“Bajito y Suavecito”
Talking lowriders in New Mexico with writer and photographer Don Usner
“They're propped up on blocks beside double-wide trailers, half-covered in tarps in apple orchards, or lined up in rows along flowing acequias. Just about every make and model of car and truck is represented in weathering assemblages. Each vehicle comes with its own history and an imagined future as a lowrider painted and chromed to perfection,” writes Don Usner in “Cruising in the Heart of the Lowrider World,” the first featured text essay and corresponding photo essay in Museum of New Mexico Press' ¡Órale! Lowrider: Custom Made in New Mexico. Usner, a writer based in Santa Fe, has a long history with lowrider culture in northern New Mexico, which first came to him when he was a kid in the form of a warning against it.
Growing up in Los Alamos, Usner was cautioned to stay away from the lowriders from the valley, that is, the city of Española, some 20 miles away. “I was very keenly aware of the prejudices and stereotypes from the time I went to school,” Usner explained. But those warnings didn't do much to shake his interest in the belly-dragging cars he'd seen cruising slow down Riverside Dr. on visits to the valley, where his mother was from. As an adult, he began to connect with lowrider culture all across northern New Mexico and quickly found all those ingrained assumptions about who builds, drives and enthuses about lowriders quickly turned on their heads. Consistently, Usner said, he “was surprised by how open and generous everyone was. That people were like, 'Wow, let me share this with you. Take my picture. Meet my family,'” he described. “I was surprised because of that reputation that I had been impressed with. It turned out to not be true at all.”
To Usner those warnings early on came from a growing trend in the early days of the ‘60s to “denigrate Mexican-Americans” and, as such, the tremendous art that was coming out of their culture in the shape of lowriders. What typifies a lowrider has been argued about for decades now, but most can settle on these four loose identifiers: 1) It rides low; 2) It has small, spoke rims, 3) white wall tires, and 4) a nice paint job. But more than the physical stuff of chassis, steel and chrome, lowriders are a form of cultural identity, familial heritage and personal expression, and they articulate history in a way that makes it a bit less dry, more alive by many degrees.
Usner's essay points to the way lowrider craft and culture began to flourish alongside the Chicano Movement of the '60s (though lowrider roots run deep, all the way back to Juarez and El Paso circa 1939, quickly spreading to LA). During this time, these cars not only served as a source of pride and Chicano identity, but took cues from broader art movements—like the murals of LA at that time that strongly reflected the momentum of El Movimiento. In New Mexico, paint jobs reflected the style, but, in a distinctly New Mexican fashion, emphasized religious and regional imagery. “To me, that is reflective of the whole tradition of the santero,” Usner outlined. Elements such as this illustrate the specificity and uniqueness of the scene in New Mexico; one that is completely “embedded in the culture” and truly “an expression of place,” as Usner put it.
Nevertheless, New Mexico has become synonymous with lowrider culture in all its expansiveness. Back in 1993, MTV even sent camera crews to Española declaring it the “Lowrider Capital of the World,” and Albuquerque has hosted the Lowrider Magazine's Super Show every summer for many years (this year, it will be held Aug. 20). Not to mention, Usner, along with many civic and private organizations, is putting together proposals for the Lowrider Museum, for which—fingers crossed—construction will soon begin in Española.
Though contemporary auto culture is perhaps nowadays skewed slightly more toward the fast and the furious set, lowriders throughout our state are keeping it “bajito y suavecito,” as Usner writes—low and slow—flying in the face of the prevailing tendency to build higher and move faster. That's not to say these cars don't reach heights—the current jumping record is more than 130 inches—but in New Mexico, hydraulics were installed for navigating dirt roads, not just showing off. “It's a really homegrown scene,” Usner explained. And the more I page through ¡Órale!, and the longer I speak with Usner, the more that rings true.
At the heart of all of this—the theorizing, the events, the Sunday cruising—is, of course, the cars themselves. I asked Usner if there were any lowriders that stand out in his memory. He described a '53 Bel Air out of Chimayó—“I love that one because it embodies a story and this history. It relates to a particular place and family. The car isn't necessarily that spectacular … but because it is an expression of local culture, it has a lot of meaning. I think that's true of almost all of these cars. They have a real significance to individuals because of their story and their personal connection to family and history. It goes far beyond the value of cars that might win awards. There's a lot of cars like this one for me.”