Why Phoenix lowrider culture is about much more than cool cars | Phoenix New Times

Phoenix car clubs preserve culture and history through lowriding

“There’s a sense of pride that goes into owning these vehicles. So to be able to share that with other individuals, it’s priceless.”
Engines roar as the classic lowrider cars leave the second Saturday of the month car show in downtown Phoenix.
Engines roar as the classic lowrider cars leave the second Saturday of the month car show in downtown Phoenix. David Ulloa Jr./Cronkite News
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On the second Saturday each month in the spring, the narrow two-lane road between First and Second streets in downtown Phoenix is filled with striking lowriders, their glossy steel frames gleaming under the sun. A nearby DJ spins a mix of soulful blues and funky '80s beats as crowds gather to marvel at the classic cars that are visually stunning and tell stories of a bygone era.

Steven Alvarez, who is in charge of public and community relations for the Pachuco Arizona Car Club and the host of the web series "Arizona Bomb Stories," emphasizes that these meticulously customized cars that drive low to the ground are not just vehicles; they're living, breathing symbols of the rich cultural history of the Mexican and Mexican-American communities.

“People, when they hear of our culture or when they think of our culture, they think of the food, the music, the family, but there is a lot more to our culture than just that. And part of that is the artistic side of our culture which can be the art you see (inside the Arizona Latino Arts & Cultural Center) or the art we display through our vehicles,” Alvarez says.

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The “bomb,” a type of lowrider car known for its distinctive shape and the air raid siren sound it emits.
David Ulloa Jr./Cronkite News

The archivists

"Arizona Bomb Stories" is a video series on the Arizona Barrio Stories Facebook group. In it, Alvarez interviews the men and women involved in the lowrider and bomb (a type of lowrider) culture about what led them to the community.

“We get a very good backstory of where they grew up at, who inspired them, what inspired them and just kind of get a good feel of their passion for the culture and what they do,” Alvarez says.

According to the Facebook group bio, Arizona Barrio Stories is an organization dedicated to preserving the history of vanishing Chicano and Mexican neighborhoods (“barrios” in Spanish slang) through personal stories, old photos and video series.

It was a personal realization for Irma Payan, a community archivist and administrator of the Arizona Barrio Stories Facebook group. In 2020, she noticed that many communities and even family members had lost touch with each other. These profound disconnects sparked the creation of Arizona Barrio Stories, a platform that Payan believes can bridge the gap and educate younger audiences.

“There’s a lot of young people … they might not know about people that have paved the way. So our site is showing the young people, ‘Hey, this person here helped in the formation of this organization,’” Payan says.

Payan says the Facebook group also touches on traditions, culture, art and “things that some familias have gotten away from.”

In addition to preserving Mexican and Mexican-American culture and history, Payan says Arizona Barrio Stories has partnered with the Arizona Latino Arts & Cultural Center, which has helped bring in more foot traffic to the center.

The Arizona Latino Arts & Cultural Center, ALAC for short, an art gallery and store located in downtown Phoenix, celebrates and promotes the Arizona Latino community through art, education and advocacy.

Roman P. Reyes, a resident artist and one of the original founders of ALAC, says the organization’s mission is to inspire young artists to join its community.

Reyes said ALAC hosts various events, such as the monthly second Saturday car show along First and Second streets in the parking spaces near the center’s gallery and art store.

“It’s exciting. I mean you can hear the music. Everyone is having a good time. There’s some good food. And so, we’re a part of the community,” Reyes says.

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Lowriders in downtown Phoenix are adorned with Chicano, Mexican and Mexican-American symbols, such as the serape, a traditional blanket and the rosary.
David Ulloa Jr./Cronkite News

Misunderstood art

José Andrés Girón, a resident artist and another founder of ALAC, says if someone is doing art, it should be about their culture.

Lowriders are an art, he says, because “it’s creating something beautiful, and that’s what we do. We create for life. We create our environment.”

