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San Diego's Lowrider History Documented

April 18, 2013 1:26 p.m.


Alberto Pulido, Ethnic Studies Dept. Chair, USD, director and co-producer

Rigo Reyes, founder of the Amigos Car Club and co-producer

Related Story: San Diego's Lowrider History Documented


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This will be a big weekend for celebrating Chicano history in San Diego. Yesterday we talked with the organizers of the Chicano Park Anniversary Day. And on Sunday, a new document on low-riders premieres at Sweetwater High school. It focuses on the San Diego roots of low-rider culture and features voices of the pioneers of low-rider culture in San Diego and Tijuana. My guests, Alberto Pulido, Ethnic Studies Department Chair at USD, director and co-producer of the documentary "everything comes from the streets." Welcome to the program.

PULIDO: Thank you. It's great to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Rigo Reyes is founder of the Amigos Car Club and co-producer of the film. Welcome.

REYES: Thank you for having us.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Alberto, there have been several films and documents made about low riding. Why did you want to be part of this project? What are you hoping to show?

PULIDO: Well, the key issue is to recognize that the low riding experience in San Diego is a very unique experience. What has happened here we believe is different than in any other part of the country. And I think other important dimension is that low riding for me is about community, it's about family, it's about history, and it's really come through in the project.

CAVANAUGH: I'm going to ask you how it's different here in San Diego. But first, since people don't see too many low riders anymore, remind us what low riding is, if you would. How are the cars changed to become low riders and describe what they look like.

REYES: Sure. Definitely. Over the year, it has changed. It's very different today than it was when I first started low riding. The engineering of low riding has changed over the years. But I think overall, it's still the same culture, the same spirit, if you will, as far as the culture is concerned. Just like any other enthusiast, many people focus a lot on the speed, on the cosmetics and so on. For us, it's basically low and slow. That's been the emphasis ever since we started. And it's still the emphasis today. For us, it's a way of life.

CAVANAUGH: Alberto, you said there was something distinct about the low riding culture in San Diego. What is that?

PULIDO: We feel there's three things that have come out especially as a result of the project. One is the establishment of Chicano park. We clearly see a direct link between the establishment of the park and the involvement of low riders. And I think what that space did is it even helped enhance the low riding movement in San Diego. So that's one. A second one which I was completely blown away by was the deep ties between Tijuana low riders, modificadores, and the work they did, outstanding, amazing, ahead of their times with limited resources and limited technology. And we're able to highlight that in our film. And the third thing is the role of women. Women got into low riding in the late '70s. And it was a lot related to the activism happening in San Diego. When I think about the project, those are three really different issues. There's more, but that's what comes to mind.

CAVANAUGH: Take us back to the beginnings. Why did this culture emerge?

PULIDO: We begin the project with deep roots in Logan Heights in particular with what were known as the jacket clubs. They were created in the '50s that were all about leadership, getting involved with the community. And there's a whole range of jacket clubs that existed in San Diego, which you could do a whole show on. And from the jacket club, we see that there were organizing already in place, there was leadership, the fact that the -- there was also women jacket clubs by the way, and that was something that began to really help structure and organize. The other thing which again would fall into that category of the uniqueness of our project is in the 1950s, there was a racing team in Logan Heights by the name of the bean bandits. They were Mexican/American men who were into speed racing. But the important part is that the jacket clubs and the people of the community looked up to them as heroes. And one of the persons that we feature in the documentary is Mr. Robert Martinez. He is 84 years old. And he is still involved, he's still active. And that whole history of the bean bandits for us then eventually led to the car enthusiasts. And by the 1960s, we start to see organized low riding.

CAVANAUGH: Rigo, you've been involved for 35 years. Alberto, did low riding culture come about because of a sense of alienation?

PULIDO: I think that could be part of it. But it's like when you're dealing -- what you find is when there is tension or there is conflict, there are negative things and positive things. And I think people have taken something that could potentially be negative where people are feeling alienated, and turning it on its head and making it -- and we consider that a form of empowerment, a form of validation. And when you look at what a low rider represents, it's a work of art that makes a statement about who people are as it cruises down the street and enters into different spaces. So yes, I think that's a big part of it. But it's a very complicated question.

CAVANAUGH: You've been low riding for over 35 years. Can you tell us how you got involved?

REYES: Sure, back in the day, I was probably about eight or 9 years old, I lived in the south bay, and the first car I ever saw was a 1957 Chevy that was pretty much parked and out of the air, whatever, the car just went to the floor with a hydraulic system. That really blew my mind. And the first minute I saw that, I said I got to have one of those someday. And eventually I grew up into it, and it really motivated me into focusing and structuring my life toward that. I want to add that the reality of the barrio where most of us grew up at, some take a negative trend, if you will. For us, we see low riding as an alternative, as a positive alternative, as something to keep your mind busy and not think about what's happening in the streets. So for us, to many of us, that's been an outlet.

CAVANAUGH: And why did you want to get involved in the making of this documentary? Is there a feeling that perhaps some of this history is being lost if it's not documented?

