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Lowriders Built By The Border

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La Vuelta is a biweekly car cruise in Barrio Logan that runs through the summer. The event has become the heart of lowrider culture here in San Diego.

These days, the customized slow- and low-to-the-ground cars and bikes can be found almost anywhere. Lowriding has become a culture created by Chicanos and exported all over the world. It’s big in Japan. No, seriously. Not to mention in Brazil and other lowrider hot spots.

But at the border, the lowrider scene is a lifeline. For lots of people here, lowriders are much more than just a hobby.

The culture that’s coalesced around lowriders on both sides of the border has offered some people here salvation. It’s given new meaning and purpose to peoples’ lives — from deportees in Tijuana to military veterans struggling with PTSD in San Diego.

In this episode of "Only Here," a KPBS podcast about art, culture and life at the Western Hemisphere’s busiest border crossing, a story about lowriders as life rafts.

Only here can you find such a crucial lowrider culture on both sides of the wall.

Show transcript

La Vuelta Nat Sound

It’s an unusually cloudy and cool summer evening in San Diego. The threat of rain hangs in the air, but it doesn’t stop hundreds of people from crowding the sidewalks of Barrio Logan on a Wednesday night to catch a glimpse of the dozens of lowriders cruising down Logan Avenue.

Marco “Rabbit” Soriano shows off his cherry red ‘62 Chevy Impala convertible. The car drops so low to the ground it honestly looks like it’s gonna bottom out.

La Vuelta 3 Clip 5
So I have hydraulics on my vehicle. You know, here it goes. [sounds of hydros] The rear and then of course we have the front.

But then he hits a button and the car raises up about 50 inches from the ground.

La Vuelta 3 Clip 5
and then of course we have the front.

Rabbit and about a half dozen other members of the Impalas Car Club of San Diego are staked out on the east end of Logan Avenue, sitting in lawn chairs with their families next to their impeccably built lowrider Impalas.

La Vuelta 3 Clip 2
they all have a unique look. some of them, you know have extra Chrome, you know, most of our cars have beautiful paint jobs interior, you know pinstriping Chrome undercarriage and all that, you know, some have some really nice engraving and stuff that you can see with some of these cars.

This is La Vuelta. Literally speaking, that means “The Turn” in Spanish. But the common use of the phrase, saying vamos a dar la vuelta, is let’s go cruise around - like let’s go dar la vuelta al barrio.

It’s a biweekly car cruise in Barrio Logan that runs through the summer. The event has become the heart of lowrider culture here in San Diego.

These days, the slow- and low-to-the-ground cars and bikes can be found almost anywhere. Lowriding has become a culture created by Chicanos and exported all over the world. It’s big in Japan. No, seriously. Not to mention in Brazil and other lowrider hotspots.

But at the border, the lowrider scene is a lifeline.

Back on Logan Avenue, Eduardo Magana is showing off his gorgeous multi-colored 1965 Chevy Impala.

Car Hydraulic Clip 2
[sounds of hydraulic system] wow, that's tight. It's cool like this. So easy so easy to do that
Car and Scene Description Clip 2
it is a big backyard party where everybody is behaving having a good time. We all sit here at the corner we'll talk to my months each other and then we'll go and talk to everybody else in different clubs and we're all just just talking having a good time

And a few feet away, a group of young dudes grip the handles of their shiny chrome lowrider bicycles.

Low Rider Bike Dudes Clip 1
we're actually starting a bike club, a lowrider bike club. Really? Yeah here from Barrio Logan? Yeah..

That’s Niqo Simonson. He says lowriding is his life.

Low Rider Bike Dudes Clip 2
the lifestyle what it is. It's like it's our family, you know, like somebody be cruising down the street and they'll be like, oh, what's up? Homie, like how you doing? You know, it's never know be for like nothing like that and then place like nothing's better than when you just have like. nothing but like you have a vision for it, you know, and I feel like that's the best part and then like you put that Vision together and then once it's all put together like you feel proud of yourself, you know, like yes, I need to be like that's why I made that you get me? Yeah,

For lots of people here, lowriders are way more than just a hobby.

The culture that’s coalesced around lowriders on both sides of the border has offered some people here salvation.
It’s given new meaning and purpose to peoples’ lives -- from deportees in Tijuana to military veterans struggling with PTSD in San Diego.

