After a Decades-Long Ban, San Jose’s Lowriders Are Ready to Cruise Again


Lowriders are generally customized by their owners. The “SJ” on this ’63 Chevy Impala is short for San Jose. The car owner also chose the color teal to celebrate the San Jose Sharks hockey team. SOUTH BAY VISIONS FOR ATLAS OBSCURA
Hundreds of people gathered along Santa Clara Street near San Jose City Hall in June with their custom lowriders–Chevy Impalas, Bel Airs, and Pontiacs, just to name a few. The area was an explosion of color. Car clubs and solo drivers showed off their rides and took group photos, as families walked along admiring the bright green, blue, orange, and yellow vehicles. Food trucks lined the streets and Cisco Kid, a War tribute band, provided the music: “All my friends know the low rider…”

In front of City Hall, council member Raul Peralez stood on a small ladder; a crowd encircled him and a nearby 1941 Chevy Special Deluxe* with their phone cameras flashing. They watched as Peralez removed San Jose’s last “NO CRUISING” sign off of the pole himself. As he waved it in the air, the people cheered and whistled. “This is a huge win for our community here and for our city as a whole,” said Peralez.

The festivities marked the end of a 36-year prohibition on lowriders cruising—driving low and slow—through the streets of San Jose. In 1986, the city implemented a ban on cruising to address gang violence, crime, and traffic-related accidents. But San Jose’s primarily Mexican American lowriding community has suffered the consequences of the ordinance, which many say facilitated discrimination. With the city council unanimously voting to repeal the ban, the lowriding community now feels like their city has finally embraced a culture that encompasses more than just driving custom cars.

The intersection of King and Story roads in San Jose became a famous meeting point for lowriders in the 1970s.
The intersection of King and Story roads in San Jose became a famous meeting point for lowriders in the 1970s. SOUTH BAY VISIONS FOR ATLAS OBSCURA

Stephen Velasquez, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, says that lowriding was born out of the car culture of the mid to late 1940s, when Mexican American communities in Los Angeles had access to inexpensive cars. “There was a hot rod culture, which was about going fast,” Velasquez says, “whereas Mexican American communities couldn’t really afford models like that so they created their own version of going low and slow, kind of see the scene.”

When the United States entered World War II in 1941, an estimated 400,000 Mexican Americans enlisted, many in an effort to prove their loyalty to the US and demand equality. But they did not receive a warm welcome upon their return from the war; Mexican Americans were faced with the same discrimination they had been experiencing before. Prior to and even during the war, Mexican Americans had limited opportunities in education and employment. Post-war, knowing that nothing had fundamentally changed, younger generations of Mexican Americans found a way to create identity in a country that was keen on making them invisible.

Thus was born the lowrider, which is customized and modified to drive low, usually with hydraulics, with the body of the car riding within inches of the pavement.

The cars were a source—and a symbol—of pride. Lowriders rejected typical American car design trends and adorned their cars with Mexican American imagery, vibrant colors, religious iconography like Our Lady of Guadalupe, and traditional Indigenous imagery such as the Aztec sun stone.

Lowriders took off post-WWII in the 1940s in East Los Angeles but it wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that the cars and the culture spread throughout California’s Central Valley. San Jose in particular became an important hub of lowrider culture because of its large Mexican American population. It was also the birthplace of most of the media produced in connection to the culture: Lowrider Magazine, Streetlow Magazine, Teen Angels Magazine. By 1970, San Jose—and specifically the intersection of King and Story roads—became the epicenter of the scene.

The renewed interest in lowriding in San Jose has brought more women into the traditionally male-dominated culture, including Angelina Santana from East Side San Jose, who customized her '62 Chevy Impala.
The renewed interest in lowriding in San Jose has brought more women into the traditionally male-dominated culture, including Angelina Santana from East Side San Jose, who customized her ‘62 Chevy Impala. SOUTH BAY VISIONS FOR ATLAS OBSCURA; ©SOUTH BAY VISIONS

As a kid in late 1970s San Jose, David Polanco grew up surrounded by lowriders. A San Jose native, Polanco remembers how natural it was to see lowriders in his neighborhood. “Back in the day, one of my cousins who had a lowrider would pull up and park in the driveway or backyard and had the doors open with the stereo system playing. That was normal,” he says. Far too young to drive, Polanco still knew exactly the type of car he wanted: a candy apple red and wire wheeled 1976 Chevrolet Monte Carlo.

