The scene – repeated over and over again throughout the region – is so iconic and now so Los Angeles:
Candy-colored cars glisten in the sun as they cruise slowly down busy avenues and around city parks, impossibly low to the road and then sent hopping up and down by mechanical lifters.
The street shows are community fixtures; rolling “low and slow” for several generations.
The other constant has been the traditional gender divide in the lowrider community: men are usually behind the wheels. Mostly men own the vehicles and the shops where the cars’ suspensions are customized – dropped low to the asphalt.
But today that’s changing: lowriding is steadily attracting a new demographic–Latinas and African American women who are purchasing their own customized cars. Like their brothers, they revel in revving engines, free-wheeling and “hitting switches” on hydraulic systems to bounce their cars. On weekends, they caravan with other women lowriders to car shows and barbecues.
I'll Do It Myself
At the urging of friends, Sandy Avila of Pasadena started the Lady Lowrider Car Club in July 2021. Avila, whose gleaming beige ‘84 Cutlass features gold flakes and sparkling glitter with the title of the classic Al Green soul song, “Simply Beautiful,” scrawled in flowing black letters across the body, said she has seen more women become lowrider owners and mechanics. Many, she said, grew up in families where a father, cousin, brother or uncle were deep into lowriding.
“Up until now, women have always been in the passenger seat, never in the driver seat,” Avila said. “We were the wives and the girlfriends … We were never considered the owners. We were the ones getting the kids ready for the car shows and helping to clean the cars – basically the supporters.
“Now that most of us are older,” she added, “our kids are grown and we no longer have to support them. Some of us have divorced and now we have the money to either buy a lowrider or invest in the cars we have.”
”(Women) taking the wheel has surprised men,” added the mother of three girls and a son. “But most of the time we get a lot of love and support from the men. There are some men who see women out there with nice cars and there’s a bit of jealousy because we’re women. We’re not supposed to be out there owning and driving cars and hitting switches like the men and sometimes doing it better than men.”
Women, Avila added, have also turned lowriding into a more family-oriented community. On most weekends the Lady Lowrider Car Club cruises to a car show, sets up its cars, props up a canopy and starts a barbecue. “(Some) have margaritas and hang out the whole day,” she added. “We have a good time and enjoy one another’s company and the cars.”
The Lady Lowriders, like many other lowrider clubs, also work on community projects. “We regularly do homeless feeds and toy drives and we also mentor foster kids,” Avila said.
Cultural, Politival Statements with a Soundtrack
Lowrider culture emerged in Southern California in the mid-to-late 1940s. Mexican-American lowriding afficionados customized cars to create cultural and political statements and a sense of pride. Even today, lowriders show off their creativity with images of Latino icons, crosses, family members or deceased loved ones.
The sleek, rolling works of art come with a soundtrack. Music plays an intrinsic role in lowriding culture. As they tool down the boulevards, lowriders pump up the playlists, from hip hop and rap to classic oldies and Latino staples. Lowriding is as diverse as the city, long attracting practitioners from Black and Asian communities.
It is this mix of cultures that defines real life in L.A. neighborhoods. On many Friday and Saturday nights lowriders take over the city’s most popular streets, like Hollywood and Whittier Boulevards, with caravans of cars lined-up bumper-to-bumper. Drivers show off skills, “three wheeling” and “hitting switches” to make their cars jump.
Low and Slow
Tina Blankenship-Early, a Black woman who has been lowriding for 25 years, is a member of the Supernatural Car Club. She owns a 1964 Chevrolet Impala, a ‘61 Impala, and a ‘66 Caprice.
“There were eight different guys that I grew up with in my neighborhood and they all owned lowriders,” Blankenship-Early said, recalling how she taught herself how to install the suspension, the audio, the electric wiring, the headlights and the tail lights on her cars.
“My ‘61 Impala is a tribute to former first lady Michelle Obama,” said Blankenship-Early, who also is an artist. “When I drive it on the street, most people just love it … There’s a presidential seal in the back window and in the trunk and it also features the White House. I have a picture of Michelle Obama with her hand over her chest standing to the pledge of allegiance.
“When I’m lowriding, I feel like I’m the only one on the road,” Blankenship-Early added, pointing to the personalized license plate that declares ‘’First Lady” on her ‘66 Caprice – a car that appeared in the 2015 movie “Straight Outta Compton.”
Avila and Blakenship-Early know they’re in a small club of women lowrider owners and mechanics. But they’re eager to grow their group, attracting women from around the world into their community.
Blankenship-Early’s cars are on display on YouTube. “I’ve also got followers in Iraq, Japan, the UK and Australia,” she said, adding a playful boast.
From its start on the streets of L.A., lowriding has spread along with the growth of the Chicano community throughout California and the U.S. West.
Elisa Trevino, founder of the Chicanas Car Club in Merced, California, said she has been in love with cars as far as she can remember. “When I was about 11, I got off the bus from school and there was an old classic car in our driveway. My dad was a mechanic and I said, ‘Dad, what kind of car is that?’ He said, ‘A ‘64 Impala.’ I said, ‘I’m going to get me one of those when I get older.’ Then, when I was 15, I got with my (now) ex-husband who was into lowriders and I fell in love with the whole lowrider world.
“I actually have a ‘64 Impala and a sky blue ‘65 Chevrolet Impala which I bought 21 years ago,” said Trevino, making sure it’s known that the ‘65 has a two-pump hydraulic mechanism. “I chose both of them since the ‘64 Impala has always been my dream car and the ‘65 has beautiful curves to it. And I love hitting my switches.”
“After my husband and I divorced, I was a ‘sola chola’—cruising and going to shows by myself,” Trevino said, remembering the time when she set out to bring more women into lowriding. “I thought that it would be awesome to find other women who have the same interest as I do and have the same love for cars so that we could empower each other. I thought, ‘If men can have a club, why not women?’”
It wasn’t long before Trevino founded the Chicanas Car Club with Christina Beruman. There are now three chapters of the club, which was the first all-women lowrider club in California’s vast Central Valley.
“I’ve seen an increase in women joining car clubs, especially in the past two years,” added Avila. “We now have seven members and several other ladies are currently working on their cars. Once their cars are finished, they can join the club.”
Avila said the women she’s come to know have gained a sense of empowerment and self-esteem through lowriding. “We women are here to stay in the lowrider world; we are not going anywhere.”
“It makes (a woman) feel that she can do anything she puts her mind to,” Avila said. “It gives her a sense of self-worth since many of us ladies have suffered from abuse, bad relationships, or those who have felt a lack of inner courage. Now we are forming clubs, uniting together as one and empowering each other as women should.”
Trevino said there is nothing like being a lowrider. “It’s about pride, family, respect, community, La Raza and riding from the heart,” she said. “It gives us an outlet to express cultural heritage through art and no two lowrider vehicles are alike.”