I’m your host, Alan Lilienthal, and you’re listening to Only Here, a KPBS podcast about art, culture and life at the Western Hemisphere’s busiest border crossing.

Today, a story about lowriders as life rafts.

Only here in a border town can you find such a crucial lowrider culture on both sides of the wall.

Stick around.

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In the United States, lowriders have always been an unmistakable symbol of cultural pride -- sorta a badge of honor.

The cars -- often customized, classic chevys, cadillacs and buicks -- are one of the cornerstones of Chicano culture. They serve as a visual protest against a white world that can consume all outside cultures.

Instead of super fast race cars, or lifted trucks, Chicanos wanted their vehicles to be rolling works of art -- slow and low to the ground.

Rigo Clip 4
being different. not trying to assimilate into, into a culture and also developing it as an art. One because essentially that's what has become. That's what it was from the get-go and that's what still is today. It's an art form to us, we do this day in day out, so for us,. It's become a way of life….

That’s Rigo Reyes, one of the most vigilant keepers of lowrider and Chicano history in the border region. By the way: Rigo says “Chicano” is a term he and lots of other people in the U.S. of Mexican descent prefer. Other folks like the terms Mexican-American, Hispanic, Latinx or a number of other descriptors.

Rigo grew up in the South Bay, right next to the border. His dad grew up in Tijuana, so he’s lived his life on both sides of the wall. And in his early years, he never felt he really belonged to either country.

Rigo Clip 1
It was struggling with that as far as I'm not from here, not from the from there. Where the heck am I from?..

Rigo was 12 when he came across his first lowrider. He says he was immediately hooked.

Rigo Clip 3
suddenly the car this boom went to the ground and that as kids, you know that really whoa, you know, it was all such an attraction. That was such. It was so impactful that that I told myself someday. I want to have one of these cars and and essentially the first car that I got was a 57 Chevy.

Building his first lowrider was like building a bridge right into the soul of Chicano culture, which was just starting to blossom back in the 70s.

Finally, Rigo felt like he found a home -- a community he belonged to.

Rigo’s been lowriding now for 45 years. He’s part of a local lowrider club and helped start the San Diego Lowrider Council, a group that still exists today and helps keep the culture connected and alive.

Rigo also helped build the University of San Diego’s San Diego Lowrider Archival Project, an online resource where hundreds of historical photos and other information has been digitized.

And he co-authored a book and co-produced a film about lowriding, too. It’s called “Everything Comes from the Streets and you can find it on YouTube.

“Everything Comes from the Streets Clip: https://www.kpbs.org/news/2014/aug/19/everything-comes-streets/

One thing that has always bugged Rigo when he’s researching the lowrider historical record is the lack of credit San Diego and other border towns get.

San Jose, New Mexico -- depending on who you ask, the origin of the first lowrider is still up for debate. And Rigo’s not trying to say the first lowrider was built here. But he is saying that San Diego’s proximity to Tijuana contributed a lot to the early days of lowrider culture.

Rigo Clip 5
….The fact that we are so close to the Border we were able to get a lot of work done across the border versus somebody from San Jose that they’re far away from here. So their exploration with lowriding was probably different or the experience might be different. The outcome is probably very similar. But the exploration as far as being a border people border border Town having that accessibility so close to to the Border whether it be for paint jobs, whether it be for upholstery work even mechanical work or whatever being so close to the Border, it has developed.

Rigo says that element is crucial. The cross-border relationship sped up the lowrider scene here by making it more affordable and accessible to more people. A paint job in Los Angeles for something bright or beautiful, it’s a lot more expensive than that same paint job in Tijuana.

Lowriders built at the border also have a certain look sometimes. Car customization styles and techniques are different across the border and so are the tools and technology, so a distinct border lowrider aesthetic has emerged here.

Like, for instance, San Diego is a military town, so in the early days of lowriding it was common for folks here to use surplus military aircraft parts in their lowriders. And Rigo says because of looser regulations in Tijuana, the paint jobs and materials they’re able to use are just different. So hardcore lowrider heads like Rigo can look at cars and see the traces of being a border-build. He says it’s just a subtle difference that the inexperienced would likely never see.

And, of course, all the people traveling to Tijuana with their lowriders over the years -- that’s made a big impact in Mexico. A Tijuana and Baja lowrider scene has developed right alongside San Diego’s.

And that’s led to a pretty connected cross-border lowrider community.