Polanco, now 53 years old, got his first custom car, a ‘69 Chevelle, at the age of 19. The car had an old faded red paint job with rims he got from a friend. He put in new screws and new rubber tires. “It took me a long time to get it where I had it painted and all that. It was a journey to get to that point,” he says. Today, he owns a ‘53 Chevrolet Bel Air painted seafoam green and a ‘53 Chevrolet Impala painted aqua azure—a long way from the ‘69 Chevelle that he admits was “ugly.”

Polanco describes lowriders as cars that just grab your attention. He gets the biggest kick out of watching the reactions of people who have never seen one before. “I was in Almaden, California at the supermarket area with my [Chevy Impala] and a mom and her son are walking by and the little kid goes, ‘Mom, it looks like water!’” Indeed, the color does look like the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean. “That was the biggest compliment that kid could give me for my paint job,” Polanco says. “It’s really cool to see the youth and grown adults react to the cars.”

Lowrider culture is about pride, passion, and, especially, family, says Polanco. “There’s so much to the culture. It’s hard to put it in one word or several words.” Polanco left the scene when he got married so that raising his family could be his focus. But when his kids left for college 12 years ago, he started getting actively involved again, going to car shows and other lowrider events. To him, it felt like he had never left. “That’s why I brought up ‘family’ right away because a lot of these guys I met once and it was like I knew them forever,” he says. “I’d see how passionate these guys were about giving to the community and how easily they came to your aid when you needed it.”

David Polanco, pictured with his '53 Chevy Bel Air, grew up in the lowrider culture of the 1970s and '80s. Now as president of the United Lowrider Council of San Jose, he is helping to repeal no cruising ordinances throughout California.
David Polanco, pictured with his ‘53 Chevy Bel Air, grew up in the lowrider culture of the 1970s and ’80s. Now as president of the United Lowrider Council of San Jose, he is helping to repeal no cruising ordinances throughout California. SOUTH BAY VISIONS FOR ATLAS OBSCURA

But Polanco remembers the way gang violence started to emerge in the early 1990s. In 1986, when Polanco was still in high school, the city of San Jose implemented its ban on cruising. San Jose was one of the first cities in California to have such a law, followed by places like Sacramento in 1988 and National City in 1992. Stephen Velasquez from the Smithsonian says that there is a tendency to view lowriders as troublemakers; police and elected officials conflated lowriding with the gang culture of the ‘90s.

As a teenager in late 1990s San Jose, council member Peralez was the only kid at Cupertino High School in Cupertino, California, who drove a lowrider, a 1965 Chevy Impala. It made him an easy target for the police. “I can’t recall how many times I was pulled over by the police,” Peralez says. “Maybe 30 to 40 times through the years.” Once, while getting ice cream with his high school girlfriend in the town of Los Gatos, Peralez was told by the police officer who pulled him over that “his kind” was not welcome in “our town.”

Peralez is a native of San Jose and grew up cruising downtown with his parents. When he started driving at the age of 16, the Impala was his first car. “Less than maybe a year later, I joined a car club, the Impalas Car Club here in San Jose,” says Peralez. As part of the club, Peralez was able to experience the integral role that lowriders have in their communities. From holiday toy drives to volunteering, car clubs were important to the organizing work that brought families together.

But those contributions to the community didn’t stop the police from keeping their eyes on the lowriders. “If a group was parked, we’d frequently have a police officer pull up on us,” Peralez says. He says that what would typically happen is that they would be asked to step out of their cars and asked if they had any weapons or drugs or if they were gang affiliated. They would ask him if they could search his car; he didn’t know he could refuse. “I always complied and said, ‘sure, you know, go ahead, you’re not gonna find anything.’”

