Low Riders

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Low Riders

A low rider vehicle, which can be a car, truck, motorcycle, or even a bicycle, is one that has been altered to ride very low to the road: it sits almost on the ground and has a sleek streamlined appearance. The phrase is also applied to the owners or drivers of such vehicles, who might participate in all the activities associated with low riding, such as cruising, caravanning to car shows, or just hanging out and showing off their customizing skills. The practice of customizing cars was started at least as early as the 1930s in Los Angeles and Sacramento, although the expression "low rider" did not come into usage until the 1960s, after a custom-car subculture had arisen in the Southwest, particularly in California. Low rider cars are commonly identified with Latinos and Chicanos, sometimes negatively in connection to gang activity, but there are also Anglo Americans who indulge in the practice. Traditionally, low riders have often been working-class young men from 18 to 30 who feel pride in their culture and want to maintain an outward manifestation of it in their vehicles. In doing so, many of them may be following a family tradition of two and three generations.

The customizing culture of 1950s California dictated a lowered look, originally achieved by the inelegant method of placing heavy bricks and cement bags in the trunk of the car. Other customizers began manipulating the chassis of the car by lowering the car's block or cutting the spring coils. Later it was discovered that hydraulic lifts, operated manually by the driver, could be used to lower and raise both the front and rear ends of a car, and that the batteries could be stored in the trunk. The most popular cars adapted for low riding are long ones, such as Fords, Buicks, and Chevrolets. Once the car is lowered it is considered to be "lifted" or "juiced up." Some low riders can be rocked from side-to-side by means of these lifts, creating the "car dancing" effect.

Each low rider is given its own personal style by means of different techniques that are creatively employed by their owners. Interiors are often upholstered in crushed velvet, usually red or black, with wall-to-wall carpeting. The vehicle may also be outfitted with a bar, a chandelier, a stereo, and a television. The car's two-toned body is often painted with a lacquer that contains iridescent flakes. Chrome is important for appearance, and the undercarriage, wheels, bumper, and other parts might be chrome-and/or gold-plated. The car is often adorned with cultural decorative motifs and designs, such as a fire lace design, pinstriping, or a mural. Popular mural themes include Aztec or Mayan scenes or Mexican religious icons, such as the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Cruising is an important aspect of the low-riding scene, although an expensively customized car will only be driven to car shows. The objective of cruising is to socialize, to see and be seen; it is sometimes compared el paseo, a "strolling" custom known throughout Latin American and Mexican cities.

Since the 1970s, Low Rider Magazine has been influential in disseminating information on low rider car clubs and happenings throughout the Southwest, and has even been published in a Japanese edition for car-show organizers in Tokyo and Osaka. A low rider 1969 Ford LTD, called "Dave's Dream," has been displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., the first such vehicle to be exhibited there. The car belongs to three young men from Chimayo, New Mexico, who started customizing it in 1975.

—Rafaela Castro

Further Reading:

Bright, Brenda Jo. "Remappings; Los Angeles Low Riders." In Looking High and Low: Art and Cultural Identity, edited by Brenda Jo Bright and Liza Bakewell. Tucson, Arizona, University of Arizona, 1995, 89-123.

Marks, Susan Tosaw. "Low Riding: One Road to an Ethnic Identity." Southwest Folklore. Vol. 4, No. 1, 1980, 40-50.

Plascencia, Luis F. "Low Riding in the Southwest: Cultural Symbols in the Mexican Community." In History, Culture, and Society: Chicano Studies in the 1980s, edited by Mario Garcia et al. Ypsilanti, Michigan, Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingue, 1983, 141-75.

Stone, Michael Cutler. "Bajito y Sauvecito (Low and Slow): Low Riding and the 'Class' of Class." Studies in Latin American Popular Culture. Vol. 9, 1990, 85-126.

Trillin, Calvin. "Our Far-Flung Correspondents: Low and Slow, Mean and Clean." New Yorker. July 10, 1978, 70-74.