SWING LOW SWEET CHARIOT

written by Dena Venegas photo by Milton Repeza

Its Friday night and the streets are packed bumper to bumper with lowriders. As the caravans of cars creep up and down the street, the glow from the street lights reveal flecks of metallic paint that shine as bright as stars. The colors are bright and beautiful. The blues as deep and dark as the waters of Baja, and the reds as vivid and mystical as blood.

As cars drive up and down the boulevard, songs of love and devotion bellow from car stereos.

"In the still of the night/ I held you/ held you tight/ cause I love/ love you so/ promise Ill never let you go/ in the still of the night." Hernaldo Berrios remembers standing on the corner of 18th and Mission streets in San Franciscos Mission District. The neighborhoods fusion of color, sound and movement created a dreamlike haze that has occupied his heart and fascination for more than 15 years.

"I remember guys would open their car and girls would just run [toward them]," said Berrios. He leans back in his chair with his arms crossed above his head, his tattoos peeking out of his short-sleeve shirt. "I also like the creativity involved. There were guys doing amazing things with their cars." Predominately a Chicano phenomena, in the past three decades lowriding has transcended its southwestern roots and established itself as the nations fastest-growing motor sport, generating $2 billion annually, according to Lowrider Magazine.

"Overseas, lowriders are considered a great American accomplishment and art form," says Paige Penland, a writer for Lowrider Magazine. "It makes a lot of Chicanos feel proud because its so well accepted."

Lowrider Magazine, which started in 1977 to represent the lowriding lifestyle, is the best-selling automotive publication on the newsstand, surpassing such automotive icons as Car and Driver, Sport Truck and Hot Rod, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. The Lowrider Classic Show, created more than 18 years ago to promote the magazine, has grown from three shows a year to a 15-date tour that grosses more than $4 million, according to Lowrider Magazine. A lowrider is a car thats frame has been lowered -- by cutting some of the coils from the springs or by melting the coils with a blow torch -- until its a few inches off the ground. Until the 80s, the car was almost always a sedan produced by General Motors.

During World War II, the production of cars was suspended in an attempt to redirect all of the nations economic and human resources toward the war. After the war, consumer demand for new cars creates a flood of cheap, used cars for veterans, the working middle class and minorities. "The 52-20 club, which entitled veterans of World War II to $20 a week for a year, went straight into a car payment for a bitchen Chevy," Penland says.

In these early lowriding days, pachucos -- identified by their baggy zoot suits and their long key chains -- lowered their cars by tossing bags of cement or enormous rocks into their trunks.

Nobody knows exactly what inspired these original lowrider owners to lower their cars. Some say, it may have been to purposely disturb police or to offend the tastes of white customizers.

"It has less to do with alienation from parents and white society and more to do with developing a sense of self, and orientation toward others [through car clubs]," says Dr. Jose Cuellar, chair of La Raza studies at San Francisco State University. "Whites emphasized speed, Raza went more for emphasizing style." The California rake -- the style long favored by Anglo car customizers -- has a jacked-up rear, outlandishly wide tires and a souped-up motor. It has little or no accessories, and usually has a chopped top. The lowrider is the exact opposite.

The rear end and front suspension are lowered, its tires are skimpy and its motor is usually left untouched. Another mark of a lowrider is its extravagant amount of accessories, such as chrome pipes, wheel skirts and window visors that can be costly.

In 1957, Gov. Edmond Brown outlawed lowrider cars. The California law prohibits drivers from lowering the frame of the car past the lowest point of the wheel rim. Police also apply the law against driving in unsafe condition to cars that have tiny steering wheels and tires, and hydraulics.

"Back then, all they had were stock tires. That was before the 550 low-profile tires," Penland says. "Which meant the car was usually about 5 inches off the ground, and that just wasnt low enough." An enterprising Chicano by the name of Richard Aguirre, tired of getting tickets for his illegally lowered car, figured out a way to lower and raise his car using aircraft hydraulic pumps.

Since then, lowriders began installing hydraulics so that a car that seems to be only two or three inches of the ground can be raised to eight or 10 inches to go over curbs, railroad tracks or past a police car. Lowriders that are lifted with hydraulics usually have separate systems for the front and the back, each running off two or three batteries kept in the trunk of the car.

Later, Aguirres ideas for hydraulics were redesigned to lift the front and rear tires off the ground. So by carefully timing the jolts of electricity to the front-end hydraulics, the driver can actually bounce the front wheels of his car off the ground, sometimes reaching over 4 feet. Aguirres hydraulic system paved the way for other lowrider innovations still being used today.

At night, when a lowrider switches off its headlights, dont worry, the shower of sparks flying from the car are not gun shots. Theyre caused when the front of the car is lowered and dragged over the pavement, screeching along on a scrap plate that has been welded to the frame of the car.

Genaro Sanchez remembers the first time he went cruising in a lowrider. It was his older brothers car. After throwing two bags of cement in the trunk of his brothers 1951 Chevrolet Deluxe (or Bomb, as it is commonly referred to), the two boys jumped in the car and headed for downtown San Jose.

"We were showing off," said Sanchez, letting out a mischievous chuckle. "It was a big thing to have a car period, let alone a lowrider. I liked the attention we got." Three years ago he bought a 1949 Chevrolet truck that he affectionately calls his "Raiderette" because of its two-tone black and silver paint, which are the Raiders football teams colors.

"We [Chicanos] have our own style," says Sanchez, who is a member of The Dukes car club. "It was a way for us to express ourselves through our cars, to show them [other cultures] what we can do." Although lowriding has reached widespread popularity, it still struggles with negative images reinforced by movies such as "Boulevard Nights," and "Blood In Blood Out," which portray gang members and lowrider owners as the same people.

Car clubs like The Dukes are trying to create a positive image associated with lowriders through community service such as food drives and Toys for Tots.

"Cops associate lowriders with gangbangers. The reality is they have nothing to do with it," said Berrios, who one day hopes to become a member of The Dukes car club. "Lowriders are hard-working people who happen to like old cars." Berrios thinks back to one evening while out watching the cars on Mission cruise up and down the block. Paddy wagons line the street like ice cream trucks on a hot summer day, waiting for the lowriders to get out of hand.

As the cars circle each other like exotic dancers, they know theyre being watched. There are no beatings, no arrests, and Berrios gets away with only one ticket for flirting with a carload of pretty girls. Of course, the ticket doesnt say that. The violation is for some minor traffic law, but thats all the police could get him for that night.

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