- "De español e india, produce mestizo" (Of a Spanish man and an Amerindian woman, a Mestizo is produced).
- "De tente en el aire y mulato, sale no te entiendo" (From stand-on-the-air man and a Mulatto, an I-do-not-understand-you is obtained).
- “De troka y Chevy sale El Camino” (From a pick-up truck and a Chevy is begotten an El Camino).
- “De El Camino y Trabant produce Trabantimino” (Of an El Camino and a Trabant, a Trabantamino is produced).
Sexual contact among Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans occurred in the Americas as early as the sixteenth century and in most cases not out of love. From it, mixed people were born. Spaniards tried to develop a complex hierarchic taxonomic system called “castas” to organize their colonial social structure to favor themselves. Mestizos, Mulattos, and others mixed among themselves, combining and recombining and thus creating new multiracial categories that became hard to distinguish and understand. Such was the “No te entiendo” (which literally means “I do not understand you”) that was the result of a “Tente en el aire” (hold in the air) and Mulatto. The “Tente en el aire” was the combination of “Calpamulato” and “Cambujo.” “Calpamulato” came from “Zambaigo” and “Lobo.” “Zambaigo” was produced from Spanish and Chinese, etc. Paintings were commissioned to illustrate and explain the scheme.
In a no less absurd racial system in Anglo America, all these categories are now labeled as “Hispanic.” Spaniards started these classifications to distinguish themselves and now are lumped together and mistaken with “Brown” people of indigenous ancestry and “Black” people of African descent. There are other labels for people of Asian and African descent, but people of other European origin are labeled as “White” or “Caucasian” without any ethnic or geographic questioning of their American belonging. There is a category called “Other” for people of unidentifiable race (mixed). More often than not, mixed people have to define themselves in pure terms according to what they resemble most or who rejects them further. Anybody that has crossed an immigration checkpoint knows that for the U.S. Border Patrol, the more European you look, the more “American” you might be. Is “American” the result of the physical and cultural encounters in the New World or its puritan denial?
“How do you turn a Trabant into a sports car? Put sneakers in the trunk!”1
Liz Cohen, like so many of us, is trying to figure and reconfigure how to construct herself and what she does. However, she does it with amazing versatility and ability. She documented the transgender community between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans in Panama City. Her skill as a photographer, knowledge of Photoshop, and experience with a personal trainer were useful in transforming herself from a geeky intellectual into a sexy lowrider model. This same model happens to also be the mechanic who has been customizing a mutating Trabant that transforms into an El Camino through hydraulic pumps. She has been so adamant about learning and doing the mechanics herself that the project has had the time to mature slowly, like any good lowrider or bottle of wine.
Designed in the ’50s and produced until 1991, the Trabant is a boxy little East German car that despite its smoky two-stroke engine was fast, compact, light, durable, and even had room for four adults and luggage. Inspired by the Soviet Sputnik, the name Trabant means “fellow traveler” (satellite) in German. It was the Iron Curtain answer to the VW Beetle, the “people’s car,” and on Time magazine’s list of fifty worst cars of all time. Imported by Liz into the United States, this car, like any surviving savvy immigrant, has had to develop the most sophisticated strategies to adapt and blend in while being able to reconfigure itself and simultaneously stay true to its origins. And so it converts into that most “American” of cars, the Chevrolet El Camino. When I use the connotation of “America,” I speak of the one from most of the continent, the one of the mix and the hybrid as opposed to the pure and the simple relocation.
Like its predecessor and rival, the Ford Ranchero, the El Camino (meaning “the road” in Spanish) is an odd concoction between a pick-up truck and a big car (in car parlance a “coupe utility”). Paradoxically the car sold in Mexico as the Chevrolet Conquistador. In order for Liz’s car to transform into an El Camino, one of the pumps extends the wheel base to that of an El Camino and the back of the Trabant to the length of the bed of an El Camino. Needless to say, the car has also been souped up with thirteen-seven wheels and chromed knock- off rims. One pump lifts and locks the rear, and another one hops to the front. The cabin houses the switches that change the vehicle and also make it dance in celebration. The proper paint job and upholstery are in the works. As a work in progress, the car reveals the bondo and primer used in the reconstruction but more interestingly the Duroplast. This Eastern European material is made from different fibers, such as cotton and occasionally paper with some kind of plastic resin. It is similar to fiberglass but since it could be made in a press similar to shaping steel, it was more suitable for volume car production.
Certainly this car is not a trailer queen or a mere art world commodity; it will cruise the boulevard and is expected to participate in car shows. Even though the project was originally funded by a Creative Capital Foundation grant and has been considered art since it’s beginning, Liz wants it to compete and participate in the lowrider car scene. She is already combining these two worlds, curating a radical mod car show at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art parallel to an exhibition of car-related art, in which the Trabantimino is included. Lowriders are on the fringe of custom cars, which happen to be on the fringe of car culture in general. Nevertheless, they have established their traditions and can be dogmatic in their particular set of values. They revere the Chevy, and it is uncertain to what extent they will accept the conversion of a Trabant into one.
Salvador “Chava” Muñoz created the first transformer pick-up truck, originally called “Wicked Bed.” A new competition category called “radical bed dancing” had to be established for the unique movements and particular cubist deconstruction of this vehicle. Chava’s customizing was so extreme that at one point it had no real competition. This ended up killing the category and the lowrider pick-up movement. The Nissan truck ended up exiled as an art piece called “Alien Toy.” Liz Cohen is resuscitating the movement and the use of hydraulics to transform a pick-up into an art piece and lowrider. She uses them in a different and particular way, creating a transformation that is not just formal or abstract but iconic and in the self. She is able to change an object smoothly back and fort between different political, social, cultural, and aesthetic systems. This car is not a celebration of triumphant, gas-guzzling, excessive, baroque capitalism or an apology of the Spartan and stoic sacrifices demanded by communism to liberate the oppressed masses. It is a negotiation and perhaps a dialectic synthesis of both, not to even mention the transgression of stereotypical gender and ethnic constructions and boundaries that have never fit her well as a Jewish, Colombian, San Franciscan art student, Phoenix suburban girl, beautiful lowrider model, rough mechanic, photo geek, and whatever else she decides to be.
As Tiger Woods wins more tournaments than anybody else and Barak Obama is a hopeful presidential candidate, it might be time to reconsider the U.S. obsession with Manichean, purist, racial definitions and to reconsider the idea of what “American” means.2 In this sense, the Trabantimino is neither a car nor an art piece but a vehicle that helps us to rethink who we are, where we came from, and more importantly what we want to be.
1. East German joke.
2. White racists embraced the “one-drop rule” (any trace of sub-Saharan ancestry was enough to make you Black) to keep the white race “pure” as some African Americans now do it as a form of pride.
Labels: arte, Latin America, Low Riders, Published Texts