Several years ago while driving on the Embarcadero in San Francisco with my Anglo friend Julie, we encountered a caravan of hydraulic-hopping Impalas. The wealthy upstate New York native was flabbergasted by the display.
I turned to my overly excited friend, telling her, "Calm down. My tio Chuy has two of those in the backyard?.it's not that big a deal." She was not convinced, wanting me to pull over so she could get a closer look and meet the owners. At the time I couldn't feel anything but embarrassment for this white girl who was going to run to these guys and ask them about their cars.
It is always odd to see someone gawk at a cultural artifact so common in our own life. So it was with tremendous pride and surprise that I visited the Peterson Automotive Museum's exhibit, "Arte y Estillo." Here, a nationally acclaimed museum had finally recognized an historic Latino art form.
As I walked into the museum I realized I wasn't at a car club car show. There wasn't any blaring music, the faces were lighter, and the lovely female "Low Rider" models were nowhere to be found. Instead, I saw displayed before me a broad spectrum of low riders. Plastered on the walls were statements by Latino community and low riding luminaries.
The reactions throughout the room reminded me of driving along San Francisco with my excited friend. A woman in her mid-forties looked to her daughter. "That's not a car, that's a statement," she said. Rushing through the exhibit was a man with his sons and father in tow, claiming, "I've never understood the low rider!" An older gentleman and his friend were enthralled, saying, "It's amazing?these are works of art!"
Although the exhibit tries, it is near impossible to present the essence of the low rider. Instead of dignified owners displaying trophies and proudly displaying their cars, there are handsomely designed placards describing the cars. The beat of oldies, Latino groove or Hip Hop, the soundtrack of the low rider experience, is nowhere to be heard.
The low rider is not intended to sit by itself on a pedestal rather it is part of a cultural lifestyle that arose from the Mexican American's unique situation in LA. In response to the dragsters of the 50s (whose focus was speed), the Mexican low rider was a statement. Hydraulics were initially installed to circumvent automobile height requirement laws. The artistic form arose as an adaptation to the restricting and repressive forces of the law. One exhibited low rider claims: "We are the Picassos of the boulevard?a low rider is the working man's work of art." Men employed as mechanics upholsters or other trades find their canvas of expression in the low rider.
Despite the exhibition's shortcomings, one cannot discount the importance of the show. Like the mobile art exhibition or field trip that exposes children of the inner city to fine works of art, Arte y Estilo brings the inner city to the mainstream. This unique Latino art form becomes accessible to everyone.
In a time when the city is embroiled in controversy over inept schools and corrupt police it is refreshing to see an art form emerging from the city which demonstrates the Latino community's resilience, adaptability, and influence.