DRIVING; Taking It Low and Slow On Española's Streets
By BRAD WETZLER
SOME people change the radio station when they hear the first grinding chords of ''Slow Ride'' by Foghat. Not Arthur Medina, a 40-year-old native of Chimayo, N.M., a tiny burg about eight miles east of Española. He cranks it up.
Mr. Medina, who is known to his friends and admirers simply as Lowlow, is one of the Española area's celebrated lowriders, so called because they drive cars with suspensions altered so that the undersides practically hug the pavement. (The cars themselves are also called lowriders.) Classic rock -- he likes all of it, no matter who's playing -- helps set the mood when he's out for a cruise on renowned Riverside Drive in Española. He has a half-dozen lowriders, but this time he's driving his most beloved, a 1976 Cadillac that he calls his Holy Week car, red and blue and adorned with religious paintings, including a depiction of the Last Supper on the trunk.
He adjusts the seat so far back that he's practically in the back seat. His left arm rests casually out the open window. The right hand gently grips the tiny chrome chain-link steering wheel. His face is confident, peaceful, the face of someone in control. It's the look that a Nascar racer must have as he hits 212 miles an hour on a Daytona straightaway -- yet Lowlow's old-school analog speedometer shows he's going only 10 m.p.h.
Lowlow has been practicing this look for more than 25 years, and he's pretty good at it. Of course, Española is the ideal place to learn how to be a lowrider. Nestled in a spectacular golden section of the Rio Grande Valley, this town of 15,000 calls itself the Lowrider Capital of the World, although some people in East Los Angeles and El Paso might take issue with that. Here, lowriders almost outnumber regular cars. And on a recent Saturday, they were out in full force, celebrating the town's cars and drivers in a major show at a middle school. Fifty tricked-out cars lined up on the basketball court as hundreds of locals, who were willing to pay $10 to get in, paid tribute to the cultural phenomenon that has made the town famous.
Lowriders are as much a part of northern New Mexico culture as green chilies, retablo paintings of saints and Spanglish. Here, sons, fathers and grandfathers work together to transform cars that have often been in families for decades into masterpieces of engineering, ingenuity, and artistic flair. Artists paint elaborate murals on the cars' hoods, trunks and sides, depicting everything from naked women to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Even the town's chamber of commerce is in on it, promoting the former outlaw pastime as a tourist attraction. Many visitors come up the Rio Grande from the much tonier Santa Fe, which itself will have a lowrider show on Sept. 18 in conjunction with the Really Chile Festival.
''We're trying to recapture our culture and heritage,'' said Desiree Duda, the director of this year's Española Car Show, held earlier this month as part of the annual Fiesta de Española, a weeklong celebration of the town's founding by the Spanish in 1598. ''Lowriding is part of who we are as Latinos and Latinas. It's our history.''
The fiesta was more a cultural event than a mere car show. The resplendent cars were the centerpiece, but the gathering was also a celebration of Hispanic life, food, music and dance. Young women in sequined outfits took the stage singing pop and country-western songs in Spanish, and enthusiastic young teenagers performed rowdy rap duets.
Although Lowlow wasn't there -- he says he detests the competitiveness of such shows and prefers to think of lowriding as a spiritual endeavor -- many of the people responsible for putting Española lowriding on the map were.
One such legend was 40-year-old Fred Rael. He said that he had owned ''countless'' lowriders over the years, but at this event he was showing only a 1964 Chevrolet Impala convertible. (His son, Anthony, 18, was at his side, demonstrating features on his blue 1976 El Camino, which once belonged to his dad.) Between sips of a Big Gulp, Mr. Rael joked that he skipped college so he could work on his lowriders. ''These days,'' he said, ''I use lowriders to teach my son about life and hard work.''
The origins of lowriding are uncertain. Española residents say that it dates back to the Spanish caballeros who settled Española and would decorate their saddles and ride around the town plaza. Others say it began in California in the 1940's, where tough Hispanic dandies with pencil-thin mustaches, zoot suits and slicked-back pompadours lowered their cars by filling their trunks with sandbags, a reaction to the conventional stock cars driven by the Anglo middle class.
Lowriders have been evolving ever since, so that now there are several categories. Classic lowriders can be any old car, say a '64 Impala or a '76 Cadillac that has been dropped. The Euros are new European and Japanese cars favored by high-schoolers. Bombs are big black cars from the 1930's and 40's that are often associated with Depression-era gangsters. From purchasing the car to the final paint job, it's not unusual for an enthusiast to spend $30,000 creating a lowrider.
While every car is unique, most lowriders share a few characteristics apart from being low to the ground. A spectacular paint job is one, ranging from simple solids with patterned borders to extravagant murals, perhaps reflecting the owner's Roman Catholic faith, paying tribute to loved ones who have died or indulging the owner's personal iconography. ''You see a lot of Elvises,'' Lowlow said.
Other features are tiny chrome-plated chain-link steering wheels, powerful stereos capable of waking several neighborhoods, maybe neon bumpers and, of course, hydraulics. Powered by a bank of automobile batteries lined up side-by-side in the trunk, hydraulics raise or lower the car -- front, back, one side or the other -- at the driver's whim. A particularly popular feature is being able to bounce up and down on the pavement while in motion and even riding with only three wheels on the ground.
Since the Española police and the police in many other cities are known to pull over lowriders who show off their hydraulics too much (charging them with operating an unsafe vehicle), it's a trick of the trade to make the car do a dance without getting caught. Fred Rael put the allure of hydraulics succinctly. ''When you have good hydraulics,'' he said, ''the ladies really like it. It's pretty hard to stay single.''
ONE recent night, Lowlow was cruising down Riverside Drive when he came to a red light. He stepped ever so softly on the brake, and the car crawled to a stop. Waves of heat rose from the pavement, and the lights of dozens of fast-food joints bathed the city in a yellowish glow. Jethro Tull came on the radio, and he reached down and turned up the volume.
A moment later, a slick red sports car pulled up next to him. The driver, a kid in his late teens with slicked-back black hair and a feeble mustache, looked over at Lowlow while revving his big hot engine. Lowlow returned the stare and nodded almost imperceptibly.
''Watch this,'' Lowlow said quietly. He reached between the seats, grabbing a metal box that looked something like a video game controller, except that there were 12 toggles instead of one. He flipped one of the switches, and, immediately, the back of the car rose about a foot. He clicked another switch and the car started bouncing on its front wheels. None of this seemed to impress the driver of the sports car, who was gunning his engine, raring to go. Suddenly, the light turned green. In a flash, the hot rod roared, the tires squealed. The car took off and disappeared into the sea of fast-food restaurants.
Lowlow was unfazed by this show of machismo. ''When you're driving a sports car, all you can do is go fast,'' he said. ''And who wants to do that? For us lowriders, it's all about doing it low and slow.'' With that, he clicked the hydraulics switch, lowering the car back to its original position, within inches of the pavement. He shifted the car into drive, took his foot off the brake, and rolled slowly into the night.