By: Michael C. Stone

Type: General Entry

Published: November 1, 1995

Updated: November 29, 2019

A lowrider is a motor vehicle that has been lowered to within a few inches of the road in the expressive style of la onda bajita, the "low wave," or "the low trend." The term also refers to the drivers of the cars and their associates. On both sides of the Mexican border and throughout the Southwest, lowriders and their elaborately crafted carritos, carruchas, or ranflas-as the cars are affectionately called-contribute a particular stylistic flair to the multivocalic discourse on Mexican-American identity. A synthesis of imagination and technical mastery pushed to the limits, lowriding applies hydraulic technology that enables the cars to perform stunt hopping and allows raising the "ride" for street-legal driving clearance. Skid plates shower sparks into the night when dipped to drag over the pavement, while neon art illuminates windows, trunk, and underchassis. Cultural and religious icons decorate body and interior in the bold murals and etched-glass tracings of lowrider caravans. Lowriding style contributes to the cultural mosaic of late-twentieth-century North America. It engenders the discovery of delight and elemental meaning in the castoff and ostensibly commonplace. It expresses the audacious aesthetic, the subversive sensibility, and the rascal ribaldry of rasquachismo, an attitude of resourceful adaptability in the face of economic adversity and social marginality. It is the product of a bicultural worldview that makes a virtue of the underdog condition.

Lowriding first drew widespread attention in the late 1970s, sensationalized in "cruising" films such as Boulevard Nights, burlesqued in Cheech and Chong's classic Up in Smoke, and framed as cultural curiosity in print. In contrast, Low Rider magazine, together with the music of such bands as War and the Luis Valdez film Zoot Suit, have more seriously portrayed the social and material realities of barrio life that shape bajito identity and style. As a public forum on Mexican-American identity, Low Rider has recast pejorative stereotypes-the culturally ambiguous pachucos, the dapper zoot-suiter, the street-wise cholo homeboy, the pinto or prison veterano, and the wild vato loco-as affirmative cultural types emerging from Anglo domination. The style apparently arose in northern California in the late 1930s but evolved in Los Angeles, where its innovators responded to Hollywood's aesthetic and commercial demands. Lowriders distinguish "low-and-slow" style by censuring hot rodders, "who raise their cars, making all kinds of noise and pollution, racing down the streets killing themselves, if not others." By contrast, lowriding expresses pride in craftsmanship learned through community apprenticeship; in mechanical work learned in the military, auto detail shops, and garages; and in economy. From southern California, migrants transported the style throughout the Southwest. Cesar Chavez recalled that by the 1940s, farmworkers found cars essential to moving quickly from job to job. Moreover, he noted, cars embodied social status: "We were travelling around....You always wanted to go into the dance [looking] right...[to] come in with good cars-we were migrants and the cars meant quite a bit."

Migrants brought lowriding style east into Texas. Américo Paredes recalls that in postwar Crystal City aficionados would convene at the Dairy Queen to see whose car was low enough to knock over a cigarette pack. Innovator Richard Salazar says lowriders from Los Angeles founded an early El Paso club, the Imperials. Lowriding also arose as part of a broader American "car culture" of antique and custom shows, hot rods, stock cars, drag racing, and demolition derbies. In Texas, for example, the Nevarez and Salazar brothers, early bajito craftsmen, first exhibited in national custom shows that added El Paso to the circuit in the early 1970s. Drag racing in San Antonio offered an analogy. According to Ricardo Romo,

Our car club, "The Loafers," was one of many. We [met] on Saturday evenings and spent Sunday afternoons at the drag races. Cousin Benny, who owned a 1950 Chevy, arranged for us to use a small building and garage on Guadalupe Street near Zarzamora for our headquarters. One early Sunday morning, he came by with three spray cans...and invited us to help paint his engine green. We sprayed a bright glaze over dirty metal and drove out to the drags [where] we parked his Chevy in a well-travelled spot and lifted the hood to give hot rod admirers a good look.

Of the relation between Mexican Americans and Anglo-Americans, Romo writes,

Culturally we lived in two worlds. Across the street from our house on Guadalupe Street, the jukebox from Julio's Cantina blared out Mexican corridos and conjunto music. We learned the words to Jorge Negrete's songs long before we ever heard of Frank Sinatra. The Malt House...was West San Antonio's most famous hamburger and chicken fried steak drive-in. It had a bilingual jukebox [where] we first heard [Little] Richard and Elvis Presley. No one forced us to choose; we easily accepted both musical traditions.

One veteran explains the nostalgia for "oldies" music, period clothing, and cruising drive-in movies and burger joints as reminiscent of "the best decade of life." Another states, with reference to a popular "cruising" movie, "Low riding is the Chicano American Graffiti." Lowriding celebrates a Mexican heritage that is also irrevocably American. In doing so, it modifies the uniformity of the youth culture and softens the hard edge of industrial civilization. As El Paso lowrider alumnus George Salazar (later a Justice Department attorney, drug-rehabilitation activist, and food bank chairman) observed, "The Latin can express his flair for the romantic almost anywhere, even taking a product off a General Motors assembly line and giving it an identity. Maybe...the same warmth will infect the system. Why not? If we can make something as American as a car reflect our culture, we can probably do it with anything."

Francis E. Abernethy, Folk Art in Texas, Publications of the Texas Folklore Society 45 (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985). James J. Flink, The Car Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1975). Mauricio Mazón, The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984). New York Times, May 9, 1981. Manuel Peña, The Texas-Mexican Conjunto: History of a Working-Class Music (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985). Luis F. B. Plascencia, "Low Riding in the Southwest: Cultural Symbols in the Mexican Community," in History, Culture and Society: Chicano Studies in the 1980s, ed. Mario T. García et al. (Ypsilanti, Michigan: Bilingual Press, 1983). Ricardo Romo, "An Insider's View of the Westside," in Art among Us: Mexican American Folk Art of San Antonio, ed Pat Jasper and Kay Turner (San Antonio: San Antonio Museum Association, 1986). Alan Weisman, La Frontera: The U.S. Border with Mexico (San Diego, California: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1986).

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Michael C. Stone, “Lowriders,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 11, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/lowriders.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 1, 1995
November 29, 2019