Lowrider Ergo Sum
To ride very low in a very fine car is a need, a statement and an homage that goes a long way back -- back even you might say to 18th-century Spain, when Goyas paintings depicted the varied grandeurs and extreme attitudes of what were then called the majos, todays machos. The majo was a young man obsessed with honor, the defense of which entailed an overt expression of peacock style in his manner of dress and in his accouterments.
The majo lived by a code dating back even further, to Spanish-Moorish culture. The code, rooted in Roman Catholicisms basic requirement of punishment for crimes committed against the self or friends of the self, said that thou shalt not take what is mine (a woman, perhaps), thou shalt suffer dire consequences if you do (a knife wound -- and the plaintiff shall acquire a more devastating frock coat), and these intense clothes Im wearing indicate that Im not a man to be trifled with.
For a certain portion of humanity, located here in Southern California and increasingly across the country and around the world, the code hasnt changed all that much these last few hundred years, though the modes of its expression have. Im talking about lowrider culture, majos descendant, a self-contained, self-generated and codified system of beliefs, values, rewards and punishments, with its very own form of artistic expression to honor it.
Ranfla is how the homies refer to their tricked-out rides. Youve seen them bouncing Saturday nights down Whittier Boulevard, around Elysian Park on a picnic Sunday, here, there n everywhere in East L.A., Montebello, Pico Rivera, out in San Berdoo, Chino and Riverside -- anywhere (almost) with large populations of Latinos (more specifically Mexican-Americans) and those drawn to the aesthetics of Latino culture.
Its called style -- you wouldnt understand. Thus some suave guy in an old movie once put an inquiring lady down. Cold. Definitive. That about sums up the appeal of the major lowrider convention put on by Blvd magazine at the Sports Arena the first weekend in November. A friendly, familylike affair with nevertheless a satisfying hint of threat clogging up the air, the event catered to those who know, aficionados; the main vibe was like Feel free to ask. But if you do need to ask, maybe you dont belong.
And thats fair. As for who does belong, lowrider society seems open to anyone with the will to be down with it. Not too surprisingly, the first thing I saw on entering the outside display area was racks filled with Japanese lowrider magazines, featuring their very own bonita chica-chans in bikinis, draped all nastee cross their homeboys ranflas. Scattered about the lot too were homies representing such faraway exotic locales as Sweden, Germany and England, sporting that kinda glazed look of car-lust, feverishly taking notes.
You just have to imagine (or see Gregory Bojorquezs photos on this page): row upon row of the most utterly fantastic kustom machines ever assembled, proudly representing such crews as Club Techniques Inland Empire, Shotcallers South Califas, Club Klique, Club Dukes, Strictly Family, Club Forever, Clown N, Dynasty Club Inland Empire. Each club has its own variety of preferred rides with which to recombine and redefine. And while almost any car has the potench to assume a real primo lowrider attitude (mini-trucks and larger flatbeds have been on the rise in recent years; I even saw a lowrider SUV in El Monte the other day), there are several ultimate classics in the lowrider world, and they would be: the Olds Cutlass; the Rivi (Riviera), almost any year; and most especially choice, the 63 or 64 Impala.
These cars, strangely, are often not themselves anymore, not after having been completely dismantled, each and every part -- from the tires to the suspension to the body itself to the seats, windows and steering wheel -- replaced with something far, far better or lavishly refashioned to satisfy the owners highly personal artistic vision. Eventually, youll have a ranfla that fairly drips testosterone. And you are invited to inspect its every pore; indeed, that is almost the ranflas raison detre. Thats almost, because a ranflas reason for being is the homies need to say I am.
I am. Sounds just like me and you. Yes, you are invited, in fact impelled, to look at the ranfla, and to express your admiration. You are not, however, invited to touch. Interesting thing about the cars at the Blvd show is that all of them do appear to be genuine works of art, but in a pinch each could conceivably make the emergency run to the hospital or maybe Jack in the Box. (That is, theyre drivable but not street legal, strictly speaking; also, you wouldnt want to risk theft or vandalism parking your work of art at Kmart, for example.)
And now lets play the pointy-head art crit and mention the fascinating phenomenon of people devoting hundreds of hours and their most pitched, purple passions to turning a piece of utilitarian equipment into a virtually functionless hunk of visual splendor. Why would someone do that? You dont ask why.
Meanwhile, inside the Sports Arena, theyre bouncing. This is where cars compete to see which one can, with the aid of sophisticated hydraulic equipment, thump and fly off the ground to ultimate height. This height is measured by crews with scaffoldlike measuring frames, and the winner will also have reached his winning height by resting his bumper on the floor, jutting the hood of his car proudly toward the planets. The massive hydraulic systems installed in the back of the lowrider cars were originally used to raise and lower the ranfla on the street according to the proximity of the police, whod issue citations to those incorrigible homeboys n girls riding too low to be respectable. But in these systems increasing power homies discovered the art and sport of bouncing for height (which is reminiscent of some ancient Scottish Highlands game, couldnt say why) and suaveness -- lowrider cars can actually dance, too, by way of these hydraulic manipulations, solo funky bump n swang or choreographed shit by an entire crew! Kinda scary. Totally hilarious. And back on the fine-art tip, conceptually its really something to witness how, as the cars bounce higher and come down harder, many of them get simply trashed in the process -- wheels bend in and fly off, fenders pop out, windows shatter, engines pour smoke. This is some exciting nihilism: Beautiful things built for the purpose of putting their very survival at risk.
Your ranfla at one time shouldve had a name, such as Gypsy Rose, the original Chico and the Man lowrider on display here at the Sports Arena (over 1,000 painted roses and a cocktail bar in the back). In the old days it wouldve been, like, My Cherry Amour, Little Red Rooster (my casper bro Matts 57 Ford, red w spiderwebbing, 45 rpm record player and VibraSonic sound system); youd see a thousand rides called Moody Blue. And this is another story, but then there was my debonair friend Eddies classy Van Gina. (His girlfriend refused to ride in it.)
Life goes on (slowly); car clubs even have Web sites now (OGrider.com, Truucha.com). These days you dont have to name your ride, but its still a nice touch: More Ta Bounce, Foreplay, Forever Rollin. Outside, a lot of the really vintage rides still make the effort: Touch of Love is a 58 Chevy wagon, purple, with angels n fine ladies painted on the front; Illustrious is a niiice 70 Monte Carlo, black, clean lines, no fuss; theres a 50 Chevy Deluxe cab truck called Gold Rush; a 48 orange-sparkle Chevy, Blvd Bomber. I notice a lot of guys in wheelchairs here today. Sad, maybe, but you oughta see their eyes light up when they gaze at these cars. I imagine them imagining their glory days. I imagine myself bumpin down the boulevard in my very own custom ride: Winds of Change or some corny shit engraved on the windows -- no hoody rat, just another American dreamer on top of the game -- and other wicked-ass forms of Cali swangin. (Cant front, but I can dream.) Its a tribe thing.
Best be bumpin your ride, homie. You may want to practice the lowrider riding style in your 2001 gray Volvo. Try to picture that your steering wheel is either 10 times too big or too small, and made of gold-plated chain or covered with butterscotch fur. Look around you and check your Volvo ranfla, with its completely orange or leopard-skin fuzz-lined walls and ceiling -- the wall-to-wall pussy stylee -- looking good, man. You are riding low, very, very low, and you be bumpin, slangin and swangin to Zapp. (Just say no! Yeow!)
But somethings wrong. Youre bouncing, but youre stiff and straight. Style solution: Just pretend youre trying to fish a pencil out your back pocket. Lean . . . bounce . . . Got the feeling?
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