“Benzes rollin’, Beemers jettin’, and Caddies keep on dippin’ …”
When Oakland’s beloved Too $hort released one of the most iconic tracks of his “225,000 hours”-long rap career, “I Ain’t Trippin’,” it was 1989. Two years earlier, the cover of his fourth studio album, “Born to Mack,” featured $hort in a maroon 1984 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz. It would make numerous appearances in his ’90s music videos, and around the streets of Oakland itself.
A lowrider, for clarification, is a car built or modified to ride low to the ground. There’s no specific decade or company that makes them—Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick, Lincoln and Pontiac have made cars to drive “low and slow” for decades. They can look like this, or this, or this.
Lowriders today traverse tenets of identity; almost no one is immune to the euphoria of clean chrome and hydraulics. There are lowriding communities and car clubs around the world, from Los Angeles to Tokyo to São Paolo, and many right here in the Bay Area. But long before $hort would give us “I Ain’t Trippin’,” the Chicano communities of California were cultivating culture, and a movement.
For John Ulloa, a Modesto native, it was destiny, something he knew from his earliest memories. He watched the ’70s sitcom “Chico and the Man” as a kid ritualistically, and the pivotal moment he remembers clearly decades later: seeing the opening-credits shot of Gypsy Rose — built by lowrider patriarch Jesse Valadez, often called the most famous lowrider of all time — cruising across the screen.
Ulloa’s childhood coincided with what he considers the golden age of lowrider culture, 1977-1982, which also coincided with the inception of Lowrider magazine and the ongoing efforts of the Chicano Movement. Ulloa sees these histories as intertwined.
“The first [recognized] Cinco de Mayo festivals came out of that [movement] and had lowriders,” he says. “Lowriding has always been at the forefront. It comes out of the Mexican American experience, the barrio experience.”
His older brother has a friend named Noe, who owned a 1973 Buick Riviera boattail, and at 5 years old, “I would beg him to let me flip the switches,” Ulloa says, referencing the car’s hydraulics.
Ulloa moved to the Bay Area in 1998, in part to study at San Francisco State University. While pursuing his masters in cultural anthropology, his second, he switched his thesis from religious studies to examining how to “account for the cultural diffusion of lowrider culture” around the world. Ulloa, now a professor of history and cultural anthropology at Skyline College in San Bruno, has connected with lowrider clubs and appreciators on four other continents, and no two countries interpret it the same.
In Japan, the cars and clubs in Nagoya, for example, he’s seen exude a more ’70s golden-era feel, whereas in Tokyo, the ’90s gangsta-rap-era is more popular. In São Paulo, Brazil, lowrider bikes are more prevalent than cars, largely because they’re more affordable. He’s been really impressed with the community in Moscow, Russia, and had plans to travel to Australia and New Zealand before the pandemic made that near impossible.
“Lowriding is one of those things that nobody is indifferent about,” Ulloa says. “You either see it and love it, or hate it — nobody’s like ‘eh.’ Kids are the greatest litmus test. Here I come [driving] in my spaceship, and kids bug out. I remember feeling that same feeling, that utter ‘awe’ moment.”
San Francisco’s LowRider Council has been around for decades, founded by Roberto Hernandez in 1981, whom The San Francisco Chronicle once called “godfather of ground-hugging cars.” They’re the biggest lowrider council in the Bay Area, and often show up and show out at cultural celebrations like Carnaval, Cinco de Mayo, and hosting their own events like “King of the Streets.” In an interview with The Chronicle, Hernandez pointed to the same publication Ulloa would fawn over every month as a crucial cultural diffusion tool: Lowrider magazine, founded in 1977 by three San Jose State students.
This is the first year Lowrider will not be available in print and publish exclusively online. It was in this magazine in the early 1990s that Ulloa remembers seeing a feature on a car show from Osaka.
“Lowriding in Japan, what?,” he says. “They were dressed like my brother, cousins, in khakis and a hat that said ‘Compton.’ It blew my mind.”
It would also inspire David Polanco to start creating his own car collection and fostering a lowrider community in his hometown of San Jose. Polanco founded the United Lowrider Council of San Jose only a few years ago, inspired by the community outreach and, of course, love of cars and culture.
“If you’re born and raised in the Bay, and you’re Mexican, you know someone with a lowrider, an uncle, a cousin, a dad. It’s your culture; you’re raised with it,” Polanco says. “I saw in San Francisco what they were doing with the [LowRider Council], the community involvement, the relationship with the city.”
Polanco sees the San Jose council not only as a catalyst for camaraderie but also as a means of dispelling stigma that carries over from decades ago.
“I was [answering questions] for this radio show and someone called in and asked, ‘If my son wants to be a lowrider does he have to join a gang?’” he recalls.
Of course not, Polanco says. Since the start of the pandemic, the SJLC has only revved up its efforts to give back. They have participated in mutual caravan cruises in support of United Farm Workers, showed up to support library events, toy drives and coordinated appreciation events for the local Kaiser hospital. Some riders have also organized informal cruises for birthdays and, earlier in the summer, graduations.
“The happiness it brought was just incredible,” Polanco says.
As for his wheels, Polanco has options. His current project entails restoring his baby blue 1953 Chevy Bel Air. Love of old cars fosters relationships many are starved for right now.
“When I came to the lowrider scene, and met people, every time it’s like I’ve known them for years,” he says. “The community is so tight. You’ve got every race, Black, Pacific Islander, white, Asian, you name it. It’s no longer just us.”
For the council’s events coordinator Dulce Fernandez, it’s also about more than just cars. She’s an ’80s baby, growing up in the era of music and lowrider collaboration. She collects vinyl records of the best oldies, songs one might hear while cruising in the back of her ’64 Impala.
“I couldn’t wait to go cruising; I’d jump in with my friends and took the music of it to heart,” Fernandez says. She, like Polanco, has seen strides made between the council and the city, working together on events and fundraisers and improving public perception. She’s also happy to lead a new generation of women and girl riders.
“I’ve been told I’ve inspired people, and women have made a big impact in the last couple years,” she says. “I just want to keep this movement going.”
While most events Fernandez is used to coordinating, like barbecues or contests, are suspended for the pandemic, others like sock drives and socially distanced cruise nights may actually be on the rise. The next big lowrider event in the Bay Area comes this Saturday with the San Francisco LowRider Council’s sixth annual Cold Frisco Nights cruise, which meets in the Excelsior District at 3 p.m. and starts its drive around the city at 4 p.m.
Years of Ulloa’s research will coalesce in a book set for print in 2021, titled “The Atlas of Global Lowriding,” which he describes as a guide for readers to follow their own anthropological curiosities and ambitions, as well as access a topic Ulloa says is for everyone. It will take more than the chaos of 2020 to pump the brakes on this global phenomenon.
“Nothing beats being on the street and getting a thumbs up, a honk from everyone,” he says. “For those who live this life, the second coming of Christ couldn’t stop it.”