed in the era’s Chicano zootsuit and Mexican-American pachuco outfits. Earlier this month, the Zoot Suit Pachanga with Classic Car Show, held in the city’s historic Mesquite neighborhood, featured restored cars from as far back as the 1920s. Many attendees, who ranged from toddlers to octogenarians, strolled the grounds in fedoras and pegged dress slacks while Bobby and The Premiers, a well-regarded El Paso band, played 1950s and ’60s soul and R& B anthems. “Elders and families come out to watch lowrider shows here,” Chávez said. “You get the intergenerational energy.”
Perhaps the older cars and clothes are just a regional variation in taste. But it also helps that the area’s year-round warm, arid climate preserves these vehicles like few other regions in the U.S. can. Remarking on her hometown, Chávez said, “The language in Las Cruces is different. The space is different. We don’t clump up as much as the people up north in New Mexico because the weather is different. We can spread out. It’s warmer.” One other key difference, Chávez noted, is
Las Cruces’ proximity to Mexico,
just about 40 miles away, as well as to the nearby metropolis of El Paso, which radiates borderland energy. “Mexican culture is southern New Mexico culture. It’s different here. Most people in Northern New Mexico would say they are Spanish,” said the author. “But there’s a real mestizaje here, a little green chile from Hatch, a little border twist.”
It’s not that Chávez has anything against Española. If she had to live anywhere in the state besides Las Cruces, the halfway point on the High Road to Taos would be her first pick. In fact, in the late 1990s, she says became enchanted with Española while teaching at what was then Northern New Mexico Community College for a couple of years. Beyond her teaching duties, she also had a chance to become acquainted with the town’s lowrider culture. “I fell in love with the people and the culture there,” Chávez said. “Out-of-the-way places are what I’m interested in.”
But she knows her heart belongs to Las Cruces. For decades now, the author has been singing the ballad of southern New Mexico through her several award-winning novels, which include Loving Pedro Infante (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002) and Face of An Angel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994), as well as her food-infused memoir A Taco Testimony: Meditations on Family, Food and Culture (Río Nuevo, 2006). Her most recent novel, The King and Queen of Comezón (University of Oklahoma Press, 2014) is a nearly cinematic depiction of small-town southern New Mexico customs, lore, and family relations.
Chávez promotes the region as much as she writes about it. From 1995 to 2015, she oversaw the Border Book Festival, a springtime celebration of the region’s borderland literary culture. With her husband, she also runs Casa Camino Real, a hybrid art gallery, community meeting space, and bookstore that specializes in books about Chicano culture, border history, and settler families of New Mexico.
She hopes the talk at the New Mexico History Museum will spur more interest in her hometown. Las Cruces is New Mexico’s second-largest city, but few would know that from campaigns catering to tourists. “Everything is centered around Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Down here, we really understand what it is to be multicultural,” Chavez said. “We are New Mexico. Lo nuestro, it’s ours.”
“LOWRIDER CULTURE CAN BE PRESENTED SO GLOSSY. I WANT TO SHOW THE GRIT.”
Zoot Suiters, 2016; photos Daniel Zolinsky