"Cathedrals on Wheels" © 1998 The Foundations for Advanced Critical Studies, Inc., originally published in Art Issues (September/October, 1998)."I believe in the kind of communism where everybody drives a Cadillac."
- Mick Jones of The Clash, from the 1979 movie Rude Boy
During the early years of the Cold War, big American cars functioned like the Baroque cathedrals of the Counter-Reformation. They were meant to seduce and convert people from Puritan morality and the austerity of social justice to the excesses of individual freedom and the market economy. They required an inordinate amount of gas and parking space, and they may not have been as easy to fix as the German Volkswagen Beetle (literally the car of the people), but who cares about practical earthly matters when you can drive a big rocket-looking conveyor with space-age tail fins that launches you to heaven? Nikita Kruschev asked Vice President Nixon about those tail fins without getting a specific answer, but Che Guevara would come to know better as he cruised the streets of Havana in a classic 1960 Chevy Impala. Style is a function of politics. While art and decoration failed to stop the advancement of Protestantism for the Roman Catholic Church, they helped foster the need for superfluous Western commodities that would bring down the Berlin Wall.
The Americas conquered by the Catholic king were the perfect laboratory to test this Baroque ideology. Mexico and Peru had large amounts of souls who (in the eyes of the Church) needed to be saved, and skillful artisans to do the work. A "New World" was to be created. The indigenous artisans who worked in the new cathedrals were able to indulge in all sorts of exquisite extreme ornamentation in order to offer a glimpse of the gates of the kingdon of heaven in an otherwise temporary and painful terrestrial life. European architectural styles were adapted to the local needs and sensibilities, and new ones emerged, such as the plateresco, which incorporated ornaments common to silver jewelry, and the churrigueresco, which was even more flamboyant and excessive.
Today, lowrider cars combine and exacerbate old and modern Baroque sensibilities, transforming American cars into sexualized moving altars of an American dream gone amok. Resembling the hot rods and custom cars that Tom Wolfe analyzed in his 1965 essay The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, lowriding cars are quintessential art objects, at least if you use the standards applied in a civilized society. They work in the opposite way of the ubiquitous hot rod: Lowriders are not speed maniacs. They are cars to be driven slowly, to be seen in all their detail. They are the ultimate aesthetic statement in car culture. They may be chopped down with glossy chrome-plated and stainless-steel-spoked small wheels or lined with elegant velvet and fur interiors that would compete with the most luxurious suite in a Las Vegas hotel.
A fine example is "Penthouse", designed by Armando Montes. This beautiful 1976 Buick Regal is painted in a deep candy burgundy with red pearl on a gold base, its mirrored shine so clear that when you look closely at it, you see every wrinkle on your face. Scan the dashboard and it seems that you're in a stealth bomber. Gauges are digital, outlined in gold, and a custom-made gold steering wheel with the name of the car engraved on it has been added. Armando trashed the Buick engine and put in its place a Chevy 350 V8, with three deuces on an Edelbrock intake manifold. He added steel-braided lines. Everything is either painted, chromed or gold-plated. And, of course, a hydraulic setup of chrome and gold lifts the lowrider. All lines run inside steel tubing, through the interior and out the firewall to the front cylinders. The car is equipped, characteristically, with a bar and mini-TV.
Such show machines are for the looks, not to be used and messed up. But the Lowrider Show Rulebook states one basic principle: "Every vehicle must be operable". All the exuberant concoctions on display have to perform. Some alterations are more conceptual than formal, like gold plating on the brakes or exhaust system. Other alterations are not meant to beautify the cars but to make them act in an unusual manner, such as the addition of hydraulic systems to make the cars hop or dance. Throughout, modern charros (Mexican cowboys) find innovative ways to domesticate their aggressive machines to perform the elegant tricks that might attract the attention of skimpily dressed señoritas.
