The Social Significance of ‘Lowriders’

The airbrushed murals. The candy paint. The warm breeze that slaps you across the face when the hydraulic pump springs you high into the heavens, all as curious onlookers gather on the corner to point and admire.

Yes, nothing beats the excitement and attention you get when bouncing up and down the crowded boulevard in a swooped up lowrider.

I know this, of course, because I’ve owned my fair share of lowriders. My first car was a 1967 Chevy Impala with baby blue vinyl interior. My second car was a dropped 1990 Lincoln Continental that scraped the pavement when pulling into a gas station. And my first bike was a modified Schwinn with gold plated forks and mirrors (I was too broke to afford real gold, of course).

But contrary to perception, lowriding was about more than chopped suspension coils and white wall tires. Like many Mexican-Americans, it was about pride, family, community, la razapreserving an outlet to compete and express cultural heritage through art. As journalist Ted West once wrote, lowriders “express the refusal of a young Chicano American to be Anglicized. There has never been a clearer case of the automobile being used as an ethnic statement.”

So with this in mind, it should come as no surprise lowrider enthusiasts are buzzing about the new movie “Lowriders,” a film that explores the vibrant, and often misunderstood, relationship between Mexican-American and lowrider culture. Backed by Telemundo Films and Imagine, it will be Universal Pictures’ first film in a new push to tap into the growing Latino movie market.

According to the Motion Picture Association Of America, Latinos currently make up 23 percent of all moviegoers, generating $2.6 billion in ticket sales in 2015 alone. But spending power aside, the film signifies something more socially significant for lowrider enthusiasts like myself in the Mexican-American community: The long awaited mainstream acceptance of Chicano and lowrider culture, both which have influenced everything from government to pop music over the decades.

Despite the widespread popularity and influence of lowriders, only a handful of films to date have explored or captured Mexican-American subculture on the big screen (“Mi Familia,” “La Mission,” “Mi Vida Loca,” “Blood In Blood Out,” “Boulevard Nights,” to name a few). However, most of these films—with the exception of “Mi Familia”—focused on the more negative aspects of Chicano culture. Few focused on cars with the exception of “La Mission” and “Boulevard Nights.” And none managed to generate the kind of attention and hype “Lowriders” has received.

Perhaps nowhere has lowriding remained more popular than out west. From Chicano Park in San Diego, to Whittier Boulevard and Elysian Park in Los Angeles, to Shute Park and Legion Park in Oregon, lowriders not only originated in the densely populated Mexican-American towns of the west during the 1940s, but continue to thrive through annual car shows and competitions across the United States.

The economic benefit is undeniable. California alone is home to hundreds of businesses that specialize in pinstriping, airbrushing, upholstery and hydraulic pumps. Such businesses have provided incomes for thousands of families, created jobs and promoted solidarity among Mexican-Americans.

The spirit has transcended generations. For many Latinos in the lowrider community, customizing cars has become a family affair, a chance to banter and bond—for fathers to pass knowledge and skill sets down to their sons. One might think of it as a modern twist on the old Soap Box Derby races of the 1950s. Likewise, lowrider competitions between families and rival body shops not only serve as an outlet and escape from the lure of gangs, but a way to channel and showcase talent.

I’ve seen the benefits firsthand. In the town where my family lives, for example, local lowrider clubs work with city officials each year to organize a lowrider parade through downtown. The event, which lasts three days and celebrates Mexican culture, concludes with traditional bands, music and food.

But unfortunately, lowriders are often viewed in a negative light. Rather than associate lowriders with work ethic and family, Americans often associate them with poverty, rap music or street gangs, negating the very real socioeconomic value car competitions bring to working class, predominately minority communities. “Lowriders,” at least in part, aims to change that perception, while starring a predominantly Latino film cast and depicting how diverse Latinos actually are.

Of course, none of this means lowriders don’t have their downsides. Getting pulled over by police is a daily occurrence. Hydraulic pumps occasionally fail. And customizing engines takes a lot of time and effort. But in the age of “Fast And Furious,” who really needs more speed? Lowriding, after all, isn’t something to be ashamed of. On the contrary, it’s something to gravitate toward and take pride in—a peaceful recreational activity that creates a sense of accomplishment and camaraderie.

It is, to say the least, one of America’s most dynamic underground traditions. And for those of us who value that tradition, seeing it finally acknowledged on the big screen feels strangely satisfying, if not long overdue.

This essay was written by Brandon Loran Maxwell and originally appeared at Bold in 2017.