Over the last 10 years, Serrato has been inviting friends and fellow art lovers to check out his expansive collection. Artist José Lozano, whose work is displayed in Serrato’s bathroom: “Amongst the clutter, there’s a treasure there.”
After 42 years, Lowrider magazine is nearing its last ride as the publication will cease printing at the end of this year. For many Chicanos living in Southern California in the 1980s, the magazine became a cultural icon when it came to content on everything from cool cars to flashy tires. Beyond just the world of cars, Lowrider gave insight on political and cultural issues that were focused on Chicano identity. In some ways, the magazine played a role in bringing lowrider and Chicano culture to the mainstream in a way that no publication had before.
That’s why when news broke on Dec. 6 that TEN Publishing, the publisher behind multiple car enthusiast magazines, would be shutting down print operations for 19 of its 22 titles next year, including Lowrider, it marked an end of an era. As of now, it’s not yet clear if the iconic magazine will continue online or even rescued by another publication. One thing is for certain though, some readers are being left behind in the dark.
There is no denying the influence and impact that Lowrider had on not only on car culture but Chicanos as a whole.
Lowrider got its start in 1977 after it was founded by San Jose State students David Nuñez, Larry Gonzalez, and Sonny Madrid, who initially started the magazine as a DIY zine on lowrider culture. The trio would invest money to get roughly 1,000 copies printed and begin publication. The magazine wasn’t an instant hit from the start. Sales lagged behind expectations and it took until Lowrider began placing more women models on its covers in 1979, that things began to pick up.
“You wanted to see what was the hottest car, who was selling what, what tires were the best, and who was doing good interior. … Back then there weren’t [smart]phones so you had to get information from magazines,” Jerry Navarro, 45, a technician who works at a car shop in East L.A., told the LA Times.
Navarro, along with countless others, grew up on the magazine and looked forward to its monthly coverage on the latest in car and Chicano culture. Its magazine covers became just as famous as its content, from famous Latinos like Cheech and Chong to rappers Snoop Dogg and Cypress Hill’s B-Real, all gracing the front. The magazine would also see expansion into music, sponsoring car shows nationally and the creation of a merchandise division. Its influence was seen in city streets across Southern California, particularly in places like East L.A., where lowriding became a cultural fixture.
“Lowrider inspired so many youngsters who would go on and ignore the prevalent gang lifestyle of the ’90s in lieu of working on their vehicles. The magazine was much, much more than just pin-up models and cars.” Noe Adame, a correspondent for L.A. Taco, told the news site.
While it’s not clear if Lowrider will continue being published online, its legacy will certainly live on.
While it’s not clear why TEN Publishing will cease publication of Lowrider, it follows a trend in recent years where magazine sales have dipped and in return have stopped printing altogether.
“Simply put, we need to be where our audience is,” Alex Wellen, president-general manager of the MotorTrend Group, which is licensed by TEN Publishing, said in a memo. “Tens of millions of fans visit MotorTrend’s digital properties every month, with the vast majority of our consumption on mobile, and 3 out of every 4 of our visitors favoring digital content over print. We remain committed to providing our fans and advertisers quality automotive storytelling and journalism across all of our content platforms.”
While Lowrider saw sales decline over the last few years, it was once one of the most popular magazines in the country. According to the LA Times, “by 2000, it was among the bestselling newsstand automotive periodicals in the country, with an average monthly circulation of about 210,000 copies.”
“At its heart, it’s been a key tool to keeping alive Chicanismo and Chicano identity,” Denise Sandoval, a lowrider expert and professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at Cal State Northridge, told the LA Times. “I’ve met so many people who are not Chicano, that because they’re part of the lowrider community, they learn about Chicano history through that magazine.” Lowrider also challenged negative, stereotypical perceptions of lowriders as tough thugs and gang members.
When news that Lowrider printing will cease, some took to social media to acknowledge the impact the magazine has had on their lives.
It is indeed an end of an era but don’t tell that to the countless aficionados who are still keeping lowrider culture and community going strong today. To put in the simplest car terms, this is just a mere pit-stop.
Ernesto de la Loza can remember a time when he could walk down the streets of Boyle Heights and be greeted by the sight of vibrant murals. Sometimes, he’d even run into some of his own work on neighborhood walls.
“Things were different 40 years ago. I saw our community come together and paint our stories on walls,” said De la Loza, 71, who was a renowned muralist during the Chicano Pride movement in East LA in the ’60s and ’70s. “Now, all I see are new coffee shops and yoga studios. It’s not the same.”
De la Loza was behind some of the most iconic murals in the city that included work that highlighted environmental awareness and the fight for equal rights. He recalls the first mural he painted was a Mayan motif at El Sereno Park back in 1968 as a 19-year-old.
“These murals represented our struggles and our stories that weren’t being taught in history books,” De la Loza says. “That’s why I started painting, to express myself and for the past 50 years I’ve stood true to that.”
