On a Sunday evening as the sky turns a light pink, two cars tipped sideways with a tire raised high in the air, ride side by side down Laurel Canyon Boulevard in Mission Hills. Like dancers leading a procession, behind them follow a line of lowriders each with a unique style reflecting their driver’s individuality.
This is cruising – a practice that has been criminalized by anti-cruising ordinances since the 1980s across communities throughout California.
In January it will be officially legal across all of California with Assembly Bill (AB) 436 passing both houses of the California Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newson on Oct. 13.
“Everybody is just overjoyed,” said Lorraine Quiñones, an advocate for and member of the lowrider community. “They [people who lowride] feel like they have a place within their community and they can reclaim that space to practice their culture.”
Quiñones has been working tirelessly to end anti-cruising ordinances. She is a part of the California Lowrider Alliance, the Los Angeles Lowrider Alliance and the creator of the nonprofit organization Cruising is Not A Crime 501c3.
“The issue with the ordinance is that many of us felt that they were discriminatory, that it targeted the Latino population or Chicanos, who often are the ones who lowride,” said Quiñones.
“It’s a civil rights issue, a social justice issue.”
The passage of AB 436 rectified a law on the books that many considered outdated and discriminatory.
Jointly authored by Assemblywoman Rivas and spearheaded by Assemblymember David Alvarez (D-80th District), the passage of the bill now removes the authorization of local authorities to adopt and enforce ordinances banning cruising. It also repeals an existing prohibition that made it unlawful to operate a vehicle modified to have a lower roadway clearance.
“I was born and raised here in the northeast San Fernando Valley. And ever since I can remember cruising has been part of our culture, our local culture,” said Rivas. “We want people to understand that cruising is not a crime.”
An Art Expression and Way of Life
“For the Chicano lowriding scene, it was about lowriding as an extension of our cultura,” said Denise Sandoval, professor of Chicana/o Studies at California State University, Northridge.“Their daily cars are like rolling art pieces.”
Lowriders are an art form and a way of life that celebrates the pride of the community. The styling and paint jobs often represent the culture of the areas they come from. Cars are typically equipped with pristine interiors and extravagant paint jobs – traveling with murals on top of, and technical mechanics underneath, the hoods of the cars.
Alejandro “Chino” Vega, owner of C&L Customs shop in Sylmar, and member of the San Fernando Valley Lowrider Council, has traveled the world and gained recognition for his designs. One of his cars, Orgullo Mexicano, has even been showcased at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Lowriders are connected and closely identified with the Latino/Chicano communities in Southern California.
In “The Politics of Low and Slow/Bajito y Suavecito,” Sandoval describeshow Lowriders and cruising were born out of the post-World War II car culture boom when a surplus of used cars became affordable to youths, working-class people and ethnic minorities. Returning servicemen with a knowledge of mechanics could modify the cheap cars, creating their own luxury items.
“Post World War II, the car became tied to identity and community building,” said Sandoval.
While fast hotrod culture was popular with Anglo-Americans, lowriders took the opposite approach in black and brown communities of low and slow – bajito y suavesito.
Instead of being an individual activity, lowriding became a community event – people cruised together.
Car clubs – the oldest being Dukes, founded by the Ruelas brothers in South LA – are a big part of creating community spaces around lowriding.
“A lot of the clubs are also about giving back to the community and there’s a whole philanthropic side of lowriding that has always been there, continues to be there as well,” said Sandoval.
A Positive Community
“It’s a family culture,” said Jessenia Vega, Chino’s wife, “and that’s something that we want to bring out. [For people] to be able to see the positive side of it.”
Not only are these spaces for families to gather and see one another, but also contribute to the community in many forms.
“There’s a lot of positive things that the lowrider community has done, like hosting turkey drives, toy drives, fundraising events when somebody passes away, or [for] scholarships,” said Quiñones.
This idea of bringing positive change to their larger community is partly due to the lowrider movement being historically intertwined with the Chicano movement.
“The Chicano movement was important to sort of redefining what it meant to be Mexican-American in the United States,” said Sandoval, and that the movement was “about activism, helping out the community and about taking pride in our culture. And lowriding was also a part of that movement.”
In the past, the Ruelas brothers and Sonny Madrid, a founder of Lowrider Magazine, would organize car shows to benefit United Farm Workers, Mecha, and other Chicano organizations.
