December 4, 2023

A lowrider car cruises in Tolleson in May 2021. (David Ulloa/Downtown Devil)

It’s a summer night in 2020 on Grand Avenue with the funky beats of “Don’t Stop the Rock” echoing from one end of the street to the other.

“Bombs,” lowriders, lowrider bikes and custom cars cruise down Grand Avenue and light up the street with candy-colored neon lights.

Originally only seen in the Latino communities, lowrider car culture has gone from cruising the streets of the Southwestern United States to cruising the streets of countries across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, including England and Japan. Throughout the expansion across the globe, lowrider and car culture has impacted generations of artists and media representation.

“It also has to do with the idea of how we form our identity, those of us who grew up in the Southwest, car culture is part of the way we form our identity,” said Gilbert Vicario, the curator of “Desert Rider,” a car culture exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum. Vicario’s curation of the exhibit, which includes lowriders, showcased the Latinx and Indigenous artistic perspectives of car culture in the American Southwest.

Lowrider vehicles are characterized by their lowered bodies, unique paint colors, and often American-made vehicle types such as Chevrolets, Cadillacs or Buicks.

Jimmy Arbizu said he likes all cars, but his lifestyle is the lowrider. Arbizu is the president of the Intruders Car Club for lowrider vehicles in the Southwestern United States and Japan.

Intruders Car Club was established in 1976 in Arizona as the first lowrider car club in the state, Arbizu said. The car club had over twenty members and included Joe Taos, Gerald Barela, Tony Barela, and Mark Orosco in 1976, but in 1994, Tony Barela, and nephew Gerald Barela, re-established the Intruders Car Club with ten other members, according to the Intruders Car Club Facebook page.

Arbizu said there were other car clubs in Arizona that had lowriders but Intruders Car Club was the first car club in Arizona to feature lowriders exclusively.

With a chapter in Colorado and two affiliate chapters in Japan, Intruders Car Club is one of the largest car clubs in Arizona, according to its Facebook page.

Arbizu said the fact that lowrider culture started within Latino communities and expanded to other countries such as Australia and Iran is something to take pride in.

“Just because the Latinos came up with the lowrider style, it shouldn’t be Latinos only,” Arbizu said.

Gabe Lopez, a member of Intruders, is amazed by the embrace of lowrider culture and the embracement of Chicano culture as a whole in Japan.

Even though lowrider culture had expanded worldwide, it had its fair share of hurdles, according to Arbizu.

Also known as the “no cruising law,” Phoenix has a city ordinance that prohibits people from passing a traffic control point more than three times within a two-hour period and/or cruising within posted “no cruising” areas to prevent traffic congestion and obstruction/lack of access to streets, according to the City of Phoenix website.

By following the specifics laid out in the ordinance, Arbizu said Intruders Car Club did not break the law when it used to cruise Grand Avenue in downtown Phoenix.

Many businesses impacted by cruising events were not connected to the lowrider culture, according to Arbizu, and therefore, did not make money from the events in that area, Arbizu said, “if they’re not making money off the Latinos … they’re not happy.”

Both Arbizu and Lopez said they grew up with lowriders.

Arbizu and Lopez’s close ties with lowrider culture align with the idea of growing up with car culture in the Southwest and forming an identity with it.

Lopez learned about cars growing up and recalled the story about how his dad won his mom over with his 1959 Chevy convertible. This experience is different from how Lopez bought his first Chevy Impala.

During Lopez’s early twenties, he mentioned that his father took him to place a bet at the dog races, and Lopez had only three numbers in his mind that he would then place on his bet. Lopez said his father had placed the winning bet, and Lopez bought his first Chevy Impala (a 1974 model) with the money his dad won that day. Lopez did not have the car for long, but as he got older and started working, Lopez said he always had a car that he was working on.

Like Arbizu, Lopez likes all cars, but his preference is lowriders because he was taught about lowriders.

Lopez said his preference is classic cars, specifically the lowriders called “Bombs,” rather than the lowriders that feature hydraulics.

“Bombs” are a type of vehicle that feature all original parts, do not use hydraulics, ride low, and have the rounded designs seen in vehicles from the 1930s and ‘40s.

According to Lowrider magazine, an automobile magazine focused almost exclusively on lowriders, “Bombs” are American cars that were manufactured in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s that became popular within lowrider communities.

Lopez said these cars got the name “Bombs” from the air-raid-like sirens that they use when they go cruising. Rather than indicating an air-raid, Lopez said the sirens indicate “here we come.”

Lopez said his 1935 Chevy Master placed third in the category 1930s Original at the Arizona Super Show, a car show that features classic and custom vehicles, according to their event page.

Lowriders, in part, allowed car culture to flourish from niche cultures in specific communities to being put up on display at art museums.

