In 1993, MTV proclaimed Española, New Mexico, the lowrider capital of the world. It’s an identity that the town fully embraces, and Española’s status in the lowriding world is fixed.
While precisely where and when lowriders originated is still a matter of debate, lowriders are part of New Mexico’s and Albuquerque’s culture.
Origins of Lowriders
While some say that Los Angeles was the initial convergence point of lowriders, a few others even consider rural New Mexico as its inception place.
“Some people think it started in Española Valley, where it caught on early with laborers going between L.A. and Española Valley,” said Don Usner, author ¡Órale! Lowrider: Custom Made in New Mexico.
“Part of that flow could have been brought back to Chimayó and Española, a variation of East L.A. lowrider culture. The legend about hydraulics is that they originated in Chimayó and that people raised them because the roads were rough. It developed into a rage here (in New Mexico) in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s and took off and developed into its own style and expression, which is now widespread and common.”
Usner said that the majority of those educated in the study of the lowriding culture, however, believe that any narrative about the history of lowriders must begin with pachucos overlapping the Texas-Mexico border.
Early pachucos were young, rebellious Mexican-American males who modeled their ways after the underworld enterprises they revered. Originating in 1930s El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, pachucos were part of an industrial labor force with little or no political or economic pull. The pachucos decided to build their identity around their own style of car culture: lowriders. A low and slow and muscular vehicle was perhaps the most visible way that a pachuco could distinguish himself. Lowriding put both the cars and their riders on display.
Symbolism, Expressions of Lowriders
Usner said that Mexican laborers from El Paso and Juarez migrated to East L.A. to work in the war-related industries and there hooked up with people who worked in the airline industry who knew about hydraulics. The laborers applied hydraulics to their vehicles, raising and lowering them, adapting them to rise and fall on command.
Lowrider culture grew even more during the Chicano political movement in the 1960s. Throughout the years, the symbolism of lowriders has evolved into something much more mainstream. Though some car club members see it as a way to honor their Mexican-American roots, lowriders’ cars express a range of identities – ethnic, artistic, and aesthetic.
“Lowriding is generally seen as an expression symbol of Hispanic or Chicano or Mexico-American culture and identity,” said Usner.
Bans on Lowriders Lifted in Albuquerque
With their extensive, gleaming frames, rich paint jobs, and low to the ground parade, lowriders have been a vehicle of preference for “cruising,” a common entertainment in many American communities since about the 1950s.
Lowriders boomed just as hot rod culture was taking off, sparking a rivalry in car cultures. Hot rods were generally Fords with massive engines, built for power, speed, and sound. Lowriders took the opposite approach, slammed low and slow, with drivers who were not in a hurry to get somewhere, and who wanted to look really good getting there.
Most cities and towns in New Mexico eventually passed laws prohibiting cruising and outlawing lowriders, citing concern that low and slow snarls traffic and fear of the sometimes violent conflicts that were the result of such gatherings.
“Lowriding tapped into an outlaw and bad boy and rebel culture,” said Usner. “It was part of the 1980s gang culture of southern Los Angeles and heavy criminal enterprises tarnished the image of lowriders. Over the years it has outgrown that image.”
In 2018, Albuquerque’s no cruising ban was lifted and many other towns and cities in New Mexico have also lifted their bans. Lowriders are allowed to cruise in approved spaces and at approved times in Albuquerque, including a recurring designated cruise on Central Avenue Sunday nights.
Lowrider Super Show, Car Culture
The yearly Lowrider Super Show at the Albuquerque Convention Center is a good indicator of the mainstream appeal of lowriding, the corridors crammed with unique lowrider constructions that extend beyond vintage cars to modern frames, motorcycles, bicycles, pedal cars, and even strollers.
There is even a large segment of lowrider enthusiasts that only attend the prize and trophy competitions, part of a broader culture that has developed around building and exhibiting them.
“There are clubs and schedules and things happening,” said Usner. “It is changing and evolving into more of a show, instead of a cruising thing. Lowriding has come a long ways from its image of bad boys to a genuine expression of people and a place. Lowriders are a part of the glamorous American car culture.”