Many lowriders adorn their cars with Mexican American imagery, religious iconography, and traditional Indigenous symbols.
Many lowriders adorn their cars with Mexican American imagery, religious iconography, and traditional Indigenous symbols. SOUTH BAY VISIONS FOR ATLAS OBSCURA

Though the ban passed in the mid-1980s, Peralez remembers cruising with his car club in the late ‘90s. But things changed when the police began closing certain streets. “You couldn’t really enjoy going out for a quick cruise as you could in the past,” says Peralez.

Peralez says that the ban was being used as an excuse to pull over anyone who looked like they were part of a certain culture. “The focus should have been and still should be on the criminal activity that may actually happen,” he says. “Not the act of driving your classic car slowly through the streets.”

That blatant discrimination is one of the reasons why Peralez introduced a proposal to repeal the ban on cruising this past spring. Peralez had realized that it had been more than 20 years since the police had actually issued a ticket for cruising, proof that the law wasn’t really about prohibiting the harmless activity; it simply gave police an excuse to stop and search lowriders. He says that since the ordinance has never been strongly enforced, “it is just more evidence that cruising was never the problem.”

Lowrider culture is about more than just cars. It's a way for the community to get together and take pride in their Mexican American heritage.
Lowrider culture is about more than just cars. It’s a way for the community to get together and take pride in their Mexican American heritage. ©SOUTH BAY VISIONS

Now, with the ban overturned, a new era for lowriders across California is on the horizon. In July 2018, Polanco was appointed president of the United Lowriders Council of San Jose. When talks began to overturn the ban in San Jose, Polanco started having Zoom meetings with other lowrider clubs throughout the state about how they could also work toward repealing no cruising ordinances in their respective cities; Sacramento was the first. “It’s really triggered this wave of organizing,” says Polanco.

With this momentum, a new generation of lowriders has the chance of rising up. Ricardo Cortez, a San Jose native and local artist, says that younger kids who are only now being introduced to this culture have the opportunity to take this rich history and reimagine lowriding through their own perspectives. Through his work with 408{ART}, a series of one-day workshops that he leads in San Jose, Cortez teaches kids how to create sound-reactive lights for custom lowrider cars while also incorporating culture in his lessons. “Lowriding on the streets created a cultural explosion and innovation right at the same time,” he says. “It’s really cool to be able to talk about that.”

Now with the ban overturned in San Jose, a new generation of lowriders has the chance of rising up.
Now with the ban overturned in San Jose, a new generation of lowriders has the chance of rising up. SOUTH BAY VISIONS FOR ATLAS OBSCURA

Just like Polanco and Peralez, Cortez grew up in what many call the lowrider capital of the world, and that instilled a sense of pride in him. “Introducing the new generation to that positive movement, that positive feeling of coming together, celebrating cars, celebrating this culture, is the most important thing we can do as a community.”

*Correction: An early version of this story misidentify the owner of the car.

Lowriders, Stars of California Car Culture, Await the Return of Legal Cruising

SAN JOSE, Calif.—Robert Gutierrez was like a lot of California Latinos coming of age in the 1970s: He loved cruising the boulevard on weekend nights, in a 1972 tangerine Pontiac Grand Ville modified to ride low to the ground with hydraulics so it could bump up and down.

On weekend nights, he joined thousands of others in processions of so-called lowrider cars, cruising back and forth along Story Road—with tunes like “Suavecito” wafting—on this city’s predominantly Latino east side.

“Girls were meeting guys, guys were meeting girls and people were showing off their cars,” said Mr. Gutierrez, now 62.

Lowriding became an integral part of California’s celebrated car culture, immortalized in the 1975 hit “Lowrider” by Long Beach funk band War and featured in Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s big California Love performance at last year’s Super Bowl.

Members of the New Style lowrider car club, including Robert Gutierrez, 62, center, in their San Jose clubhouse.

Beginning in the 1980s, San Jose and many other cities passed ordinances that banned cruising on favorite lowriding streets, after some were disrupted by shootings and other violence.

Now lowriding is becoming legalized again in California, amid protests by enthusiasts that they have been unfairly targeted on racial grounds. San Jose and Sacramento in 2022 repealed their bans. Earlier this month, a bill introduced in the state assembly would repeal remaining bans statewide, by stripping away a 1988 California law that allowed local governments to pass anticruising ordinances. Such ordinances can be applied to cruisers as well as lowered cars.

