Lowriders aren’t just tricked-out cars. They’re works of art, handcrafted by their owners, and a central part of the Chicano and Latino cultures in San Francisco. Just driving can be an active form of resistance to the power structures that marginalize these communities.
A free exhibit opened on Tuesday at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts to commemorate this legacy. It showcases replicas of lowriders, color-chrome vehicles that have been modified to ride “low and slow” along the road, and it chronicles their equally vibrant history in The City.
Sponsored by the San Francisco Lowrider Council in honor of its 40th anniversary, the show is open to the public at 2868 Mission St. through Sept. 27. There also will be a special event on Sept. 18 featuring driving events, vendors, food trucks and other performances.
“This lowrider exhibit is art and history and our future—because the candy color paint jobs, the genius hydraulic engineering and the romantic steel-etched style inspire new imagination,” said Benjamin Bac Sierra, a professor at City College and long-time lowrider. “We combined American steel with airplane hydraulics and solid soul oldies to create something more than static art.”
Lowriders as art and resistance
As Bac Sierra tells it, growing up in the Mission District in the 1970s and 1980s was to be part of the epicenter of Latino life in Northern California, and Mission Street itself was the heart of lowrider culture.
“Shut out of the suburban American dream, we created our own dream of dancing down the gritty streets in flamboyant fashion,” he said.
Roberto Hernandez, 65, has been cruising down Mission Street since he was a teenager. Back then, local law enforcement used a number of tactics — chief among them discrimination and harassment — to deter the lowrider gatherings on the neighborhood’s prime thoroughfare. Hernandez himself was subject to dozens of arrests and beaten several times as well, he says.
These experiences compelled Hernandez to found the Lowrider Council.
The exhibit details what follows, including the filing of a federal civil rights lawsuit against The City, then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein and the police department. All told, the lawsuit forced the removal of several officers at the San Francisco Police Department Mission Station, created a path to create a protected space for lowrider gatherings at a park at the corner of Utah and 25th Streets and gave lowrider drivers the right to cruise down Mission Street.
Creating a lowrider
No two lowriders are the same. Each is a creative expression of the owner.
Take Hernandez’s 1947 Chrysler.
Ornate Mayan murals cover the exterior, an ode to his ancestry. One side of the car features a bright sun, a divine symbol in his family’s culture. His interior upholstery was imported from Guatemala, giving his seats a flair hard to find in other lowriders. That’s to say nothing of the rims — each of the four wheels sport a distinct design.
“We put a lot of love, time and money into these cars,” Hernandez said. “Each one is built differently. It’s a creative juice that flows in your mind and your heart and soul and your spirit, and it makes a statement of who you are.”
Building out a lowrider also requires tremendous skill.
Owners used to play with hydraulic systems with the goal of lowering the vehicle to about 14 inches off the ground. Now, drivers can use these increasingly complex parts to make their vehicles dance.
The exhibit shows vehicles tilted almost entirely vertical, their bumpers resting on the ground. Drivers can prance their vehicles down the street on three wheels, or rock it side-to-side in techniques that Hernandez says make him feel like a kid with a remote control.
Perhaps the truest power of the lowrider in San Francisco, though, lies in its role as a unifier.
Lowriders are mainstays in rites of passage such as weddings, quinciñeras and funerals. They’ve long been used in demonstrations for immigrant rights, police reform and combating inequality. Drivers deliver food and resources to residents in need, dress up their vehicles like reindeers for a Christmas parade and teach youth how to build out lowriders to teach responsibility and structure.
Sitting behind the wheel of a lowrider connects people on a deeper level, too.
“Love for our art, love for each other, love for perfect strangers,” Bac Sierra says. “We see each other, and even if we do not know each other, we know we share a certain history of oppression and hard-knock amor. We are people who , against all odds, hold our heads up with dignity and pride.”