De La Loza was part of the “Golden Age of Chicano Muralism” in LA during the ’60s and ’70s. Today, the work from that era is quickly disappearing.
He takes me on a tour outside of his work office in Echo Park, a rapidly changing neighborhood in Los Angeles that was once predominantly Latino. He nods to the new art studio near his office opening soon and sighs. De la Loza says that there was once a colorful mural of the Lady of Guadalupe right next to his office but as we make a turn around the block to see it, we find white paint and graffiti covering any resemblance to the mural.
“This neighborhood had a mural on every corner and you can hold me to that,” de la Loza says with pride in his voice. “It was beautiful.”
De la Loza is right. The streets of LA did indeed have a mural on every corner, or so it sure seemed like that back then. Murals popped up everywhere in Los Angeles in the 1970s as artists took to walls to express views on political and social issues, including student uprisings and civil rights struggles.
According to Isabel Rojas-Williams, 69, a mural expert and historian, at the height of the mural movement in LA there was an estimated 2,500 murals up on city walls. Then, they started disappearing.
Due to an increase in city-wide graffiti, weather damage and neighborhood complaints, many of these historic murals began to be whitewashed across Los Angeles.
“Los Angeles was once the mural capital of the world. All over the Eastside of LA there were beautiful pieces of art that celebrated and empowered Chicano culture,” said Rojas-Williams. “There were well over 2,500 murals over the city from Boyle Height to the San Fernando Valley.”
She says that the Estrada Courts housing project in Boyle Heights was the birthplace of the Chicano mural movement. Over 90 murals once stood at low-income housing projects where some of the most well-known muralists like De la Loza and David Botello painted work there. Today, there are roughly only 50 murals there. That is due to graffiti and lack of financial funding to restore the murals.
“There was tagging all over them and that was painful to see because it was our own people behind it,” De La Loza as he looks up to the sky. “We killed the mural movement and that pains me.”
The erasure of murals in LA can be traced back to the ’90s when murals began to disappear due to tagging, damage due to weather and overall lack of maintenance. In return, the damaged murals became “eyesores” to some in the community and complaints to the city followed. Gentrification would also begin to hit Northeast LA during this period which led to a change in demographics in these neighborhoods.
“They didn’t understand the importance of these murals and what they meant to our people,” said Rojas-Williams. “That was the beginning of the end of the mural movement and then came the moratorium.”
In 2002, the city of Los Angeles essentially banned the painting of murals and enacted a moratorium on murals on private property and businesses. That period is known as the “dark age of muralism in LA”.
Los Angeles put a mural ban in place due to advertisers suing the city on 1st Amendment grounds. They argued that while their ads were banned from being placed on city walls, muralists could still create giant pieces of work. In return, city officials opted to prohibit all new murals. An individual who wanted to put up a new mural could be fined or even put in jail due to the ban.
The moratorium lasted 11 years until it was finally lifted in 2013. A new mural ordinance would also be enacted that protected artists work if ever damaged or attempted to be painted over. The rules permitted new murals in business and industrial zones as long as artists registered their projects with the city and paid a $60 application fee. But for many, the damage was already done.
During those 11 years, hundreds of pieces of art were lost due to the whitewashing of murals from the city. There was anger from the art community and historians like Rojas-Williams, who worked on lifting the ban, says the city painted over iconic murals that can never be reclaimed.
“It felt like the erasure of our culture and the city did this over a decade span losing hundreds of murals in return,” she says.
For De La Loza, when the moratorium ended it coincided with another wave of change that came to LA around 2013. Highland Park and Echo Park, both Latino enclaves for decades, saw more gentrification hit and a wave of new owners come to the community. By then, murals in those neighborhoods were long gone.
“I look around this neighborhood and it feels like we were never here,” De La Loza says as we head back to his office. “We lost more than just a piece of art, we lost our history, we lost years of hard work and more importantly we lost our presence in this city.”
Today, Los Angeles is starting to see some of that creative boom again as new murals have popped up all over the city. Yet, there is still much work to be done.
Artists in LA today have more creative freedom than ever when it comes to putting up new murals. But things aren’t as easy as just simply picking a wall and painting on it. With the addition of fees and permits and an agreement that a mural must remain up for at least two years, the new ordinance had unintended consequences. According to Rojas-Williams, many Latino muralists that she speaks to can’t afford these fees or have the time to acquire permits. De La Loza agrees.
“The ordinance helped but in reality it helped the more affluent and outsider community that was coming into the city,” he says. “It’s obvious when you look around the neighborhood whose art is up. It’s nice art but it’s not ours.”
We return to his office and as we say our goodbyes, he shows me one last thing. It’s a book about murals with his artwork on the front cover. He tells me his niece in college was required to read it as part of her college art history class.
“She told me when she saw the book cover she immediately knew it was my work,” De La Loza says as he wipes a tear. “Knowing that a new generation is getting to know about that history and that period gives me hope that one day it’ll be back.