Soon the parking lot outside the arena is filled with low and menacing cars whose thudding rap coalesces into the kind of rhythmic thunder of a nearby marching band. Many of the cars are muralized with an iconography of sin: bare-breasted girls swooning in the arms of zoot-suited "playas," rolling dice and marijuana leaves, smoking guns and gang tags. People being admitted to the arena pass through a metal detector. Mr. and Mrs. Scarsdale, N.Y., could be forgiven for feeling a little threatened.
Born in working-class Chicano communities after World War II, lowriding started as a kind of anti-hot rod movement. Whereas hot rodding--dominated by whites in the early days--emphasizes tire-burning performance, lowriding emphasizes aesthetics, a particular kind of glitzy decorative art that begins with the cars lowered (with custom, cut-down springs) to almost asphalt-scraping level.
At the apogee of the hobby are early '60s Chevy Bel Airs and Impalas transformed into fantastic parade floats of chrome, tuck-and-roll velour, gold and glass--cars that can hop and dance with the help of complicated hydraulics mounted in the suspension. The essence of these cars--indeed, the very marrow of lowriding--is cruising: being seen, being noticed and being appreciated.
As for the glowering, streetwise machismo, it's posturing, irony, even self-caricature. "It ain't got nothing to do with gangs," says Danny Cortinaz, an ad-hoc spokesman for the Low Lyfe Car Club (CC) of Plant City, Fla. "It's just image."
"Hollywood shows lowrider cars with gangbusters in them," says Lonnie Lopez, editor of Lowrider Magazine. "But a guy spends $30,000 on his ride, the last thing he's going to do is a drive-by."
Nearly every kind of vehicle is fair game for the lowriding treatment. You see trucks: everything from a Suzuki Samurai, coated in thick, candy-apple paint, to a Chevy Dually six-wheel Crew Cab, raspberry and black, sitting on gold wheels that seem as fragile as spider webs.
The most exotic and elaborate of the lowriders have lost the ability to move under their own power. These show cars arrive in enclosed trailers and take up residence inside the arena in wildly contrived dioramas of spotlights, fog machines, lasers and crushed velvet. Typically, these cars, whose undersides are as obsessively decorated as their fenders and interiors, rest on gold-plated jack stands set on a bed of mirror panels.
Some serious celebrity cars are here. Frank and Rosie Requena's "La Carcacha," a 1948 Chevy Fleetline (Lowrider Magazine's 1997 "Bomb of the Year") was the centerpiece of a recent exhibit at the Mexico City Museum of Art. The car, in oily blue metalflake, is a tribute to the slain Mexican pop star Selena, featuring muralized portraits of the singer on the hood and flanks. (Selena and the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe receive equal billing in a lot of lowrider murals.)
Quietly holding court to the left of the arena is the spectacular "Azteca," Jorge and Rosa Salazar's 1978 Ford Thunderbird. What was once a negligible piece of Detroit iron has been transmogrified into a rolling incantation of pre-Columbian magic. The sides of the forest-green car depict a medicine man in a golden-feathered crown charming a giant rattlesnake in a mythic landscape of oceans and cacti. It's a beautiful and evocative image in the style of many lowrider murals: images of validated ethnic pride, of ziggurats and virginal sacrifice, thunderbirds and Mayan temples. This is Eros and Thanatos as played by Pamela Anderson Lee and Skull Mountain.
Inside the car is a fantasy of tuck-and-roll green velvet and mirror tile, custom woodwork and high-end stereo electronics. In the center console, there is a panel of gold-plated switches to control the polished hydraulic pumps in the trunk. With the four hydraulic pistons, special springs, solenoids and three marine batteries, Salazar could make the car hop and jump like a cheerleader if he wanted to.
For a lot of Americans, this is definitely cultural wind-shear territory. Anyone who laments the coarsening of culture and the casual raunchiness of youth, the Kid Rocks and Dr. Dres of the world, might find a lowrider convention more than a little alarming. The environment has a distinctly Jerry Springer feel to it. There are a lot of teenage girls in thong bikinis walking around, a lot of vulgar braying from ignorant man-boys.
But visitors should be wary of their own eagerness to judge. Many of these kids are lower middle-class and multiethnic, caramel-colored in a shades-of-white society, kids who are obliged to find safety in numbers, making up a community as they go along. It isn't easy being Hispanic in America, a land hostile to your language and ignorant of your history.
So they have been bound together over their cars. There is no violence, no criminality, no harsh words or rivalry between clubs and members of different ethnic groups. If the most glorious lowrider--and many are glorious--is merely a token of an inglorious need for acceptance, so be it. Good families have been bound together with less.