Payan says the monthly second Saturday car show was created to showcase what is going on within the car clubs and allow people to “not only admire the car but talk to the people.”

Alvarez says the recurring event, which is on hiatus during the summer, and the Arizona Latino Arts & Cultural Center have given the Pachuco Arizona Car Club the opportunity to display its vehicles and expose lowrider culture in a positive way to people who may not understand it.

There are a lot of negative preconceptions about lowrider owners being “gangbangers,” says Payan, but those are false. “It has nothing to do with that.”

“It’s people who have taken pride in their vehicle. It’s people that are anything but gangbangers. It’s a car club. They do things to give back to the community,” Payan says.

Alvarez says a lot of pride goes into being a part of the lowrider community, especially when people from different backgrounds and demographics complement each other and give positive feedback about the vehicles.

“There’s a sense of pride that goes into owning these vehicles. So to be able to share that with other individuals, it’s priceless,” he says.

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Lowriders leave for the night as the second Saturday of the month car show comes to a close in downtown Phoenix.
David Ulloa Jr./Cronkite News

Come for the cars, stay to help the community

As a member of the Pachuco Arizona Car Club, Alvarez says his role is to bring the community’s needs and the car club’s together “so we can serve the community’s needs together and be more impactful.”

Pachuco Car Club is a nonprofit organization that was originally founded in California and eventually expanded to Phoenix, Tucson and even internationally. The club has a car show once a year in Goodyear, where it partners with another nonprofit organization to gather toys for Christmas.

“Everything we do as a car club is for the community — whatever we could do to help the community or to help other nonprofit agencies,” Alvarez says.

He says people often go to the car club when they are in need, whether for food or school backpacks

“We even do some benefits now and then. Maybe someone lost a loved one or they’re experiencing some kind of hardship, and they’ll reach out to us and say ‘Hey, what can you guys do to help me get back on my feet or what can you guys do to help me get others back on their feet?’” Alvarez says.

Alvarez wants to make sure the car club’s actions are positive for the community.

“Because as we know, unfortunately, sometimes there’s a lot of negative stigmatism that goes with car clubs or even owning one of these cars,” Alvarez says.

For the past several years, Alvarez says Pachuco Arizona Car Club and other Phoenix car clubs have been breaking down this stereotype.

“At the end of the day, our cars are the draw that will bring in people to whatever event that we’re doing and it’ll help us support those other organizations that we’re helping,” he says.
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Lowriders from different eras line the parking lot outside of the Arizona Latino Arts & Cultural Center for the second Saturday of the month car show in downtown Phoenix.
David Ulloa Jr./Cronkite News

A lowrider’s perspective

Growing up in the city of Tolleson in the West Valley, Alvarez says he was exposed to lowrider culture from his family members.

His two older brothers and some of his uncles were part of the lowrider culture in the 1970s and 1980s, which inspired him to join the culture as well.

One of his uncles gave him the 1941 Chevy that Alvarez currently owns. He is proud to own it, he says, because “it has a rich history in my family.”

“By being part of that culture, I’m helping preserve some of that history and, hopefully, inspiring others to continue this tradition,” Alvarez says.

When Alvarez is gone, he hopes one of his daughters or his son will take his car, continue his work and keep their connection to the history of the vehicle.

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People in downtown Phoenix admire lowrider cars from bygone eras during the second Saturday of the month car show.
David Ulloa Jr./Cronkite News

Lowrider stories

The crowds stayed at the second Saturday car show well into the night until the event wrapped up. They looked in awe at the lowriders from different eras, much as a person looks at a beautiful piece of art in a museum. Members of Pachuco Arizona Car Club, other car clubs and fellow lowrider owners looked at their own cars as works of art.

“They worked hard all their lives to get where they’re at with these vehicles,” Alvarez says. “These people that own these vehicles put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into these vehicles.”

Alvarez encourages people to bring their families to car shows and talk to people within the lowrider community.

“There’s a story that goes behind every car. There’s a story with every person,” Alvarez says.
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