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Low Riders -- A Contemporary Folk Art Form

Low rider cars have been a part of the American Southwestern cultural scene for several decades now. They are late model (or just postwar) automobiles that have been specially lowered, usually with hydraulic lifts at each wheel so that any corner of the car may be raised and lowered at will. They are then given customized paint jobs and frequently redecorated in their interiors to achieve a high degree of luxury. Metal flake paint, murals and etched windows, swivel seats, deep pile upholstery and tiny steering wheels made of chrome chain links are all common features of low riders.

PELON #1 classic low rider, photographed near San Xavier Mission in March, 1984.
PELON #1 classic low rider, photographed near San Xavier Mission in March, 1984.
When classic cars are turned into low riders, they usually are not seriously modified inside or out.
[image courtesy of James S. Griffith]

Steering wheel made of chrome chain links
Steering wheel made of chrome chain links. A fairly plain interior with a complex chain-link steering wheel, this low rider was photographed at the Tucson Meet Yourself folklife festival in October, 1990
[image courtesy of James S. Griffith]

Although low riders are most commonly associated with Chicanos, members of other cultures own, design, and build low riders. In fact, one of the early prime movers of low riding in Tucson was an African American who goes by the nickname of "Big O." Low rider owners often form clubs for mutual assistance and encouragement, and for social activities. These clubs quite often try to raise the status of low riding in the public eye by engaging in community-oriented charitable activities. One club, for instance, was active in anti-drug education; another offered its classic cars for the cost of cleaning and gasoline for the use of wedding processions.

Low rider pickup tilted for display, la Fiesta del Presidio, April, 1990
Low rider pickup tilted for display, la Fiesta del Presidio, April, 1990
[image courtesy of James S. Griffith]

For it must be recognized that low riding in general has received a bad press from the mainstream culture of the Southwest. Whether this is caused by the inconvenience and frustration experienced by motorists when stuck behind a low rider cruising one of the main streets at five miles an hour, or whether it stems from a generalized distrust and fear of Chicano youth, or from other roots altogether, I do not know. The fact remains that local newspapers have been known to equate "low rider" with "youth gang," and that in some communities in California the cars are illegal (supposedly because of safety reasons). The most telling point is that in the Southwest in general, an area that thrives on marketing every possible kind of art, especially art produced by ethnic minorities, there have been no art books and almost no magazine articles produced which deal with these colorful and truly elegant forms of traditional art.

For traditional they are. A good case can be made for low riders, and especially low riders as displayed in car shows, are assembled and organized according to the same set of aesthetic principles as the great baroque churches of 18th Century Mexico. Even the often-complained-about teenage custom of "cruising" has its very old-fashioned parallel in the plazas of Mexico on a Saturday evening, where young men and women, dressed in their best, promenade slowly in opposite directions, establishing eye contact but not speaking to each other.

"Low and slow, mean and clean," is the low rider aesthetic as stated from inside the culture.

This late model car epitomizes the low rider look - low and slow, mean and clean.
This late model car epitomizes the low rider look - "low and slow, mean and clean."
[image courtesy of James S. Griffith]

One Chicano poet has called them "butterflies with transmissions." An elderly Anglo-American lady in Tucson has compared them with "Sunday horses." An increasing number of scholars are coming to think of them as contemporary statements of an impulse towards the baroque which is deeply seated in Mexican and Mexican American culture. However one describes them, they are a particularly exciting part of the Southwestern scene, adding brilliance and opulence (if an occasional touch of frustration) to our public streets. Long may they roll!

View video clips of low rider cars and hear participants discuss their involvement in the Tucson community.

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