Professor Denise Sandoval is not your stereotypical lowrider lover. She is not covered with tattoos and she does not cruise the boulevard in a candy-painted hydraulic joyride. Instead, her love for lowrider cars and trucks stems from her respect and understanding of a cultural expression plagued with misconceptions.
As a college student in the early ’90s, Sandoval became aware of just how widespread the lowrider culture had become. Attempting to find a research topic in the library, she accidentally found a Japanese lowrider magazine. Sandoval was stunned to find that Japan had adopted and even imitated the lowrider culture in such detail.
“The Japanese girl in the magazine was in a bikini and she was standing next to a lowrider. It was crazy,” she said. “It looked like the picture was shot in East Los Angeles, but it was really shot in Japan.”
For Sandoval, this image sparked curiosity and interest. Motivated to find historical background on the lowrider culture, Sandoval started to go to libraries to find textbooks on the subject. But, she quickly realized that the lowrider tradition was missing from these books, even those that discussed the history of automobiles in the United States.
“This really motivated me. It made me rethink, ‘Who am I?’ It became not just about teaching people about lowriders, but about the stories of Mexican-Americans,” Sandoval said.
After that, Sandoval spent time interviewing lowrider owners to learn about the sport that’s passed down from generation to generation. Lowrider owners want the experience to be positive and for kids to be involved, said Sandoval.
“The lowrider owners have had these cars longer than they have had their wives or their children,” she said.
Although there are different theories on the origin of lowrider vehicles (some claim Espanola, New Mexico was the lowrider capital of the world while others claim it was Los Angeles), lowrider customization started around the ’40s and was most popular among black and Chicano communities. By the ’60s and ’70s, the jazz and R’B music scene further influenced the lowrider practice.
Whereas American men believed hot rods (which are built high off the ground) would enhance speed, lowrider inventors believed lowriders (which are built low to the ground) would be more effective.
Though the look of lowriders has transformed through the years, the trademark colorful illustrations and personal messages on the body of the cars remain today. Moreover, the unique and artistic style of lowriders has extended on a national level.
Although the majority of the lowrider owners were men, Sandoval did not feel unwelcome in the interview process.
“It wasn’t hard for me to talk to them because I have always been a tomboy. I would tell them about what my parents’ experienced living in Los Angeles,” she said. “So, I always felt a sense of belonging with them.”
Although lowriding has been mostly dominated by men, Sandoval said the bike scene is more co-ed and that there are co-ed bike clubs in the Los Angeles area.
Because of her understanding about lowrider culture, Sandoval was hired as a graduate student to do fieldwork for the Peterson Automotive Museum in 2001. There, she created “Arte Y Estilo (Art and Style): The Lowriding Tradition.”
On Oct. 27, Sandoval became the curator of another Peterson Automotive Museum exhibit, “La Vida Lowrider: Cruising the City of Angels.” The exhibit, which will run until June 2008, features 21 lowriders from the ’60s and ’70s. Moreover, the exhibit displays lowriding memorabilia including lowrider bikes and club jackets.
Most of the owners of the lowriders learned about the exhibit through car clubs, which are all over the Los Angeles community, Sandoval said.
Among those featured is “Chavez Ravine,” which is a 1953 custom built ice cream truck. The artist, Vincent Valdez, chronicles “Chavez Ravine,” a predominately Mexican-American community that was destroyed in the ’40s to build public housing. The federally mandated event left the poor residents displaced and helpless. Today, the Los Angeles Dodger Stadium sits on the site.
Renowned artist and partner of Joker brand clothing Mister Cartoon created designs on another ice cream truck also featured at the exhibit.
“Mister Cartoon had some ideas at the last minute but we didn’t know if it would be finished on time. But, the ice cream truck came into the museum minutes before the door opened. I am completely ecstatic and over the moon about this exhibit,” Sandoval said.
Another lowrider at the exhibit, “Dressed to Kill,” has not been on display for nearly a decade.
“‘Dressed to Kill’ is an orange-colored lowrider. It’s very Halloween,” said Sandoval.
Although Sandoval has continually worked with bringing lowrider culture to automobile museums, she realizes that the misconceptions about lowriders and their owners continue to exist.
“It has been a difficult road. Lowriders are still seen as ‘gangs on wheels.’ But, these people drop $40,000 to $50,000 on their cars,” Sandoval said. “Lowriders have a passion for the sport and they respect each other and work hard.”
Furthermore, Sandoval believes that the media also influences these negative stereotypes by projecting false images on TV programs. In most TV shows, the gang member cruising in the neighborhood is a lowrider, she said.
Sandoval believes that the goal of the exhibit is to help change the negative ideas people have toward lowriders and their owners.
“Lowriders are not bad people. Let’s present the true history. The museum is a neutral ground. My hope is that people go to the exhibit and realize how they judge these people can’t be further from the truth,” Sandoval said.
As a professor of Chicana/o Studies, Sandoval encourages her students to learn about of their community, particularly in a city as diverse as Los Angeles.
“In my classes, I tell students to go out and learn about Los Angeles and to visit Olvera Street and Chinatown,” she said. “This will help them have an understanding about culture.”
The “La Vida Lowrider: Cruising the City of Angels,” is at the Peterson Automotive Museum at 6060 Wilshire Blvd. at Fairfax Ave. in Los Angeles.