In This Article Lowriders

  • Introduction
  • Books
  • Lowrider Style and Pedagogy

Latino Studies Lowriders
by
Ben Chappell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0052

Introduction

Lowrider car style is a popular genre of automotive customization. More than the literal lowering of a car, the term lowrider refers to a specific set of aesthetic and mechanical preferences within the broad range of practices of car modification and recreational cruising that emerged in the mid-20th-century United States. It connotes a close relationship to the history of Mexican American communities, where the style spread among family and friends through vernacular social networks. Lowriding also developed as a distinctive social activity, comprising public cruising, car club organizations, and competitive show events. Lowriders are distinguishable from other custom cars by the prevalence of specific consumer products such as Chevrolet Impala vehicles and Dayton Wire Wheels; functional modifications such as the use of industrial hydraulic lifts innovated by California customizer Ron Aguirre; and visual iconographies, both figurative and ornamental, which reference other media, such as public murals, film and television, and religious art. The term lowrider came into use as a marker not only of aesthetic style but also of a particular social identity in the 1960s context of rising Chicana/o consciousness. The public display of lowrider style came to represent ethno-racial and local pride, with aesthetic competence in lowrider style exemplifying the local knowledge gleaned from the shared experiences of urban Mexican America. Thus while Anglos, African Americans, and others have long participated in lowrider style, it remains generally recognized as a Mexican American invention and modern tradition. Scholars have been slow to embrace lowriding as a research topic, with the first dissertation (Bright 1994, cited under General Representations) appearing nearly twenty years after national news media first reported on the style. The growing credibility of popular culture studies has enabled more work, though a great deal about lowriding remains understudied, including related practices of model-car and bicycle customization. This bibliography emphasizes empirical and interpretive accounts of lowriding as a popular practice. It does not address lowriders as figures in memoir, literature, music, or cinema, each of which would be a considerable field in its own right. Nor does it survey the numerous documentary films and videos that have been completed, though not always widely distributed.

Books

There have been numerous publications on lowriders, many addressed to young readers and automotive enthusiasts. Three quite different books devoted to lowriding are of greatest interest to scholars. Penland 2003 is authored by a longtime writer for the popular Lowrider magazine and of travel guides to the Southwest United States. The work draws on the extensive magazine archives and its network of contributors to compile what some readers colloquially know as “the lowrider history book.” Sections cover lowriding in various locales, including Texas, Arizona, Hawaii, and Japan; interviews with figures such as César Chávez and Cheech Marin; as well as a brief history of the magazine itself. Social issues are also addressed, such as relations with the police and women’s involvement in lowriding. The value of the book as a resource lies in the compendium of material it presents, rather than any systematic organization. The first academic book focusing on lowriding is Tatum 2011, the sweeping survey by a senior scholar of Chicana/o literature and culture, and a cofounder of the journal Studies in Latin American Popular Culture. Offering readers a broad introduction with plentiful leads for further research, it is a near-comprehensive textbook on the subject and includes discussion of lowriders in cinema and, a rarity in the academic literature, detailed treatment of customization techniques. Apart from an uncharacteristic error in relating the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the book successfully connects lowriding to other forms of Chicana/o cultural production. Chappell 2012 provides the first ethnography of lowriding to be published as a book and departs from the others by focusing on a specific local scene outside of Southern California to represent the style through everyday lowrider practice, as opposed to highly elaborated show cars. Locating both the moral panics and the identification that lowriding inspires in its material aesthetics, the book advances a theoretical argument that such cultural practice produces specific formations of social space.

  • Chappell, Ben. Lowrider Space: Aesthetics and Politics of Mexican American Custom Cars. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first ethnographic book devoted to lowriders, emphasizing a materialist approach to lowriding as a working-class, Mexican American practice. Uses the site of Austin, Texas, to demonstrate the ways in which lowrider style intervenes in urban spatial politics.

  • Penland, Paige R. Lowrider: History, Pride, Culture. St. Paul, MN: Motorbooks, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    The most extensive popular resource aimed at a nonacademic audience. Includes a rich archive of reproductions of magazine covers and posters; samples of photo features from Lowrider magazine, including the controversial female models; interviews; and articles.

  • Tatum, Charles M. Lowriders in Chicano Culture: From Low to Slow to Show. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first academic book solely devoted to lowriding, by a specialist in Chicana/o literature and culture. Covers a broad range of lowrider-related topics, with suggested readings for further study.

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