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Lowrider cruising culture's impact on California, Chicano community

Posted at 10:05 AM, May 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-19 13:05:59-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- The ordinance that put the brakes on cruising in National City has reached the end of the road.

"I don't know if its excitement or anxiety, because we've worked so hard to get to this point," said Marisa Rosales, the vice president at the United Lowrider Coalition.

As the group marks the occasion, the impact of lowriders and cruising has on the Chicano community in San Diego has taken center stage.

The cruising ban in National City took effect in April 1992 over complaints of crowded streets, traffic, and gang fights.

"When the gang members show up, words are exchanged and often times somebody gets disrespected," National City Police Sgt. Craig Boegler said back in 1992.

Rosales remembers that time.

"The story that we got from National City Police Department and city council is that it wasn't because of the lowriders," Rosales said. "It was the people that get attracted to come and see the cars cruise up and down the boulevard ... We got punished for things that other people are doing that are out of our control."

For those who cared for their cars and loved cruising, the ordinance led to a negative image about lowriders.

"We got labeled as the Cholos or the bad guys, the thugs, the drug dealers," Marcos "Mr. Rabbit" Arellano told ABC 10News.

It’s an image that goes against what cruising has always been about.

When asked what the one word would be to describe lowrider culture, Jovita Arellano from the United Lowrider Coalition said it would be "unity."

Marcos Arellano added, in Spanish, "When they say, 'Are you a lowrider?' Yes, I'm a lowrider. It comes with family; it comes with honor."

Lowriders believe their cars are moving pieces of art that sets traditions and strengthens bonds among family members and forges a sense of community among car enthusiasts.

"There's nothing like cruising up and down the boulevard with your peers, with other lowriders, and showing off your artwork, your expression," Rosales said.

Cruising down the boulevard was a Sunday night tradition for Rosales and her son.

"My ritual was on Sunday mornings, I would get up, I get my lowrider ready. Back then, I use to have a 1967 El Camino, and I use to clean it all day, detail it, and once the sun came down it was off to Highland that we went,” said Rosales.

Dr. Alberto Pulido, who is the chair of the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of San Diego, said lowriders also showcase what he calls "Chicano ingenuity." Most modifications to cars are done by the car owner or by connections within the community.

"The ingenuity comes from being able to do what you want to do but with limited resources," Pulido said.

He has a documentary called "Everything Comes from the Streets," which traces back the roots of lowriding in San Diego, its connection to the Chicano movement, and documents the lowriders from the early days, their work to form their own community, and the social issues around the ordinance banning cruising.

Cruising culture dates back to post-World War II, around the same time hot rods were emerging as well. But what sets cruising apart is their motto "suavecito y bajito," or "low and slow" in English.

While hot rods focused on speed, lowriders created their own art form. A slow cruise to show the art on their cars and low to make for a smooth ride, Pulido said.

Pulido explained that the bounce that has become a staple among lowriders started as a form of resistance, adding, "Remember it was the lowering of the vehicles that was one of the major reasons there were impounding vehicles."

Adding the hydraulics system meant lowriders could drop it low when they were stationary, but could hit the pump making the car go back up.

Height restrictions are part of ordinances across California that target cruising and lowrider culture. San Diego Assemblymember David Alvarez has introduced AB 436 meant to dismantle those ordinances. It passed the State Assembly last month and is going through the Senate.

If signed by the governor, cruising in California would be officially decriminalized.

"Times have changed, it's not the 90s no more," said Rosales. "It's exciting just the thought that a bill could be passed at the state Assembly that recognizes our culture, that accepts the fact that its important. It’s important to the community, it’s important to people."