January 27, 2006

Lowriding: changing with the times

Rigo Reyes, a local legend talks about the golden era and the future

By J.D. Hawk

A famous urban myth buzzed around work-place water coolers years ago about a speed-loving man in Arizona who somehow got hold of jet engine parts and successfully merged them with his car.

He broke the sound barrier, so the legend goes, but when he tried to slow, the unstoppable force of the speeding car the brakes melted away as it thrust into the side of an impenetrable object – a side of a cliff. The ungodly impact obliterated man and the car.

Group photo of AMIGOS CAR CLUB: From left to right: Ralph Palacios, Rigo Reyes, Tony Herrera, Loie Diaz, Ray Ulloa (white hat),Toby Martinez (light blue hat), Alex Cervantes, German Sandoval, Memo Magana, Toby Martinez Jr., Robert Carrillo (Tall man), Jaime Machorro, Paulino Gutierrez, Marcos Arellano, and Marcos Arellano Jr.

The legend has since been debunked. Yet the story epitomizes man’s fascination with cars and technology, and the insatiable desire to build something great.

But there’s also a local legend here in San Diego’s lowriding community. This legend’s name is Rigo Reyes. As the oldest active member of San Diego’s oldest active car club, the Amigos Car Club, he could probably tell you many fascinating stories of cars and car technology that are really true. At 48 years old, Reyes has been lowriding for over 30 years now – You could say he’s the last of the Low-hicans.

During the decades-long cruising time, he’s witnessed lowrider technology grow by leaps and bounds from when he belonged to his first car club, The Casinos, in the early 1970s.

“Man, back then, if you could hop a 12 oz can of Budweiser, you were really cool,” he said. “You could beat anyone.”

Reyes laughed as he recalled his youth because he knows that modern lowriders can now do things with their cars once undreamed of—things like hopping up to five feet off the ground and raising and lowering individual sections of the car and simply making the vehicle look like it’s convulsing or dancing.

But in the early 1970s, when Reyes was at Montgomery High school, there were no stores available for the hydraulic systems needed to make vehicles such as 1964 Impalas, 1948 Fleetline “Bombs” or 1938 Master Deluxe do their famous up-and-down dipping and hopping. Reyes would actually go find parts such as coils for lowriding off of trucks, helicopters, airplane parts, and even parts from trains. But far from using these parts in a vain attempt to break the sound barrier, the effort was made to go slow and to show...to “cruise”.

Why cruise? Well, the intellectual response for cruising is that it’s the Chicano answer to the Anglo’s pride in fast hot rods and an attempt for an alienated subculture to find its own identity while pancaked between the white American majority and other Hispanics south of the border. In that aspect, the lowrider falls under the same stylish guise as the zoot suit.

The lowrider does have its own lingo of Spanish and English words and phrases, and lowrider cars are painted bright colors that often remind Reyes of the bold feathers of the ancient Aztecs. Murals are often painted on the cars to accompany the bright colors, to create a theme, usually Aztec, Catholic, or historical. In Reyes’ case, heartthrob María Félix, portraying a Mexican revolutionary from the 1959 movie La Cucaracha, adorns the side of his 1929 Willys Knight series 6.

However, the short reason for cruising is: To be seen.

In the early 1970s, lowrider cruising was in its prime and the thing to do was to cruise to amuse. Reyes remembers traveling to the beaches in Mexico with his then-car club, The Casinos. Sponsored dances and the ladies were the motivation. But as The Casinos were residents of the South Bay, many of the members felt they need-ed their own identity, separate from Tijuana, and they morphed into the San Diego Amigos Car Club. They began cruising at Highland Avenue in National City in the mid 1970s and early 80s – along with many other car clubs that have since disappeared.

Rigo Reyes’ 1929 Willys Knight series 6

This created a problem. While many businesses enjoyed cruising on Highland Avenue, as it brought hungry consumers to eat into the late hours of the evening, others businesses did not. Weekend traffic could slow down to a five miles-per-hour crawl. Gridlock was commonplace and the lowriders, some from as far as L.A., were attracting young girls, which in turn attracted even more boys – not necessarily lowriders.

Huge gatherings of people in a limited area created outbreaks of fights and disturbances. An inactive member of the Amigos, Toby Martinez, now 50, cites this chain of reasoning for the negative image that some have of the lowriders. Soon the National City Police Department had a regular patrol of four officers called “the 300 squad” used specifically to crack down on lowrider cruising on weekends, according to NCPD watch commander Lt. Ray Allen.

Martinez believes that the lowriders themselves shouldn’t have been held accountable because they weren’t doing anything wrong except existing, even when they were just parked in the lots in front of businesses. “We got hassled all the time,” Martinez said. “[The authorities] used megaphones to tell us to leave, and as soon as we’d leave they’d pull us over.”

Reyes agrees and asks why lowriders who put that much time, work and money into a car would jeopardize their life-style by making the choice to become a criminal. There’s just too much to lose, he contends.

In addition to multiple citations, roadblocks were used to disrupt the flow of cruising and re-route traffic in such a way as to not allow repeated drive-throughs.

Such tactics by authorities all over southern California and Mexico was effective, and marked the end of the golden age of lowriding, according to Reyes. Many lowriders could not handle the repeated citations and hassles. Lowriding temporarily died.

But, ironically, this crackdown on the lowriding movement forced Reyes and other Chicanos who felt they had been slighted, to join together and organize. In addition to the collective group of car clubs that have belonged to the Lowrider Council since 1979, old rivalries between car clubs disappeared and collaborative efforts were made to boycott businesses, learn legal rights, correct social injustices, even do charity work.

Today, Reyes says he knows many of his fellow lowriders are in positions of high respect including a lawyer and restaurant chain owner and a high-ranking police officer in the NCPD. “I have no problem telling you who he is, but he might have a problem with me telling you who he is,” he joked.

In fact, so far have the Amigos come in their reversal of cultural acceptance, that on Aug.13, 2002, they were recognized with their own official day. The event culminated in an award given by County Supervisor Greg Cox on behalf of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors for the Amigos’ active role in preserving the Latino culture and identity, charity work and their encouragement of positive role models. Reyes graciously accepted the award on behalf of the Amigos but confided his anxiety. With perhaps glimpses of flashbacks of long-ago citations and road blocks, he wondered if the award wasn’t just an elaborate ruse to handcuff him. It wasn’t, obviously.

Today, the golden era of lowrider cruising may be over, but it hasn’t died altogether. In fact, it has gone international, with shows around the world and enthusiasts as far away as Japan. It has actually re-birthed into something far greater, so great that it even sends shivers down the spine of Reyes, who fears that lowriding’s acceptance internationally might destroy the whole Chicano influence it was meant to promote.

“Lowriding is big in Japan. They are buying cars, t-shirts, bandanas, and tattoos,” Reyes said. “I’m pretty sure Japanese culture doesn’t understand the vision of Our Lady of Guadalupe, but you have pictures of people in Japan wearing t-shirts of the vision of Guadalupe on it...I don’t know if that’s good or bad...It’s definitely interesting.”

Return to the Frontpage