That bill was co-authored by Assemblyman David Alvarez, who represents the San Diego suburb of National City, where the city lifted a cruising ban last year—and then restored it after unexpectedly large crowds attended a sanctioned event.

“We feel this ordinance is targeting the Black and brown community,” said Jovita Arellano, president of United Lowrider Coalition, a San Diego group formed in 2020 to seek the repeal. The bans don’t target more upscale areas frequented by high-performance cars, she added. “The hot rods don’t get pulled over.”

Lowrider owner Carl Salinas and his 1979 Lincoln Continental Mark V.

Law-enforcement officials have pushed back against the repeals, calling the cruising bans tools they need to control unruly crowds. “At a time when law enforcement is challenged with staffing issues, it’s another thing we may have to monitor and address,” said National City’s Police Chief Jose Tellez.

National City Mayor Ron Morrison said the city’s ordinance is intended to keep the public safe, not target any racial or ethnic group. “It’s easy to make politics out of these things, it’s harder to make them good events,” he said.

Lowriding became popular within Latino communities of California and other parts of the Southwest in the mid-20th century. Chevy Impalas, Buick Rivieras and other classics were outfitted with narrow tires and hydraulic pumps that allowed the driver to raise and lower the wheels as much as 20 inches, sometimes separately. Over time, lowriding became popular within the West Coast Black community too.

John Ulloa, a historian of lowrider culture, said its golden age was from 1977 to 1982, boosted by “Boulevard Nights,” a 1979 movie about life in the barrios of East Los Angeles which featured the low-hanging cars. Mr. Ulloa said that movie, along with the start of a San Jose magazine called Lowrider, helped popularize the activity worldwide.

“Everybody wanted to do it,” said Mr. Ulloa, a lecturer in ethnic studies at San Francisco State University.

Custom lowriders parked on the old Sixth Street Bridge in Los Angeles in 2007.PHOTO: GARY LEONARD/GETTY IMAGES

San Jose banned cruising in 1986. Lowriders continued to ride, but not in big groups, and always with the fear they might get pulled over by police for an infraction, said Doug Vigil, 59 years old and a member of a lowrider club started in the 1970s called New Style.

“They would look for problems to give you a ticket,” Mr. Vigil said.

In 2018, the United Lowrider Council of San Jose formed with the goal of overturning the city’s ban, said David Polanco, president of the group. Lowriders argued police already had other laws on the books to go after criminals without shutting down cruises. With several city council members agreeing the ban appeared discriminatory, it was repealed in June 2022—despite misgivings expressed by Police Chief Anthony Mata.

“Unfortunately, there’s individuals in cars that take over a shopping center, and do loiter, they do drink, drugs are there and there’s violence,” Chief Mata said in the June 28 meeting when the council lifted its ban.

A spokesman for the chief said he wouldn’t comment beyond those remarks. The spokesman added the department doesn’t condone bias-based policing.

A green 1970 Chevrolet Monte Carlo owned by Mark Carrick.

In 2022, a resolution that encouraged cities to drop their cruising bans passed in the California legislature with bipartisan support.

National City allowed cruises to resume on Highland Avenue with permits beginning May 6 last year. A ban had been in place on that well-known cruising route since 1992. However, thousands of cars and people descended on an event that was permitted to host no more than 200 vehicles and 50 spectators, causing traffic gridlock in the city of 56,000, Mr. Morrison, the mayor, said.

“It was totally out of control,” he said.

 Afterward, the city said for future cruises it would have to charge a lowrider group sponsoring a ride up to $20,000 in police overtime and other expenses. The United Lowrider Coalition rejected the offer as cost prohibitive. The city is considering a plan to supervise future rides at its own cost; the coalition is seeking a repeal of the local ban instead.

In San Jose, Mr. Gutierrez hopes lowrider cruising statewide can go back to what it was for him—a social gathering where he met his wife of 39 years, Maria, while cruising Story Road in the 1970s.

“She was driving in her dad’s Cadillac and it caught my eye,” said Mr. Gutierrez, who still cruises with her in his 1978 Lincoln Continental Mark V.


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