Low and Slow Around the Globe: Mexican-American Subculture of Lowriding Around the World

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Marco Werman: Finally today, a very quirky take on how American culture spreads around the globe in unexpected ways.

[clip from War's Low Rider]

Werman: Low Rider. Yeah, 70s band War wrote the anthem. Cheech and Chong made low riding famous in the movies and when you think about people driving their cars impossibly low to the ground, you can't help but think about the Mexican-American neighborhood of East L.A. but going low and slow has gone global with low rider car clubs popping up in very surprising places. Denise Sandoval is a professor of Chicano and Chicana Studies at Cal State University Northridge where she's studying low riding.

Denise Sandoval: It's about as low as you go to the ground and it's about going slow. Getting people to look at your car because when they're looking at your car, they're looking at you.

Werman: How did people in these barrios in L.A. start moving their cars lower to the ground? What was the point?

Sandoval: Low rider culture is part of the post-car culture boom that happened after World War Two. There was a turnover of second-hand cars. The car became an affordable option for working class people. In particular, what it meant for black and brown communities in Los Angeles is the car represents middle class status. So you can see these old photos of L.A. in post-World War Two into the 50s and 60s and families would take pictures right in front of their car, right? And so it's sort of like, well, the car's like another family member. The car is sort of a symbol of the American dream.

Werman: The whole idea of a car being low to the ground; was that imported in any way from south of the border or was it entirely an L.A. innovation?

Sandoval: That's sort of the million dollar question. You have Hispaniola, New Mexico, that's the south proclaimed low rider capital of the world and Northern California says it started there. So it was very hard to pinpoint where it started. It wasn't something that came over from Mexico. The connection though between Tijuana and L.A. is important because there was car customizing shops down there. So sometimes Chicanos would take their cars down there because you could get quality customizing cheaper, but the cars were American. Low riding is an American tradition.

Werman: So low rider culture has spread well beyond Los Angeles and California. It's gone around the world. I'm wondering when you first started noticing low rider culture taking off.

Sandoval: When I was in graduate school, I found a Japanese low rider magazine and it looked like regular low riding except there was a Japanese girl on the cover. Their magazines open up differently than our's and I started flipping the pages and I was like, "Oh, my god. Is this Los Angeles?" Because the guys were dressed like homies with the baggy pants and the plaid shirts, but it was in Japan, right?

Werman: It looked just a little too different?

Sandoval: Yeah and so I was sort of like, "Whoa. What's happening here?" What does it mean to wear a brown pride t-shirt in Japan or wearing the Virgen de Guadalupe, the Mexican Virgin Mary, or the Aztec calendar? Car culture, it really is a dynamic space to understand sort of not just race and ethnicity, class, the commodification of culture and now, like you mentioned, sort of the international spread of L.A. urban culture.

Werman: Where else have you seen low rider culture spread? I gather in Brazil they're pretty enthusiastic about low riding?

Sandoval: Also in Barcelona in Spain. They have low rider bike clubs and then Japan was the big one as well.

Werman: Is the world wide spread of low rider culture going to boomerang back to L.A. and is now influencing low rider culture there?

Sandoval: I don't really think so. Not yet. The one I forgot to mention is the spread of low rider culture to Mexico, because of the deportation of undocumented immigrants back. Specifically youth that maybe grew up in L.A. or in the U.S. and now are back in Mexico, they've taken sort of that Chicano culture back over there. So it's really that's fascinating because you can think about how Mexican-Americans sort of used cars and used art and fashion to create a unique identity of what it meant to be American. With their parents were Mexican and how they re-interpreted the culture here, but now over there they're using a Chicano sort of cultural expression to express themselves. When I was in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2009, the low rider car clubs came to visit us out there and these two kids rode their low rider bikes two hours into Guadalajara so they could meet us and-

Werman: Wow.

Sandoval: For so many years, Mexicans would look down at Mexican-American culture. They could call us Borrachos which literally translates to spoiled fruit, but now in a lot of urban areas because of the movement back, this younger generation is re-defining sort of even Mexican culture.

Werman: Interesting. Co-opting it and re-defining it? Denise, what's the lowest you've ever seen a low rider go to the ground?

Sandoval: Man, I've seen a low rider so low that you could slide just a piece of paper underneath it.

Werman: So now advised to go over speed bumps, because they'd get stuck, right?

Sandoval: Well that's why hydraulics was such an important innovation. In the early 60s, low riders got the idea to put surplus World War Two aircraft parts on to a car.

Werman: That will raise it pretty quickly.

Sandoval: And so yeah. So the hydraulics were what were used to raise and lower the flaps of the wings on an airplane.

Werman: Amazing.

Sandoval: And so somebody got the idea to put it on a car.

Werman: And Denise, as to that curious line in War's tune Low Rider, why is low rider a little higher?

Sandoval: Obviously, you're getting high being low, right?

Werman: Right.

Sandoval: So it's sort of the feeling that it creates driving in your car with your favorite tunes blasting on the radio. What more can you ask for?

Werman: Not much. Denise Sandoval, professor of Chicano and Chicana Studies at Cal State University Northridge, where she studies low riding. Denise, great to speak with you. Thanks.

Sandoval: Thank you so much.

Werman: You can see how they get low and slow in Sao Paulo. We have a trailer to a documentary about low riding culture in Brazil. That's at theworld.org and for a taste of low riding culture in Japan, we're going to close today's program with this song by Mona a.k.a Sad Girl. She sings in English, Spanish, and Japanese. Talented woman. From the Nan and Bill Harris studios at WGBH, I'm Marco Werman. Catch you all tomorrow.

[clip from Mona a.k.a. Sad Girl]