REYES: Definitely. That was one of my main motivations. I had this project, at least I had this project for probably over 15 years. In particular, the last five years or so, and mainly because we've lost a few lives of people that were key in the low riding movement. And eventually when they go, they take their histories with them. So that's where really the pressure started coming as far as saying we got to leave something behind. I'm not a youngster anymore. So I want to be sure that our story and our history is told and it's told the right away, it's told by us, not by somebody from the outside.

CAVANAUGH: How were or how are low riders thought of in the Chicano community in the heyday?

PULIDO: Well, again, it's a complicated question. I think that what we have seen is especially in the '70s, we see people coming up in leadership roles. We have the creation of car clubs such as Latin low rider, brown image, they really distinguished themselves as leaders and doing a lot of work. Unfortunately what we have is the cruising movement, which issa a big part of our project, and it begins to be seen in a very negative way. And the direct correlation for that is the release of a film called "boulevard nights" in 1979. And with the release of that film which really connected low riding to gang life, many people got very upset. Back in the day, Highland Avenue was the place to cruise. Law enforcement got involved. Unfortunately to this day, it is illegal to cruise the streets of Highland, and that's a question that I think Rigo can address. If low riding is connected to cruising, how can one still be a low rider?

CAVANAUGH: I see, and not cruise.

PULIDO: Right.

CAVANAUGH: So how can one?

REYES: Well, what happened particularly in the area Alberto is referring to, it was a very important time. That's when we started also seeing a lot of change. Change in the sense that from the cruising where it really came from, from the streets, it started developing more into a car show circuit, which is what it is today. Most of the low riding happens at the low rider scene at a car show. And my biggest issue with that is that people from the outside, particular promoters, corporations, are pretty much taking over something that was coming from the street, from the neighborhood, and it's now it's become a money-making deal.

CAVANAUGH: Or a beauty pageant.

REYES: One of the questions that we pose in this film is precisely that, that we -- you know, we cannot forget the roots of how it started, in the streets, and it didn't start in the car shows circuit. People need to be educated, and particularly the new generations because that's all they know.

CAVANAUGH: And Alberto, tell us more about how women were involved in low riding culture here in San Diego. I don't think people really automatically make that connection.

PULIDO: Within our documentary, what we see with the groups that were involved, the specials, ladies pride, that were coming out of the south bay, they got involved because back in those day, there was a lot of action going on at the border around issues around immigration. And so a lot of the women got involved that way, and they started to go to these gatherings, are either as security or to be part of the process. And they saw that the low riding community was brought into a lot of these demonstrations, and a lot of these activities. So they started to link with the men and started to ask about having cars, and that whole process got going. We also have stories of women who were not allowed to be in clubs. So they said well, we're do our own thing. And that's exactly what happened. And they had incredible cars just as well. But there was also the tension between the fact the men assumed those cars did not belong to them. And that's also a very important part of it.

CAVANAUGH: What do you do with this problem that you identified, the boulevard nights movie, and I'm sure it comes from some other commercial ideas of what low riders are. How do you deal with the idea that this is linked in some people's minds with gang activity and with crime? What do you do with that?

PULIDO: Well, one of the things is you make a movie about it.

PULIDO: In other words, as a documentary, we're wanting to raise questions, we're wanting people to reflect on this. The new crowd of people who are in the movement don't give it a lot of thought because it's something that was never part of their experience. So to raise the question, to ask, is it possible for city officials and the low rider community to work together, and can they actually move toward celebrating this, which is something quite beautiful? If you look at the vehicles, the esthetics in the vehicles, the work, the same that goes into it, it's wonderful. And just to bring back our friends from Tijuana, in Tijuana there's no problem. The law enforcement embraces them. They think they're part of this wonderful experience. So one has to unpack that and think why is that? Why is it that just 25miles from here there's not an issue? In Tijuana, it's seen as something that's very positive.

CAVANAUGH: Your documentary, everything comes from the street, premiering this weekend, there will be know exhibition of low rider cars at Chicano park on Saturday. Last year, there was a big exhibit up in the Oceanside museum, cruising Califas. Do you think that this focus now on low riding is sort of a way that the larger community is reembracing this idea?

REYES: I think the exposure that low riding has had over the year, probably the last five years or so in particular. It's interesting to compare to when I first started low riding, 37 years ago, nobody would give us the time of day in those times. It was something that was focused primarily in the barrio. But it was pretty much segregated to our own neighborhoods. With the media, and particularly the movies and TV and things of that nature, are the exposure has gone worldwide. Now, excuse the term, but everybody and their grandmother wants to be a low rider.

REYES: They're used on MTV, on movie, on TV shows, sometimes very negatively, but we also need to understand why. In a sense that maybe that's the perception that's being portrayed. And for us here, weave working together since 1979 as a coalition. And we're united to promote a positive image of low riders.

CAVANAUGH: The documentary premieres at Sweetwater high school in national city this Sunday at 3:00PM. The event is free. It's open to the public, but you have to register. Thank you both very much.

PULIDO: Just a quick shout out for Kelly Waylan, coproducer, co-writer, they're just doing great work.

REYES: I want to thank via international for letting me produce and be part of this project. They're very supportive of this endeavor.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you both.

PULIDO: Thank you.