By Barbara Zaragoza / South Bay Compass
Low-RI-der. We all know the 1975 song by Jerry Goldstein, but do we really understand the history, art and technology lowriders have contributed to our American culture?
I’m here to find out and Jose Romero is first up to tell us a little bit about lowriding history.
Jose Romero, a member of the Klique car club, the oldest continuous running car club in San Diego, has been lowriding for over 40 years. He explains that lowriding is a talent he’s had since childhood.
Born in East LA to immigrant parents from Mexico, Jose considers himself a Chicano. Proud of his heritage as a first-generation American, he even has ‘Chicano’ tattooed on his belly.
Jose’s parents used to work for Starkist Tuna in San Pedro. His dad would push the tuna cans into the oven, while his mother worked the line, gutting and cleaning fish. A hard working class family, when Jose was 9 years old, his parents bought both Jose and his brother the exact same bike for Christmas.
“I said thank you very much, but I tore it apart real quick. I put my own seat on it. I put my own boards on it.”
Jose also asked his older friends to help. They put a fork where the front tire was. They heated and twisted some of the metal. They also added on a smaller tire.
“I put my own flavor into that bike.”
Jose recalls with a laugh, “Man, I still feel that ass-whoopin’ now. My dad got so hot. He would say, ‘You know what we went through to get you this bike and you already tore it apart. We had it on layaway and we worked… What did you do?’
“My answer was: But it’s mine now. See, there’s not another one in the world like this. There’s just this one. There’s not another one and there will never be another one like this, ever. You can’t buy this at the store.”
That’s when Jose knew: he was a lowrider.
Klique Car Club: Oldest in San Diego County
As an adult, Jose’s cars have been featured in 5 different lowrider magazines. A resident of National City, Jose worked at a body shop for many years, but when times became hard, he got his dealer’s license. He currently buys cars, like small shops do, and fixes them. His house is also full of cars. A lowrider’s paradise, really. For him, lowriding is a way of life.
The History of Lowriders
“Nobody really knows how it started. It’s a long-standing debate,” Jose says. “We decided that the first guy who actually did the hydraulics was a guy named Steve. That was up in San Jose who put the first hydraulics in the cars. In the early 1970s. This goes way back.”
Jose explains that before the 1970s, they were just Greaser cars. “You’re allowed so much spring which holds up the car, but we used to get under there and torch them. So the spring got heated up, it brought the car down. But there was no more bringing it up. If it went down, it went down. That’s when the lowriding and the ‘slow’ started.”
While some say lowriding may have started in Mexico and others maintain the art began in East LA, Jose says that it was in 1979 when the movie Boulevard Nights came out that was a definitive lowriding moment. “From that point on, it was just open season.”
The movie—about a Chicano who tries to get out of the life of gang violence—also gave lowriding a bad rap.
Police Sweeps in National City
On September 14, 1979 a 21-year-old Brad O. Bailey was stabbed to death at a home in Chula Vista. At the time, Highland Avenue was a well known cruising strip for lowriders. In response to the murder, the National City Police Department carried out sweeps along Highland Avenue, arresting about 170 lowriders on the nights of September 14th and 15th. They were mostly cited for curfew violations. No violations were for drugs. The majority of those arrested were Chicano.
This was the year when the Ku Klux Klan was particularly active in San Diego. Herman Baca, Chairman of the Committee of Chicano Rights (CCR), called the police racist and slapped a restraining order against both the police and City Council. He explained that the Chula Vista murder had nothing to do with lowriders.
The parents of the arrested Chicano youths were outraged and Baca began to help them file a class action lawsuit alleging their minor children were unlawfully detained or arrested by the police.
In addition, about 30 National City residents complained that the police department focused on lowriders, while ignoring community concerns about actual crime taking place. In particular, two men were terrorizing the neighborhood, even killing one resident’s poodle. Days later, those residents demonstrated in the streets, carrying signs saying “Stop Hassling Lowriders and Protect Us.”
To ease tensions with police, in 1979 the community also created the San Diego Lowriding Council.
However, by August 1980, gang violence did hit Highland Avenue with three murders in one week. The police wanted to close down the street on Friday nights entirely.
A year later, on August 25, 1981, headlines hit the newspapers that said, “Uneasy Yearlong Truce Fades Between Lowriders, National City Police”. Police citations for traffic and car-modification had increased from 15% to 30%. The officers maintained that lowriders were driving unsafe cars that could lead to accidents and possibly death.
Despite tensions and negative stigmas, lowriding continued on Highland Avenue. Still in 1992 the city tried to stop lowriders by passing a no-cruising ordinance. Mayor Ron Morrison explained that cruising didn’t fully end along Highland Avenue until around the year 2000.
Car Club Unity
Like any layered group, there was a lot more to lowriders than clashes with the police. Perhaps that’s all the newspapers had to say, but lowriding was becoming an art form and a way of life. Car clubs became like close families. Lowriding cars became living historic works of art.
Jose Romero’s Klique Car Club started in 1975 in East LA and they recently celebrated their 50th anniversary. Today, Klique has nine chapters, five located in California and the others in Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona. The San Diego chapter has 32 members and has been running non-stop for the last forty years.
Jose says, “We’ve grown up. Times have changed. It was a new art when it started, so a lot of people were coming out with their cars and we had the wrong mentality to begin with, which was my club is better than yours. Eventually, we evolved and we realized we’re the same.”
Jose is also part of the Lowrider Community of San Diego. Thirteen individual clubs are on the council and their biggest focus is on unity. Nowadays, they’ve turned from cruising to car shows, competitions and community events like toy drives and Taco Tuesdays.
Jose explains that decades ago his lowrider community would try to tell the San Diego and National City police department they were the ones who needed protection. Their cars were expensive and beautiful. Lowriders were the least likely to want any trouble.
However, the stereotype of lowriders associated with gang violence, according to Jose, persisted. It was through the Lowrider Community of San Diego, the Lowrider Community Advisory Council and working with the youth that made the difference over several decades.
“We’ve changed the cycle ourselves. It’s not to say the police did it. Throwing them in jail worked. No it doesn’t. The community did it. We did it. We take credit for that.”