Don J. Usner
A palpable buzz about lowrider cars and culture has been stirring ever since the New Mexico History Museum and New Mexico Museum of Art mounted twin exhibits on lowrider cars and culture in the summer of 2016. These shows and the “Lowrider Summer” events that the City of Santa Fe sponsored—including a spectacular car show on the Santa Fe Plaza that drew 130 cars and thousands of people—rekindled a passion for these cars that had been simmering for a long time.
Further celebrating the importance of lowriders to the history and culture of New Mexico, the Museum of New Mexico Press put together a book about them, Órale Lowrider: Made in New Mexico. The new book showcases lowriders through photographs and revisits in two essays their history and contributions to the legacy of New Mexico folk art traditions.
All this activity and recognition stands in stark contrast to the reputation that once haunted lowrider culture. For many years, they were regarded as an unsavory and unruly element of Mexican American culture, often associated with gang activity. In the burgeoning epicenter of lowrider car culture in East LA during the 1960s and 70s, to the streets of Albuquerque and Española, law enforcement sought to restrict lowrider activity and to keep the cars and their owners from congregating in public spaces. And the concern was not all unfounded; the lowrider scene has at times attracted violent elements that have instigated disorder.
The response to the events and the book demonstrated that all that has changed. Even though these iconic cars no longer cruise the streets of Northern New Mexico in the numbers they once did, they are nevertheless all around, with many passionate devotees who cherish them. I was closely involved with the museum exhibits, for which I provided some photographs, and the book, for which I offered photographs and an essay. I knew some lowriders, had written previously about them, and had attended several car shows in Española. I learned first-hand that the mainstream lowriding no longer deserves the dark reputation of the past. As I mingled with families, watching kids crawl over the meticulously restored cars, and as I visited home garages, with evidence of hard work and creativity at every side, it became obvious to me that the culture had moved on from the days of association with decadent behavior. So it was with great enthusiasm that I have championed the people and the cars, which many people now recognize as an art form that is profoundly expressive of Northern New Mexico culture.
Throughout my experience with lowriders, I noted time and again that admirers of the glimmering cars, on the street and in the elegant halls of the museums, repeated the comment that “there should be a lowrider museum in Northern New Mexico.” Most of the time, those words were followed with, “It’s got to be in Española.” It seemed to be universally agreed that Española represents the home of the quintessential lowrider, or as MTV once quipped, Española is “the lowrider capital of the world.”
Many would quibble with the MTV statement, but nonetheless it became amply clear that a lot of people, from Española and elsewhere, would love to see a lowrider museum in Española. Española’s lowrider community, along with civic leaders from the City of Española, business people from the region, and economic development advocates from county and state government, pushed for the creation of an organization to champion the cause.
I joined this eclectic group to map out a plan for a lowrider museum, which, its turned out, had been on the minds of lowriders for a long time. After several gatherings, in the summer of 2017 we formed the Española Lowrider Museum Coalition. Our board and advisory group includes longtime lowriders from the Española Valley; representatives from state, county and city government, and leaders of nonprofit economic development foundations. The City of Española, Río Arriba County, the Northern Río Grande National Heritage Area and the Regional Development Corporation have all committed to purposefully support the coalition.
Realizing that the Española Lowrider Museum cannot thrive in isolation, the board has reached out to work with other organizations in the region. Although in time the museum may have its own building, the board plans to start out as part of “The Station,” a $3,500,000 container park development planned for historic downtown Española along Oñate Drive. Chicanos Por La Causa (CPLC), a community development corporation established in 1969, will manage this development under a 30-year operating lease. CPLC has a successful track record with commercial developments in Arizona that create local entrepreneurial opportunity and jobs for underserved communities.
For the museum’s initial incarnation, Lowrider Coalition envisions building a small museum in a container or two near to the restaurant and sports bar that will anchor the development. Recognizing the iconic stature of lowriders to the character of Northern New Mexico, plans currently call for the park to promote a “lowrider” theme that will hopefully set the venue apart as a unique and attention-grabbing destination. The coalition also intends to launch a richly interactive website that will keep the museum accessible to a wide audience of supporters throughout New Mexico and beyond.
To launch these efforts The Española Lowrider Coalition will seek support from nonprofit organizations, the City of Española and Rio Arriba County Lodger’s Tax grants and the state Departments of Tourism and Economic Development. CPLC has committed substantial matching funding towards the project, and would like to include the lowrider museum in its marketing plans for The Station.
Lowriders have come a long way from their early days as a loose affiliation of car enthusiasts cruising the streets of New Mexico towns on Saturday nights. The cars have grown in sophistication and technical abilities and style. Lowriders, once shunned as unsavory elements of a rebellious subculture, have earned a place as vital contributors to New Mexico’s cultural heritage. A lowrider museum is a natural next step in giving the cars and their owners the recognition they deserve. It just might also give a strong shot in the arm to the struggling economy of Rio Arriba County.
Don J. Usner was born in Embudo, NM. He has written and provided photos for books including Sabino’s Map: Life in Chimayó’s Old Plaza; Benigna’s Chimayó: Cuentos from the Old Plaza; Valles Caldera: A Vision for New Mexico’s National Preserve (winner of a Southwest Book Award); and Chasing Dichos through Chimayó (finalist for a 2015 New Mexico–Arizona Book Award.