February 24, 2006

That’s not a naked woman; that’s my wife!

Car museum gives lowrider image a buff and shine

By J.D. Hawk

When a car show became hesitant to showcase a lowrider car with a nude woman painted on it, Dr. Denise Sandoval asked the car’s owner why he had never brought it to her attention before. “That’s not any woman,” he said. “That’s my wife.”

The record-breaking crowd laughed as Sandoval told the story at the San Diego Automotive Museum (SDAM) in Balboa Park on Feb. 16 about context and cultural perspective. The car owner’s wife was older now and she appreciated her youthful image being frozen in time for others to admire, Sandoval explained.

Record setting crowds are attending the Lowrider car show at Automotive Museum. Photo by David Lopez.

Sandoval, asst. professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at California State University, Northridge, believes lowriders have gotten a bad rap and dominant media have it all wrong. “What are some of the perceptions we have of lowriders in the dominant media?” Sandoval asked.

“They are all just a bunch of gang members,” said one audience member.

“They steal all their parts,” called out still another.

“They are under the influence,” a third voice claimed.

The chuckles followed that helped lighten the serious tone.

No mention was made of the charity work, political activism or summertime BBQs that lowriders put on that help strengthen and reinforce community bonds.

Sandoval, the SDAM, and local Chicano activist are doing their part to change that image of what she called the “beer-drinking, pot-smoking” lowrider that the media is guilty of promoting and that many others might have of the lowrider.

Sandoval did her doctorial thesis on lowriding, and in the process collected story after story of lowriders’ culture, art and history – mostly of Lowriders Los Angeles. It had to be a difficult task as there is very little written about it. But she read every issue of Lowrider Magazine, read the few books that have the recorded history and interviewed many lowrider clubs that still exist. The result was a presentation that impressed the socks off of even local lowriding legend Rigo Reyes of the San Diego Amigos Car Club – the county’s oldest active lowriding club, and the SDAM education director Kenn Colcalasure.

“I was very pleased. The points that she made are exactly the points we are trying to make here with our exhibit: it’s not just cars.” said Colclasure. “Cars represent everything in society from art, music, design and style, technology and economic well-being.”

A slideshow and movie presented by Sandoval and the SDAM educated the audience with indepth analysis of the lowrider life not really addressed anywhere else. The lowrider club represents more than just a hobby but a second family and extension of the individual. So close is this bond that Sandoval said it even supersedes the traditional family unit in some cases.

Lowriding is a way to express oneself and tell a story. Sandoval’s slideshow included a car with a mural of two brothers. The brothers had overcome their addiction to drugs and alcohol through their dedication to their cars, a testament to the positive potential lowriding has.

Sandoval’s grievances with mainstream society is evident as she pulls no punches when it comes to newspapers, magazines movies, calling the L.A. media’s coverage of the zoot suit riots as “straight-out racist” and questioning the use of attractive bikini clad women by various entities to increase sales.

Dr. Denise Sandoval

Local artist and Chicano activist Victor Ochoa agrees and shared his own example of dealing with mainstream society’s perceptions. Years ago, while visiting Washington D.C. he decided to go to the Smithsonian Museum to research Zoot Suiters, the forerunners to the lowriding culture. After a two-hour search for zoot suit items that he knew were there, and with the aide of an employee, he was shocked to finally locate them under the category “Juvenile Delinquency.”

Ochoa also echoed Sandoval’s concern with the use or abuse of the female image in lowrider art saying it was an issue they are aware of and trying to deal with for the future.

But one might be tempted to believe that even negative publicity is good publicity.

The truth is that lowriding culture is actually spreading in popularity, both around the world yet again locally — bad image, good image or indifferent. According to Colclasure, Sandoval’s presence and presentation on lowrider culture brought in 129 people, the most in recent history to hear a lecturer. Weekend attendance has also spiked since the lowrider cars have been displayed, also breaking recent records. The only thing stopping Colclasure from claiming he’s sure that all-time attendance records weren’t being broken is that nobody has recorded them since 1988. Who would know? “Off the top of my head….nobody.”

With so much focus being on the lowrider image, it might be easy to forget about the actual cars. But the auto-maniacs were there in full force as well. An automotive class from San Diego City College gawked in admiration at the fine details in the many low-rider cars currently on display as an unnamed automotive instructor pointed at different areas of each vehicle, explaining how the creators of these rolling sculptures most likely put them together and the many hours of work involved to pull off such feats.

The lowrider theme currently on display at the SDAM includes many memorabilia from the lowrider-sponsored dances the 1970s, a sculpture from local artist and Ochoa, cars from Amigos Car Club, and perhaps the most famous attraction in the museum right now, a 1964 Chevy Impala called Gypsy Rose from the 1970s TV show “Chico and the Man”.

Marcos Arellano a service technician at Jack Harrison Buick and Amigos Car Club member has his car displayed at the SDAM. As an obvious automobile-lover, nobody could be more proud of the renewed interest in lowrider cars. Arellano even said that the human bodies of lowriders are physiologically different from all other human beings. “When we bleed, we bleed hydraulic fluid,” he claims.

Arellano has a slightly different take on the role of the media in lowrider culture. He loves the world-wide attention the media has given to the movement. It is virtually guaranteeing the immortality of the culture. But he admits that worldwide success and exposure has come with a price, both figuratively and literally. The price of a good lowrider car used to be $7,000 to $8,000 when he was growing up. “Then something happened when the Japanese said, ‘Hey, I want to get into this lowrider thing. I want that car,’” he said. “They’d offer you $20,000 for a car you knew wasn’t worth that much, and you’d say ‘okay!’ It was good because you were selling the car but then when you go back to buy another car, you’re in trouble.”

All the prices associated with lowriding technology went up across the board. Whereas a lowrider use to have to be a person that dedicatedly and painstakingly made phone calls searching for the right parts, going to junk yards and taking parts from locomotives and airplanes to incorporate with the car, now one only need in extra $50,000 to $100,000 and access to e-bay. This has changed the whole formula – a yuppie could be a lowrider.

There is very little on the history of lowriding available. The stories of lowriders and the facts about lowriding change from person to person and place to place, often in conflict with each other and open to different interpretations. For this reason, Reyes asks everyone involved in lowriding car clubs to record as much as possible for the future, and it makes what Sandoval and the SDAM that more impressive.

Both Reyes and Ochoa are scheduled to speak on the lowrider culture on March 16. For more information call (619) 231-2886.

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