Every Friday, after mass, the nuns of Saint Joseph’s Catholic school in La Puente would tell students to cover their eyes when the canary low rider covered in painted roses would pass in front of the church.
The nuns warned the students to stay away from the car and the people that drove the vehicle too close to the ground, but Dr. Denise Sandoval couldn’t help having an admiration for the color and detail of the car which featured an image of the Virgin Mary on the rear hood.
“When I saw it I was like ‘Wow!’” said Sandoval, who now serves as a Chicano studies professor at CSUN.
Sandoval, has written articles, appeared in documentaries and curated exhibits about low rider culture and its importance to Chicano identity. Although she didn’t anticipate it, she admits, low riding has identified her career as a researcher and professor.
“I’m like the low rider chick,” Sandoval said.
Sandoval started her work in the low rider car culture while working toward her doctorate at Claremont Graduate University. Sandoval was looking for a topic to write about in her popular culture class when she came across a Japanese car magazine that looked like Low Rider Magazine at a record store. The magazine was completely in Japanese.
“I opened up the pages and I see all these Japanese guys dressed up like gangsters and cholos and waiving the Mexican flag. And I was like ‘where is this? It’s in Japan,’” Sandoval said.
She found there was little academic documentation about low rider culture when she began her research.
The low riding car culture, which is distinct from classic cars because of the hydraulics used to lower the car close to the ground and for being driven slow, have been lumped together for many years with gang culture, Sandoval said.
The film industry, she said, has perpetuated stereotypes in films like Selena and Napoleon Dynamite that have characters driving low rider cars sporting a shaved head and body tattoos.
Yet, Sandoval found in her research a more complex identity between low riding and the stories of Mexican-Americans or Chicanos.
Low riding has been popular with ethnic minorities since the end of World War II, she said. While white males were driving hot rods, police officers would harass low riders because of their ethnicity.
Some of the low rider clubs, Sandoval said, have existed for 40 years and have continued through generations of family members. Some clubs make it obligatory that members not have a gang affiliation.
“Low riding is about respect, pride, honor and family,” Sandoval said.
In her work Sandoval has come across only a handful of women low riders. It’s a culture that doesn’t quite stick for women because it is so dominated by males, Sandoval said.
Yet, she didn’t have problems relating to a culture dominated by males. Because of her Latina background and growing up in East Los Angeles, “they kind of see me as a daughter,” Sandoval said.
Contemporary low riding culture has started to overlap with hip-hop culture and has been gaining traction across the globe, including Brazil and Japan, and still remains a part of Chicano culture, Sandoval said.
Only six months after she completed her paper, Sandoval was granted an opportunity to curate the Peterson Automotive Museum’s low rider exhibition.
In putting the exhibits together, Sandoval said, it was important that it included nothing about gangs.
Instead, the exhibition included cars with detailing that told stories and represented the creativity that is involved with low riding, she said.
“I think people are going to come with those (stereotypes) and then their going to be presented with the reality that these guys are top notch car customizers,” Sandoval said.
Her work as a researcher has also reflected the way she teaches her Chicano studies classes.
Junior Frances Rosenberg, 20, philosophy and humanities major, took Sandovals’ Chicano studies 243, Chicano History. Rosenberg, who is of Mexican and Jewish descent, learned to accept her two ethnic backgrounds by learning about the culture connections within Los Angeles through Sandoval’s class.
Sophmore Brisella Saavedra’s, 19, is in Sandoval Chicano studies 100 class where she said she learned about feminism and identity.
“She makes you more aware of your surroundings,” Saavedra said.
Sandoval continues her work in low rider culture, hoping to compile her work into a book.
“I think it’s an important documentation of Los Angeles history that needs to be out there,” she said.