SoCal Lowriders Are Taking East L.A.'s Once-Dark Subculture Global, But They Roll on Two Wheels (VIDEO)
Orlando Holguin is a third-generation lowrider. The Oxnard resident's grandfather and father have strong roots in Los Angeles lowrider culture, known for its slick rides and devotion to family. Orlando's lowrider is so artfully crafted that it has been displayed at venues such as Koreatown's hip boutique hotel, the Line, and he's won stacks of awards for its beauty and detailing. While Orlando loves working on lowriders, he is not permitted to have a driver's license. Because he's 6.
His lowrider is a bicycle.
Orlando and his father, Michael Holguin, belong to the notable Legions Bike Club in Pasadena and are regulars at Manny's Bike Shop in Compton, which says it has built more custom bikes honored with the coveted Lowrider Bike of the Year than any other shop in the United States.
YouTube, Instagram and Facebook spread the automobile lowrider subculture globally. But one of the most significant gateways into the lowrider culture is the lowrider bicycle. In the United States, a lowrider car enthusiast might spend upward of $30,000, while a lowrider bike will set you back perhaps $1,000. That makes the lowrider bicycle a more accessible chariot for Southern California's working class — and those not yet old enough to drive.
On one of those bright Southern California July days that feels as if it's been dipped in lemonade, Orlando and his dad aren't at Manny's Bike Shop but another favorite spot. The father and son are hanging at Hanko's Kustom in Ventura County's sleepy orchardside town, Santa Paula.
Holguin, who works as an industrial painter at Point Hueneme Naval Base for the U.S. Department of Defense, is stopping by to visit master custom painter Hanko Hernandez. Hernandez was his mentor. "Orlando is very well known in the lowrider scene," Holguin explains. "His grandfather moved from Mexico in the '40s and worked on cars. I work on cars, and Orlando has his own project."
Bicycle lowrider Orlando Holguin with his Baby Steps
Photo by Amanda Lopez
Orlando proudly explains that he wants to be president of his bicycle club. The only thing holding him back is that he's still in first grade. "I want to be president! I want to be president!" Orlando chants as Hernandez offers him a burrito lunch.
Orlando's bike is sparkling and beautiful. Most lowrider bikes and cars are given names, and his is called "Baby Steps." His long-and-lean ride has intricate engravings borrowed from the style found on old Western rifles, plus an exact etching of his foot from when he was a baby.
"My dad took my little foot and traced it," Orlando says.
Immaculately groomed lowrider bikes are their own highly customized art form. Baby Steps, for example, took six months to build. "Since he was small, I've had him help little by little," Holguin says. As his son has developed, so has the bike. Orlando loves speed and motorcycles, so Holguin added flames, and he continues to customize it with "water twists," flashy metal details that give the ride more edge.
The father-son bicycle projects have gained attention, he says, and their bike club, Legions, has won Lowrider Bike of the Year and Lowrider Trike of the Year, "which is the three-wheelers — these things get pretty wild with TVs, hydraulics and the whole thing."
It's easier for Orlando's 38-year-old father to talk about his son than himself. He often replaces "I" with "we." "Orlando is my little shadow," Holguin says. "He goes with me everywhere."
He pauses to reflect on what lowriding culture means to him. He's been steeped in it since he was a troubled teenager who needed to turn his life around. As a boy, he looked up to his mentor Hernandez with the same admiration Orlando now has for him. "It's an art form and a sense of pride more than anything," Holguin explains. "It definitely has to do with being Mexican-Americans and adopting it into the American culture and basically having our own genre of vehicles or bikes."
Orlando Holguin, on Baby Steps, with his father, Michael
Photo by Amanda Lopez
Holguin and Hernandez both wear T-shirts from automotive designers they admire; both are talkative and serious about their devotion to family and cars. It's easy to see that Hernandez influenced Holguin — their storytelling has a similar rhythm, and so does the cadence of their speech. Holguin says Hernandez saw potential in him, which helped him stop being a bad kid.
"He talked smack and started a lot of fights," Hernandez explains. Holguin agrees, his blue-and-white baseball cap bobbing. "I was a troubled kid," he admits. "My dad passed away when I was young, and there was nobody to — how do I say it? — put me in my place."
Learning how to paint cars and fix up his bike at Hernandez's shop, among the lowrider cars, was life-altering for Holguin. Many of his childhood friends are locked up, selling drugs or dead.
Holguin is active in the lowrider car club Premier in L.A., where he fixes up his 1978 Monte Carlo. Although Hernandez and Holguin admit lowriding hasn't always had a positive image, they say it's about art, passion and family.
"For a while it always gave us a bad name, like you're a hoodlum or gangbanger, but [the outside world] was just stereotyping," Hernandez says. "Once it started getting recognized by the media and the movies, it has started changing."
Manny Silva's bike, Woman, is a three-wheel 1980s lowrider depicting his son's dream woman on one side, a joker's skull on the other. It's been in parades throughout SoCal.