To this day car clubs are often leaders and activists within their community. Despite the positive aspects of lowrider culture, the community has a history of being policed and stigmatized.
Outdated Ordinances and Stereotypes
“It’s the stereotype,” said Chino Vega, “I may look like it, but I never belonged in a gang.”
Media has often portrayed lowriders as gang-affiliated when the opposite is true for many within the community.
“A lot of people started to build cars, or work on cars, or do the art on cars, as a way to escape the streets, or it was an alternative to gang life,” said Quiñones.
Vega reaffirmed this, saying that getting involved with lowriders is exactly what kept him busy and out of trouble. But that didn’t stop him from being targeted by police in the past.
“They [police] would see us and they would want to put us in jail,” said Vega. “Unfortunately, the lowriders, we always get treated like we’re gangsters or drug dealers, and we’re nothing but good people.”
Vega claims things have changed over the years and he no longer gets targeted the same way in San Fernando, but this hasn’t been the case across all of Los Angeles.
“We were told by a sheriff, ‘no lowriders allowed’ when we wanted to enter into a shopping center,” Quiñones said about a recent time she was driving with her family in Whittier.
In 1982, the state assembly passed a bill that allowed local governments to ban cruising in communities.
“When you look at a lot of the like strengthening of the anti-cruise ordinance out here in Los Angeles, [it] was really sort of picked up in the nineties, which is like post 92’ riots and issues with gangs. So lowriders sort of got lumped in with that criminalization of our neighborhoods and gang injunctions,” said Sandoval.
“I think it was racism,” said Rivas, “not understanding, thinking that they’re all gangs, that people that have a lowrider as a hobby, must mean that they’re a gang member or a criminal.”
This stigma and misunderstanding of the culture prompted Rivas, Quiñones, and others across the state to start locally organizing to fight the discrimination against lowriders.
With the passing of AB 436, the lowrider scene can finally ride at ease.
“A lot of the time when we went out there to cruise, we knew that we were risking getting caught. So now it’s more of a relief,” said Jessenia Vega. “This means that we will have that freedom to cruise without having a fear of getting pulled over and being fined or getting our cars taken away.”
Honoring the Ones that Paved the Way
“I wanted to show how we are proactive and we can make change through positive efforts and civic engagement,” said Quiñones. “Through unity, we can take action and have positive impacts within our community.”
Quiñones looks at her organizing efforts as “a way of just giving back to all those who really had to pay the price to keep the culture alive and for the lowrider scene, who just kept it going and stayed positive and did so many great things for the community.”
After Rivas pushed AR 176 – a resolution that “encouraged local governments to work with their local car clubs to dismantle the stereotype of lowriders” – unanimously through both houses of the California Legislature, local car clubs and organizers across the state began to unite in their efforts.
The California Lowrider Coalition now holds monthly Zoom meetings to discuss issues. And organizers recognize that although AB 436 passed, there is still work to be done.
“We got to navigate it and figure it out. Nothing can get done overnight,” said Quiñones.
Now, local car clubs will have to work with their regional government and law enforcement to ensure organized events run smoothly, and that they abide by other regional laws.
“I have no problem with cruising as long as everybody maintains a certain level of decorum and there’s no violence or crime,” said San Fernando Police Chief Fabian Valdez. “As long as it’s done responsibly and safely, and in compliance with the law, I’m open to it. I’d love to hear what car clubs, or what people, want to do.”
The Los Angeles Low Rider Alliance meets regularly with the county to discuss how to effectively hold cruising events in conjunction with the Public Works Department and use city resources so that they keep the roadways safe and don’t impede traffic.
Despite their persistence, Quiñones feels the county has been dragging its feet a bit with preparing for the passing of the bill.
“January 2024, AB 436 takes effect. And we don’t have a whole lot in place to support a successful rollout,” said Quiñones.
Though the road ahead is unclear, hopes are high for the future of cruising in California. A weight and stigma have been lifted for many who feared being targeted for simply driving their decked-out cars.
“I definitely hope that this means that car enthusiasts and lowriders will be able to express themselves creatively and not worry about being stopped, that they won’t need to be bound by the negative stereotyping surrounding cruising,” said Rivas.
“There is a history and movement behind cruising. It’s a part of Chicano culture, and this history gets to live on.”