Pasatiempo - - ART FEAST - Casey Sanchez

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.”


Denise Chávez



Cholla Jaws,


Zoot Suiters, 2016; photos Daniel Zolin­sky

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