Rigo Clip 7
So you can see the relationship you can see the correlation between the two sides of the Border. There's a lot of communication. There's a lot of support amongst each other. As a matter of fact, we had a contingency here from Tijuana last week a Chicano Park from the San Diego from the Tijuana console that came representative wanna we had allegation of 15 cars that came from Tijuana to represent them here Chicano Park and to us a very important. That's a very important relationship…..they depend on us as much as we depend on them.

[sound of lowriders cruising logan ave]

Back at the La Vuelta cruise, Rabbit describes the relationship his car club has with the border.

More members of the crew have shown up and their collection of colorful Impalas are now lined up in an impressive row. It’s a rainbow of built-up Chevys.

*******La Vuelta 4 Clip 1
We have a lot of guys that do a lot of beautiful work in Tijuana customizing cars that they can't come over here and there's a lot of guys that go to Tijuana and take their cars and say Hey, I want you to do this and I want you to do that and you see their cars you're like that when you get it done that, you know here what body shop all in Tijuana.

Rabbit says you can get a lowrider customized in Tijuana for a fraction of the price it’d cost anywhere else. But the workmanship is just as good.

******La Vuelta 4 Clip 2
So we actually have right now we have four of our cars in Tijuana that are getting redone completely frame off chrome paint everything if you wanna be in done one of them is going to be our out here in about three weeks. We have one of my guys here Popeye with a 66 right over here that he took his car Don t Wanna $17,000. They redid the whole car the whole car. It wasn't just a little here a little there was a whole whole whole car you know, so and that's that black one right over here. And if you go stick a look at it, you know, I mean. it's Done correctly, you know the doors are done, right? You can open them. Correct the hood the engine everything everything done

[natsound: car shop]

Adrian Lozano’s auto body shop is in the Otay neighborhood of Tijuana.

It’s just a few blocks from the border fence. The location works well for him since 90 percent of his customers drive down from the U.S.

Adrian is big in the lowrider world. He does a lot of custom work. And while a lot of his competition in Tijuana is cheaper, he still scores clients because of the quality of his work.

Adrian Clip 1 (18:11 - 18:46)
I think a of a lot to do with the passion that I put into the cars. You know, I love what I do and I love to see every car, every time it leaves that, that you know, the customers 100% satisfied, you know what I mean?

Adrian grew up undocumented in San Diego. But he ended up getting into some trouble as a teenager and eventually got deported to Tijuana in 2000.

That transition was difficult. He was alone and scared in a place he knew nothing about.

Adrian Clip 2 (02:13 - 2:51)
It was hard. It was hard because I was raised in, in the US all my life, you know, I mean the, I was born over here and I was born here in Tijuana, but three days of being born, I was taken to the u s you know what I mean? So I was raised practically all my life in San Diego, but when I got deported, you know, it was, it was a culture shock. it was a shock because I couldn't believe it, but reality snapped in and I, you know, I just went with it and, and you know, there's always a new start, you know what I mean? And that's the way I saw it.

It took Adrian awhile to accept his new reality. But when he finally did, he decided to make the best of it. He started doing what he does best: working on cars.

And as he began giving classic old cars new lives as lowriders, he slowly but surely built himself a new life, too.

Adrian Clip 3 (12:32 - 12:58)
before I got deported, I, I had a business up in San Diego, so, you know, when I came down here, everything shut down. And it was hard. It was hard. It was a whole new beginning.
Adrian Clip 4 (13:17 - 13:39)
since I know a lot of low rider come people from San Diego, um, I said, you know what, I gotta, I gotta do something different from every other body shop here, so, so I can kind of stand out and start pulling in all the people from San Diego and get the cars done quality wise, you know what I mean? And it's paid off. It's paid off.
Adrian Clip 5 (01:20 - 2:06)
Don't get me wrong. If I could go back to the u s I would, you know what I mean? Because all my family's over there and my most of my friends, you know, but so far I'm blessed over here, you know what I mean?

Lowriders have been Adrian’s rescue raft.

Through lowriding, he found new friends and things to do. It helped him find his way in the new country.

Adrian Clip 6 (09:14 - 9:47)
without the lowriding community here, uh, I would feel a little lost….

Time for a quick break. When we come back, how lowriding changed the lives of a mortgage broker and an army veteran.

More soon.

