When you hear the word lowriders, you think of a tricked-out 1964 Impala with a sweet cherry-red paint job. It might be adorned with colored flowers on the sides and crushed velvet seats. Maybe with chrome trimmings, a silver grate, and religious symbols. 

Its colorful lacquered bodies, charged-up hydraulic hopping mechanisms (that make the car dance), and fabulous, plush interiors are the most frequent in the popular imagination.

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The term “lowrider” defines the embellished cars and the men (and women) who love to drive them.

Slow-cruising works of art

Drivers modify these cars so that it sits just inches from the ground. They ride low like the most famous of lowriders, Gypsy Rose, featured in the opening of the 1970s television show Chico and the Man.

In fact, Gypsy Rose was inducted into the National Historic Vehicle Register in 2017.

As a lowrider saying goes: Bajito y despacito; limpio y lindo. Low and slow as they go. 

But, more than anything, lowriders are a cultural and artistic statement by the Mexican-American community. They are a way to embed their identity against the homogenizing “American” culture. 

However, not everyone agreed. 

In 1992, an ordinance in National City, California, banned lowriders and cruising. The ordinance came after residents complained about crowded streets, traffic jams, and gang fights.

Highland Avenue in National City was the heart of cruising with lowriders in the 1980s and early 1990s until the ordinance banned the practice, giving its devotees a lousy name. 


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♬ Nobody’s Clown – Los Yesterdays

Yet, lowrider culture is part of the American car culture

In the 1940s, and as part of the landscape and postwar entrepreneurial boom, the American automobile industry rebounded, transforming the country’s economy.

By the 1950s, car clubs began springing up in California, and families took part and began the lowrider culture. They refurbished vehicles to cruise and participated in shows and competitions. 

Banning lowriding and calling it a criminal activity seemed, well, anti-American. 

Until recently. 

After fighting for several years, the Mexican-American community saw the last “cruising prohibited” signs come down this year.

“I don’t know if it’s excitement or anxiety because we’ve worked so hard to get to this point,” said Marisa Rosales, the vice president at the United Lowrider Coalition, in a recent television interview.

A renaissance for lowrider culture?

The end of the anti-cruising ban in National City will inspire other cities in the state to do the same. Accordingly, many may now recognize lowriding as a cultural activity.

And maybe we will see lowriders tricked out like Gypsy Rose, cruising down the drags of communities all over California for the first time since the early 1990s. 

For this writer, the image of a lowrider will forever be tied to Colombian actor John Leguizamo playing Tybalt, The Prince of Cats, in Baz Luhrman’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

Who can forget the scene where he emerges from his lowrider (smoking a thin cigarillo cigarette), and the camera pans down to the silver tips of the heels of his boots, crushing a lit match?

That’s a lowrider attitude.