Photo by Amanda Lopez
Holguin bristles at the idea of being associated with gangs. He recalls that someone once walked up to him and said, "Oh, you have one of those gangbanger cars." His voice gets louder: "I said, 'Gangbanger?' I never gangbanged in my life. I said if a true, active gang member is involved in this and they have a nice car — that car is gonna get messed up just because of their gang affiliation." Hernandez chimes in, "But there are some."
Holguin recognizes that the bad-guy history is part of the excitement. This devotion to something that isn't quite a hobby but a hardworking lifestyle (with the benefits of a flashy car and cool community) is what Holguin is passing on to his son.
"The best part that I like about this bike is that I have the hydraulics," Orlando announces. He's already a pro lowrider as he crawls off his dad's lap and onto his bicycle to begin bouncing around Hanko's Kustom's shop lobby.
Holguin steps out of Hernandez's shop for a moment and returns with what looks like a bike just out of the womb. It doesn't have a seat or stylized frame — yet. It's their next bicycle project, and he already has an idea. "You know what the Mexican blankets look like? I want to do that. Paint it as a Mexican blanket," he says.
Lowrider bicycles are attention-stealing, mobile art pieces with no rules when it comes to customizing. Candy-colored murals and chrome, chrome and more chrome. High-rise handlebars. The style may have emerged in the 1960s, when kids copied the design of the curb-hugging lowrider cars and added it to their Schwinns.
Twisted Super Gold was made in the back of Manny's Bike Shop with a machine Manny Silva developed. It has been ridden by Snoop Dogg, Bow Wow, Bruce Willis and other stars.
Photo by Amanda Lopez
But if you ask Manny Silva in Compton, it was he who created the lowrider bicycle.
He may be right.
On a recent Tuesday, 65-year-old Silva took a break from fixing one of the glittering Baroque lowrider bicycles that line the walls of Manny's Bike Shop to sip juice from a fresh coconut.
"When I was 12 years old, I invented lowrider parts in Mexico," Silva says, peering from beneath a black-brimmed hat and sporting a light blue linen button-up as he stands in front of bicycle tires stacked to the ceiling.
His shop has been around since 1935; Silva became its third owner in the early 1970s. Legend has it that his bike parts were so popular that they were copied by one of his friends and sent to China, and are now sold all over the world — and that he didn't get much from it.
Still, here on Rosecrans Avenue, with his razzle-dazzle lowrider bikes hanging from the rafters, lowrider enthusiasts come to him every day. That's how he met Holguin and Orlando. They made the trek because they kept hearing "Manny, Manny, Manny," at swap meets, on online forums and at their bike club.
Manny Silva splits time between his Compton shop and El Aposento Alto Iglesia Apostolica, the church where he is pastor. He lays claim to inventing the lowrider bicycle.
Photo by Amanda Lopez
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Silva doesn't have a website and he's not on Facebook. Instead, his name is passed around the scene, a secret access code to custom bike parts.
"People from South Korea and China come here to buy bicycles. Some people say, 'Oh, lowriders are a Mexican thing,'?" Silva says. "No, no, right now it's Chinese guys, Korean guys, whites, blacks — all kinds."
In the 1970s, Long Beach funk band War sang: "All my friends know the lowrider/The lowrider is a little higher," making their catchy song about the Chicano culture's hot-rodding cars a hit. In the 1990s and the early 2000s, hip-hop anthems were devoted to sweet wheels, including Jayo Felony rapping, "I'm too sexy for my motherfuckin' hood, 'hood/I'm too sexy for my motherfuckin' lowrider," and a roaring ride with a menacing bounce is at the center of the video for Cypress Hill's "Lowrider."
Many say the lowriding scene that took shape after World War II was Latinos' reaction to conventional stock cars driven by the white middle class. To differentiate themselves, drivers started putting sand or cement bags in their cars to create a lowered look. By designing the cars to go against the norm by being slow and low — and sometimes painting them in vibrant colors to reflect Latin culture — lowrider artists made a political and cultural statement with flair.
And Silva has limitless ideas for adding flair. Holguin says of him: "His model is, if you can draw it or I can think it, you can build it."
When Silva was 20, he moved from Chihuahua, Mexico, to California and discovered he could earn more working on bicycles than in his usual gig as a motorcycle mechanic. In L.A., he put his imagination to work with his new access to tools and welding equipment.
On one side of Silva's business card is an image of a gold-and-silver metal ride that's been featured in rap videos. On the other is an image of his church, El Aposento Alto Iglesia Apostolica. Silva splits his time as a pastor at the church down the street from his shop, where he says all 18 of his grandchildren attend services.
Holguin says some of the stuff at Manny's Bike Shop is considered old-fashioned, but that's where he found Orlando's over-spoked wheels for Baby Steps. "You would be amazed at some of the stuff that comes out of that little shop," he says.
