Sweet and Lowdown

It was 1979, a hair's breadth away from a quarter of a century ago, when the lowrider movement took root in Phoenix, one of the largest Chicano metropolises in the United States.

Originally, in Southern California during the '50s and '60s, the inches-off-the-ground, candy-colored, slow-rolling hoopties were a socially defiant response from the Chicano culture to the Wonder bread middle-class hot rod/muscle cars that defined the young bourgeois of the times. However, over the last 15 years, lowriders have become synonymous with high rollers, Cribs stars, and homies with mad ice on their fingers.

"Today corporate America has totally embraced the lowrider, in marketing, television commercials, print advertising, soda pop companies and candy bars," says Johnny Lozoya, promoter and mastermind of the 25th Annual Arizona Lowrider Super Show (and the previous 24 installments) this weekend at the Phoenix Civic Plaza. "MTV took the bull by the horns, so to speak, and put lowriders up on the screen of Middle America. Now, you have groups like Korn, Sugar Ray, Cypress Hill, that all use cars in their videos and their stage performances."

Somewhat surprisingly, Lozoya isn't bitter about the corporate co-opting of lowrider culture; he feels that the fact that it has become a global phenomenon, spread from Chile to Japan and beyond, demonstrates the quantification of lowrider culture's intrinsic value rather than simple gentrification. "There's no way it could be a sellout," he says. "It's progress, good ol' American progress."

The ultimate lowrider begins with a 1964 Chevy Impala (similar-era Caddies come a close second), which Lozoya prices at between $8,000 (for a "basket case") to upward of $19,000. The rationale behind the '64 Impala's street cred is socially and politically intriguing, if not historically verifiable. According to Lozoya, witnesses on record cite a mud-splashed early '60s Impala with a "Goldwater in '64" sticker as a vehicle that "fled" the scene of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. Lozoya credits the Hispanic community's intense affection toward JFK for the fascination with the '64 Impala, though he claims that the CIA and Secret Service both employed Impalas at the time. (The follow-up car, behind JFK's '64 Lincoln Continental Limousine, was a '56 Queen Mary Cadillac.) "We all embraced JFK as a great leader of this country, and then we embraced the vehicles that were around him, the Cadillacs and the '64 Impalas."

The Super Show features not only 400 bangin' lowriders for attendees to peruse, but also hydraulics competitions (including the phenomenal car dance -- "They'll be defying the laws of gravity -- it'll blow your mind," Lozoya says), hip-hop performances by local artists, an old-school "lowrider music" band, and artists ranging from graffiti writers to air brushers, and traditional Chicano artists exhibiting their wares.

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Brendan Joel Kelley