Midroll Ad

Natsound: Barrio Dogg in Barrio Logan

In the heart of Barrio Logan sits Barrio Dogg, a lowrider-themed restaurant serving wild hotdogs inspired by cars, Mexican street food and Southern California culture. There’s a red lowrider convertible painted on the front of the restaurant, right under an open patio. So, it sorta looks like the people sitting there are riding in the car.

The words “lowrider lane” are stenciled right below the mural. Inside, a lowrider bike sits in the corner and lowrider memorabilia covers nearly every inch of the walls -- everything from posters to framed t-shirts and paintings. A lowrider video loops on a screen mounted on one of the walls.

This popular restaurant on Logan Avenue actually started as a lowrider itself -- a lowrider hotdog cart to be precise.

Pablo Clip 2
We built a hot dog cart out of a. 54 Impala we rented out a little Art Gallery down the street. I'm Logan and Evans and we started off selling two hotdogs the Vita Kenan and cholito. This is a kind of a project of passion between my compadre and I am from this neighborhood. I was born on Irving and Crosby. So just a few blocks from where we're at right now and to get an opportunity to come and do a project like vario dog in my neighborhood was something that we had never we never dreamed of.

That’s Pablo Rios, cofounder of Barrio Dog.

Pablo is a lowrider fanatic. He’s got slicked-back black hair and big expressive eyes that let you know when he’s excited. Dressed in a grey Barrio Dog shirt, jeans and nike sneakers, Pablo makes a round through the restaurant, giving hugs and handshakes to the handful of people sitting down for an early lunch. It seems like he knows just about everyone here.

Not only was Pablo’s dad into lowriding, but his aunt was the first president of the first all lady’s car club here in San Diego.

Pablo Clip 15
As a kid. If you walked into my bedroom, it would look like this. I had every Lowrider magazine and poster on my wall. And I never thought that that would one day turn into a business. So I sometimes still have to pinch myself and say is this really happening?

Until Pablo and his business partner built that lowrider hotdog cart, they were both mortgage brokers.

They made a good living, but they started to see their neighborhood undergo a huge cultural renaissance. Abandoned buildings became art galleries, and slowly but surely Logan Avenue became one of the busiest streets in downtown San Diego. They realized they wanted to be a part of it. So they dove in and their lives changed as quickly as the neighborhood did.

Pablo Clip 3
Barrio dog was Always Something that my compadre Michael and I had talked about doing, but we had no set date and when we saw the Resurgence in our neighborhood -- the art the culture -- we wanted to be a part of it. So we took the initiative in 2017 by building our hot dog cart and started operations then.

The cart concept was so popular, that Pablo and his partner were able to turn it into a full-scale restaurant by 2018. (2017?) And even though they had to leave their lowrider cart behind, they’ve kept lowrider culture as the centerpiece of the restaurant.

Pablo Clip 7
So here you see a representation of something that's very important to Barrio Logan and that's the art history and culture of low riding……..What what my dad had had had. Had participated in and then also I started building cars here in 1992. I'm a lowrider Enthusiast. So a lot of these posters that you see hung on my wall when I was in high school. So getting to one space and allowing people to enjoy not only the food culture but also the culture and history of what something that's so important here to the neighborhood.

The menu is packed with hotdogs that go far beyond the basics. Here’s Pablo showing off his culinary creations in a segment for Televisa.

Televisa clip

They’ve got border-inspired ingredients like Tamarindo BBQ, Pickled Jicama and Spicy Nopal Salsa. You can also order sides like elote, or Mexican street corn. And of course, they have the Tijuana-born bacon-wrapped dog.

Pablo says the food itself is “Chicano comfort food” inspired by lowriders.

Pablo Clip 9
it's a form of an expression for each individual because the time that it takes to build one of these beautiful machines has to do with your own artistic vision and what we did was. We took that same approach of building a lowrider to each one of our hot dogs. And that's where the Barrio dog Fusion comes into play.

Natsound: La Vuelta

This year, the city of San Diego issued the La Vuelta lowrider cruise an official permit. That formal recognition is no easy feat for a lowrider car event. Other cruises like it across the region have been shut down by cities because of fear of gang activity or other problems.

The struggle to get lowriders recognized as a legitimate art form worthy of being celebrated has been real. And it’s still ongoing.

Miguel Alatorre is one of the driving forces behind the lowrider scene here in San Diego.