In a car show, the overwhelming storm of colours and noise -- coming from potent boom sound systems that pump bilingual rap beats from gold-plated, candy-painted, neon-illuminated and turntable-mounted chromed exotics among amazing, elaborate displays -- causes sensory overload. The marriage between hip hop and lowriding testifies to the cultural cross-pollination that happens in the inner cities, between the 'hoods and the barrios. Heroes and iconography from religious and pop worlds share the lowrider panteon with those from all the nations of Southern Califas. We find on cars the inevitable Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Jesus Christ, Native American motifs, Bart Simpson, Warner Bros. cartoon characters Tweetie and Speedy Gonzalez, Afrocentrism, the Mexican Legend of the Volcanoes, Emiliano Zapata, local homeboys, Disney characters, leprechauns and shamrocks, and so forth. I once saw a gaucho (Argentinian cowboy) lowrider bike placed on a stand shaped in the form of Argentina. Even more dramatically, with the conceptual twist of a Jasper Johns flag painting, Mosie Garland Hernandez's '65 Chevy Impala becomes a Mexican flag itself (and not just a representation) in his classic lowrider car named "This is for La Raza".
With the advent of lowrider culture, the individualistic American dream of driving away to escape it all has been replaced with the notion of driving together. Lowriders organize in car clubs and go cruising on weekends on specific boulevards, updating the old Mexican practice of walking around the town plaza on Sundays in order to socialize and flirt with the girls. They drive slow, pumping their music and blocking traffic, messing with a social system that is not eager to accept them. Their cars are turned into political and aesthetic signifiers. No longer tools of efficient, modern transportation (which in fact they never really were), they beome a medium of expression. The Highway Patrol remembers the Alamo, and has declared war on the lowriders, closing first Whittier Boulvard in 1979 and later other streets, from Hollywood to Wan Nuys. Just as the LAPD banned the Zoot Suit in the 1940s, calling it un-American, cruising is often prohibited today. But as any afficionado of the culture can tell you, lowriding is as American as a burrito from Taco Bell.
The origin of the lowrider car is legend, with many different versions in circulation. My favourite one (that makes any sense) is the following: Somewhere around the Southwest in the late 1940s, big cars whose trunks were loaded with material rode very low and close to the ground; these cars and the Mexican Americans that used to drive them became known as "lowriders". At some point, people started to lower their cars to highlight the Mexican connotations (although other customizers were lowering their cars in order to present less air resistance and drive faster). Limits on lowering were imposed by the Highway Patrol, so the lowriders developed hydraulic systems to raise their cars and fool the cops when they were around, only to lower them again in safer moments. These systems have been in constant evolution, resulting in powerful and elaborate contraptions that now enable cars to hop and dance in extreme ways. (Bicycles and car models are options for beginner customizers who can't afford an automobile or aren't of driving age.)
During the 1960s, these machines became symbols of the Chicano civil rights movement. Today commerce has all but taken over the sport. With a circulation exceeding 400,000, Lowrider magazine has become the most successgul Chicano publication ever. Nevertheless, it once struggled financially; in 1979, as a sales gimmick, it published the first bikini model on one of its covers. She was a fan named Mona, who ended up being known as "Bad girl numero uno". (As a result she was kicked out of Catholic school.) Not just Chicanas protested, even the guys in the car clubs got upset. They took it personally, saying, "This is a nice homegirl and you're making her look real trashy. You're making this a cheese magazine, not a car magazine". Despite the criticism still levied at the magazine, Mona and the models who followed consistently provided a 15-20% boost in sales, and have become de riguer. Notwithstanding this commercial interest, the magazine still takes a worthy political stand in the face of hate mail that associates lowriding with drugs, crime and vulgarity.
Lowrider culture has its own established traditions and avant-garde. The Chevy Impala is the classic and revered mechanical icon and fetish of Cold War post-industrial America. The tradition prohibits worship of other models: "You shall alter the function but not the shape of the Chevy Impala". This affordable and roomy family car was originally inherited by teenagers in the barrios. With an average length of more than 215 inches, the Impala was a lowrider from the beginning. The frame of the Impalas, especially the x-frame on the '64, became the ideal chassis for hopping.
