Lowrider car culture takes summer spotlight in New Mexico

Those classic cars called lowriders are the focus of a summer celebration in Santa Fe.

The spotlight on lowrider culture includes exhibitions at the New Mexico History Museum and the New Mexico Museum of Art.

The low-to-the ground cars are decked out with hydraulics, chrome and candy-colored paint jobs. The celebration kicked off Sunday when more than 100 lowriders cruised into one of the state's most historic plazas in the heart of Santa Fe.

Lowriders have become fixtures across the Southwest. There are some similarities with the cars that cruise the streets in California and Texas, but there are also differences with the culture that has been thriving for decades in New Mexico. The cars have become rolling works of art and symbols of Hispanic cultural identity.

"The New Mexico style is a little more focused on family, faith and place," said Kate Ware, a curator at the New Mexico Museum of Art. Ware spent more than a year helping to pull together a collection of photographs, sculptures, paintings and videos highlighting the lowrider lifestyle and its connection with religion and community.

Of the more than 50 works in the "Con Carino" exhibit at the art museum, some date back to the 1970s. The show will run through Oct. 9.

At the history museum across the street, there are lowriders, hubcaps, a chromed-out Chevy small block engine and dozens of photographs that capture the essence of lowriding. In one corner is a scale that's used to gauge how high a car can hop, the term used to describe the front end bouncing off the ground, triggered by a custom hydraulic lift system.

"Lowriders, Hoppers, and Hot Rods: Car Culture of Northern New Mexico" will be on display at the history museum through March 5, 2017.

Daniel Kosharek, the photo curator at the history museum, said there are people who use cars just for transportation and then there are those who use the cars for self-expression.

"Two types of people, two world views," he said. "This exhibit is about the latter — people who express themselves through pride in their ride."

Lowriders can come in any flavor, from the classic bombs made between 1930 and 1955 to hoppers that are outfitted with suspension systems that have evolved into high-tech rigs from the earliest days when sand bags were used to weigh down a car to get it closer to the ground.

Steven "Sparky" Gomez has tens of thousands of dollars invested in his Packard. He's been offered double its worth but there's no way he's selling it. For Gomez, lowriding is a family tradition started by his father back in the 1940s.

"You get a car that somebody else discarded and as you see, you turn it into a piece of art and it's better than drugs and alcohol. There's no limit," he said. "And then you feel like a movie star when you're in it because everybody's waving at you."

At the celebration kick-off, cars circled the plaza, some flipped their switches, boosting one wheel off the ground while the rear of the car squatted and twisted. The front ends of others jumped up and down as the driver and passengers bounced around inside and the car crept forward with each hit.

The spokes spun slowly, the slower the better as the crowd soaked in all the chrome and glistening metal-flake paint.

"Bajito y suavecito." Translation: low and slow.

"These are folks who really put their heart and soul into these cars and it's a family treasure," Ware said. "The whole family is involved in the making and the financing and then of course there's this whole brotherhood, this team of people who help put the car together."

In the 1980s, the northern New Mexico community of Espanola proclaimed itself the Lowrider Capitol of the World, but the history of lowriders stretches back at least to World War II. El Paso, Texas, and Los Angeles like to take credit for birthing lowriders as a Latino response to Anglo hot rod culture.

As the style progressed, some car customizers began building their suspensions with hydraulic lifters originally designed to raise and lower plane flaps. Air bags came later and smoothed out the ride.

The exhibits touch on history but they also seek to elevate lowrider culture beyond the usual stigmas and stereotypes to celebrate the craftsmanship and commitment that come with building and maintaining a lowrider.

After the hopping settled down Sunday, Gomez surveyed the crowd.

"You see the smiles on people's faces. It kills all the stereotypes," he said. "We're not drug dealers. We're not gang members. With our appearance, people assume stuff but once they get to talk to us and find out the real history behind lowriding, they find out it's just a beautiful culture."