Miguel Alatorre Clip 3
The biggest fear is that you know is going to be an outbreak of of gang fights or whatnot, but honestly meant a lot of the people here that come here. are Our relatives, you know or people that we've looked up to growing up in the neighborhood and they're the ones that kind of just like keep everybody in line. You know what I mean? Nobody really wants to be the no car club wants to be the car club the mess it up or nobody wants to be associated with somebody that's gonna mess it up. You know what I mean? Because it has become part of the community is fabric.

Miguel is the guy who got La Vuelta going. He grew up in Barrio Logan and owns a home here now. He was in a gang when he was younger. He knows he’s part of why some people are still too scared to come to Barrio Logan or Logan Heights -- some still remember it as a dangerous neighborhood crawling with gangbangers.

If he helped create that stereotype, he’s making up for it big-time now.

******Miguel Alatorre Clip 1
I was part of the problem back in the days, you know, I mean, I'm trying to be part of the solution by bringing up like better ideas for his like to put all that extra. time Into You know what I mean?

Miguel is a big guy with a bald head and a lowrider tattoo on the back of his forearm.

He joined a local business association and has helped organize lots of neighborhood events over the years. Those events have brought thousands of people to the neighborhood. And La Vuelta, which ends with a huge annual lowrider festival at the end of every summer, just keeps growing.

Natsound from la Vuelta festival from Miguel’s instagram feed

Miguel is not surprised by La Vuelta’s success. He knows how big of a role lowriders can play in people’s lives. His own love of lowriding runs deep. Born in Tijuana, he became a citizen in the U.S. and served four tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. On his last tour, Miguel was injured by an IED and got a medical discharge from the army.

But he didn’t want to stop serving. He had a really hard time adjusting. Lowriders helped.

******Miguel Alatorre Clip 9
,,,,,i bought a 59 convertible. It's always been my dream car and I bought it and during my recovery. I started working on it. You know, I got a couple of friends to help me work on it. And and that's what like help me get through. Probably some of the darkest times of my life.
Miguel Alatorre Clip 10
That's like a period of my life. I don't really get too much into the but. Yeah, my neck my back shoulders everything. So I took me like two years nerve damage, you know, like walking was an issue. So it was just Dark Times. Yeah, I mean, so. When I bought the car it just like all that negativity that was going through like I was just putting it in. I mean, I would work 10 12 hours on my car, you know, I mean just because. I had so much anger and I have so much like stress and and and everything. So I was like just on it on it. So in a way it was like my therapy, you know what I mean? No matter what kind of counseling they made me go to whatever it didn't do anything for me like working on my car did.

Miguel says the design of his customized car is a reflection of how he felt during his recovery. It’s a mix of dark purple and blue and the two colors come together on the hood and trunk of the car, mashing together in a tribal-like design.

Miguel Alatorre Clip 11
the patterns in the of it. It was just that's how I felt my mind like in swirl sometimes so that's why it's got. Is on it because it takes them back me and it humbles me like they reminds me like a no matter what I go through that day. Like it'll never be as bad as a day when I got hurt, you know me or never be as bad as whatever. I've been through in my life, you know things can only get better.

He says La Vuelta is his way of giving back to his community. Maybe there’s someone else out there struggling with things the way he did. And maybe a lowrider can help.

Miguel Alatorre Clip 12
..I mean I do it because. It's what I love to do is what helped me get through my dark times and maybe you know on a Wednesday nights some dude's going through a bad one and he just wants to be no take a break and out of reality and go enjoy a ride take a walk, you know and escape from it, you know get inspired.

Hey everyone, the “only here” team is taking a short break so we can work on new episodes. We’re really excited about what we’re working on, and we’ll be back soon. Thanks so much for listening.


Show credits

Only Here is a KPBS podcast hosted by me Alan Lilienthal. It was written and produced by Kinsee Morlan. Emily Jankowski is the director of sound design. Lisa Morrissette is operations manager and John Decker is the director of programming. Erik Anderson edited the script. And listen, just because we’re taking a break doesn’t mean we want to lose any momentum. Please help us by telling your friends and family to subscribe and listen to the show. Thanks.

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Only Here

"Only Here" is a KPBS podcast about art, culture and life at the Western Hemisphere's busiest border crossing. Host Alan Lilienthal and producer Kinsee Morlan tell stories that could only come from a border town.