The masterpiece of lowrider cars -- the pinnacle of the avant-garde -- was researched by the four-time Radical Bed Dance Champion Salvador Chava Muñoz, hailing from Jalisco, Mexico, who altered the shape and function of his car to such a dgree that it's hard to recognize it as a car at all. Like Duchamp in New York and Picasso in Paris (both outsiders in early-twentieth-century avant-garde culture), Salvador ended up working far from his birthplace. He moved from Jalisco to San Ysidro, California. As an outsider to the lowrider community, he was able to free himself from the classicism of the Chevy Impala. A self-taught iconoclast, he transformed a 1973 Nissan pickup truck into "Wicked Bed". The bed of the truck rises and spins in two directions while it opens up into four independent parts. The doors fly out and spin around while the hood jumps off and twirls as well. The front of the truck separates itself from the back and drives around independently, while the rest of the car dances. Like some sort of Doctor Frankenstein, this showman has given new life to an aggressive, irrational machine. The future is happening now, out of control, like a mutated virus.
Salvador's transformed machine uses technology in seductive, unexpected ways. It has become a tool of cultural jamming in the streets, Nevertheless, his cubist pickup has never received recognition from the established lowrider publications: It has yet to be featured on a cover or in a centerfold with a beautiful jaina (babe) in a bikini. After finally achieving the ultimate car abstraction, Salvador is withdrawing to a neoclassical period, just as Picasso and Stravinsky did after their major breakthroughs. Now he is customizing a '63 Impala, but he couldn't be completely conventional in his choices; his clean hydraulic job lifts the back of the car more than five feet high!
According to Wolfe's model, customized cars are completely Dionysian creations, even with their straight lines and modern shapes, because these "bad" creations aren't purely functional. They exist unashamedly for exaggeration and ornamentation, no longer informed by minimalist notions of elegance and Puritan disdain for decoration. On the contrary, lowrider cars are Montezuma's revenge against Mondrian. They are not a simple hedonistic statement. Deeply embedded in Judeo-Christian culture, these machines don't separate pleasure from pain or guilt. Often they are self-parodies; appealing and repulsive at the same time, the stand for spicy taste. And while they cannot be compared to Brancusi's monumental sculptures, they do compare favourably with Salvador Dali's Tijuana velvet-painting nightmares. They are loved and hated by the broader culture, incorporating the contradictions inherent in both power and sex. They are not produced by kids with a lot of money, but by those who have grown up with the complex of not having it, wanting it, and the potential guilt of obtaining it. The profit of their working-class labour is invested in bright objects of desire instead of the accumulation of capital necessary of social mobility.
For Octavio Paz, the will to live in Mexican culture is a will for form. And so, the lowriders and their care of Mexican-American culture are slaves to form: They want to live, and they want to be seen. Newspapers and television news cover only violent incidents at lowrider car shows; otherwise, the cars just exist as rapper props for MTV. But neither La Migra (the border patrol) nor the mainstream populace is ready to see them for what they really are. (Hot rodders from the 1960s were invisible too, until they turned the whole culture upside down, and mainstream car designers copied them.) Chevy Impalas are a non-renewable resource. Slowly, the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles and the Smithsonian Institution are starting to collect classic lowrider cars, and international attention continues to grow. Japanese lowrider fans are paying good sums of money to import these customized national treasures from the barrios of Southern Califas to Japan. (The Los Angeles Times alarmingly reported this to a public that still bitterly complains about Japan's lack of imports of American cars.) The Japanese -- like Che Guevara before them -- are exercising their freedon of choice and just may know what to do with this great American legacy. In the words of Viejitos car club member Crazy George: "Manejar bajo [to drive low] is for the pride. And despacio [slow] is because we want to be seen".
Labels: Chicanos, Low Riders, Published Texts