A few months back, Orlando and Holguin put Baby Steps and a few other bicycles from Legions Bike Club on display during a film screening at Koreatown's Line hotel, where the assembled crowd included club kids, Korean flight attendants, art scenesters and hipsters with a taste for kimchi.
Baby Steps is a chrome-and-purple mini lowrider bike distinguished by its dramatic metalwork and the feet hanging from its handlebars, sculpted from tracings Michael Holguin took from son Orlando's baby feet.
Photo by Amanda Lopez
Orlando and his dad were there to show off their lowrider bikes for a screening of South American Cho-Low. Los Angeles journalist Phuong-Cac Nguyen directed the documentary about how East L.A.'s lowriding subculture has hit it big in far-off São Paulo, Brazil.
In Nguyen's film, São Paulo's Antonio Carlos Batista Filho, nicknamed "Alemão" (or "German" because of his coloring), is credited as Brazil's ambassador for lowrider culture. It all began when a friend brought him a classic California lowrider bike from the West Coast. Alemão tells the camera, in Portuguese, "I fight to maintain the culture. We struggle for our ideals, our family and our freedom. ... Believing in Chicano culture is what makes these things possible."
The exploding lowrider bike subculture borrowed by São Paulo is complete with guys in oversized Dodgers jerseys and chromed-out rides dancing in the street in a place that at first looks familiar — but isn't. At the same time, lowrider enthusiasts in Japan pull their socks up to their knees and wear Nike Cortez track shoes as Japanese rap songs in flawless Spanglish boom out of impeccably stylized Impalas.
And in Manila, in the Philippines, the adopted lowrider bicycle scene is something to behold: Row upon row of glittering, tricked-out bikes hover low to the ground.
"It's interesting the way things are out there," Holguin says of South American Cho-Low. "For them, it's an old-fashioned–style lowriding, where they get the tattoos and dress like older gang members. It's like the same thing as the Japanese — they dress like it, but they are not really gang members."
Photo by Amanda Lopez
It makes him laugh.
"I'm not gonna say that [Latino] people don't dress like that, because that would be a lie. But honestly, a lot of the time the people that do that are the spectators, because that's their stereotype of what it should be like," Holguin says. "I've never even owned a pair of Nike Cortezes."
What does he think of the Brazilians tossing around the word "cholo" and adapting L.A. subculture to their own?
"Cholo is an old term that was used for Mexican gang members in one era. ... Now they actually laugh about the word 'cholo,'" he explains. He adds that at one time it was used as an insult, but now it has been reclaimed, like "queer"in the LGBT community.
Orlando is soaking it all up. While most kids are getting their geography from the classroom, Orlando's shape of the world comes from YouTube videos of kids in other countries, riding the kind of bikes he takes to shows around the United States. The lowrider movement signified a disenfranchised Mexican-American population that broke away from the mainstream, and now these faraway countries have hopped on, identifying with the subculture's working-class values and outsider status.
In New Zealand, Maori kids on lowrider bicycles are recording music videos featuring men sporting oversized flannels and holding high-rise handlebars as they cruise the streets. And in Brazil, many of the self-proclaimed "cholos" are Bolivian immigrants who live in the more impoverished neighborhoods.
Up in Santa Paula, Orlando and his dad are finishing their burrito lunch at Hanko's Kustom when their friend Warren Wong, dubbed the "King of Wheels" by Lowrider magazine, stops by. Wong, who grew up near East L.A., is credited with creating the ubiquitous over-spoked wheels kids pedal today.
He designed them to look like tricked-out car wheels.
"Warren is world-famous," Holguin announces as his friend walks in. Wong has a low and relaxed voice and long hair past his shoulders. He's humble. Also cool.
Warren Wong is credited with creating the ubiquitous over-spoked wheels kids pedal today.
Photo by Amanda Lopez
"Hey, check this out," he says. He holds up his smartphone to show a video of dozens, maybe hundreds, of kids pedaling lowrider bikes in Indonesia. "It's getting bigger and bigger in the Muslim countries," Wong says. According to an article in the Jakarta Post, teenagers in Indonesia discovered lowriding culture via rap and hip-hop on MTV.
"Social media plays a big part. Before it, we would wait for a magazine to come out and it would be like, ohhhh, look at this, look at that," Wong says. "Even if you had a picture, you would have to send it to people so they got a sense of what it looked like. ... It's getting to the point where there's no separation of style."
Orlando is starting to get restless, picking at his lunch. Holguin scoops the boy up and puts him on his lap, and he is immediately calm.
The two are preparing to put Baby Steps on display, most likely spinning atop a velvet platform, for the Torres Empire L.A. Supershow at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Aug. 23, where tricked-out lowrider cars, trucks and bicycles will be the main event. "It's going to be big," Holguin says.
Will his little guy still be into lowriders when he grows up?
If you ask the 6-year-old, he might tell you he wants to work two jobs so he can afford a hot tub. Or quickly change the subject to his other favorite topic, horror movies.
But his dad has the answer: "He loves cars. He was born into it."
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