Artist Margarita Cabrera’s installation “Agua que no has de beber dejala correr” (“Water That You Should Not Drink, Let It Run”) at the Desert Rider exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum in April 2022. (Maya Badman/Downtown Devil)

On April 24, 2022, the Phoenix Art Museum opened its doors to feature the “Desert Rider” exhibit curated by Vicario that has aspects of femininity, perspective and generational changes in the Southwest, according to its website. The exhibit features works from mainly Latinx and Indigenous artists who understand that Arizona is a state “deeply connected to the border and to Mexico,” Vicario said.

Artist Margarita Cabrera said that her installation “Agua que no has de beber dejala correr” (“Water That You Should Not Drink, Let It Run”) featured the representation of immigrant and Indigenous communities that are forced into the cheap labor workforce.

Cabrera’s installation noted the use of commodities in the United States such as Hummer vehicles, popular in the United States to indicate a wealthy status symbol from buyers, that are created by vulnerable communities that have no other option for work, Cabrera said.

Forced labor and migrant labor in the United States impact people of any age, gender, or race, according to the Gender Based Violence Resource Library. Forced labor is “prevalent in industries that have high demands for low wages and minimal or no regulation of the working conditions,” according to its website.

The Desert Rider exhibit uses car culture to express the deeper meaning of issues afflicting the Latinx and Indigenous communities.

Douglas Miles focused his artwork on Indigenous communities, while some of the influence of his exhibit came from lowrider culture and Chicano art, Miles said. The exhibit focused on aspects of skateboarding, which originated from skateboard companies that would skate in South Phoenix and other marginalized communities in the southwestern United States to film and photograph, Miles said.

“Somebody needs to tell them; you come, you shoot, you film, you photograph; but you’re skating on native land. Don’t ever forget that. … At one time it was all native land, and that’s what this [exhibit] means,” Miles said.

The curation of the “Desert Rider” exhibit also provided the perspectives of these Latinx and Indigenous artists to create connections and inclusivity within car culture and femininity, Vicario said.

Liz Cohen provided a chromogenic print from 2012 titled “Lowrider Builder and Child” and the vehicle within the picture to emphasize femininity in lowrider culture within the Southwest, according to the Phoenix Art Museum website.

Cohen worked with the piece for nearly a decade, explaining that “the car uses lowrider technology, basically hydraulics, to get longer and shorter,” Cohen said.

Cohen had grown up in the Southwest and in a post-World War II era, which caused her to be “exposed to lots of different types of car culture, and become very interested in lowriding,” Cohen said.

The car featured in Cohen’s exhibit and within the photograph had originally been a Trabant car built during the socialist era in East Germany.

“The car to me, and to many people, is really a symbol of the Soviet era and the idea of being very resourceful and making great technology with little resources,” Cohen said.

Connections and inclusivity can also be noted in the generational differences between the artists featured in “‘Desert Rider,’” Vicario said.

Featured artist Liz Cohen is noted as familiar to a lot of university students and faculty because of Cohen’s survey at the Arizona State University Art Museum, and her work integrates viewers at the museum into the 2000s generation, Vicario said.

Featured artist Carlotta Boettcher integrated herself into car culture throughout the 1970s and 1980 in an auto body shop, which meant often she was the only woman, Vicario said.

In the 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics, data provided relates the low percentage of women with careers in the automotive industry. Relatively, 2.4% of automotive body and related repairers were women, and in the automotive service technician and mechanic field, women account for 2.3% of employed people.

Through the artistic work, guests at the art museum are able to understand the connection between the two generations of Cohen and Boettcher within car culture, Vicario said.

Generational trends and changes in relation to lowrider vehicles are articulated through Johnny Lozoya, one of the original pioneer staff members for Lowrider magazine.

Lozoya had been integrated with car clubs since 1972, and joined Lowrider magazine in 1978, Lozoya said.

Mom and pop networks had been known within the Latino community as retail outlets, and he would deliver Lowrider magazines across the mom and pop shops throughout the southwestern region, Lozoya said.

The magazine does not exist anymore, “but there’s nothing like tearing out a picture of your vehicle and putting it on the wall,” Lozoya said.

Newer generations that are accustomed to the online world aren’t able to replicate that feeling, Lozoya said.

Paired with the loss of magazines was the loss of connection to the Southwestern car culture communities, and once the Lowrider magazine had been sold to corporate entities “it lost the strengths of the communities, and it lost the link to the communities,” Lozoya said.

The magazine had been a form of connection and communication that gave communities an opportunity to share their work and love for the lowrider culture, Lozoya said.

“In our community, we have to support everything and everyone,” Lozoya said.

Previous Lowrider magazines can be found across the internet, and the old and new generations of car culture enthusiasts are working together to become a “voice for the voiceless” among the diverse communities that are now able to engage in car culture, Lozoya said.

Through the change in generations, Lozoya said the lowrider culture “started off in the backyards of the Southwest has now transcended worldwide.”

Contact the reporters at [email protected] and [email protected].


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