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Lowrider legacy and culture take center stage at Bullock Texas State History Museum

The open hood of a shiny lowrider car is seen.
Laura Skelding
For the Texas Standard
Mercedes Mata’s 1984 Chevy Monte Carlo sits on display at the "Carros y Cultura: Lowriding Legacies" exhibit at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.

Chuy Martinez’s sparkling blue 1975 Monte Carlo with multicolor stripes has been with him since he was 17. He saved up for the car, which looked nothing like it does today, by working jobs with his dad’s plumbing company.

When asked to describe the car, he laughs. There’s a lot of detail to go through, from the paint job to the chrome-engraved 24K gold plating to the specially-made, one-of-a-kind hydraulics system that allows the lowrider to go up and down.

The ’75 Monte Carlo is called “The Blue Monte.” It’s one of seven lowrider vehicles featured at the Bullock Texas State History Museum’s new exhibit “Carros y Cultura: Lowriding Legacies in Texas.” The exhibit in Austin is open now and runs until Sept. 2.

“I’m real proud. I mean, that’s the Mexican culture,” Martinez said. “Being a lowrider, keeping your culture — that makes you feel good and I’m proud of it. I’m proud and glad to have my car here in a museum.”

The front of a shiny blue lowrider car is seen, the name "Blue Monte" engraved in gold trimmings at the front of the hood.
Laura Skelding
For the Texas Standard
Chuy Martinez’s 1975 Chevy Monte Carlo, "The Blue Monte."

Martinez founded Brown Impressions Lowrider Car Club of Laredo, and it’s been going for 45 years since he bought The Blue Monte. The club, headquartered on the border, is in the Lowrider Hall of Fame and has 17 chapters crossing not just state lines, but international ones. Not only is there a chapter in Nuevo Laredo across the Rio Grande, but there’s also a chapter across the Pacific Ocean in Japan.

The “Lowriding Legacies” part of the exhibit name is not an exaggeration. One of Austin’s first lowriders was John Colunga, who, like Martinez, has been in this game for 45 years.

“My car is, I call it ‘One Bad ’67,’ but everybody nowadays calls it a legend,” Colunga said. “August the 28th the museum’s supposed to have a birthday party for my car because I’ll have it for 46 years. So I’m looking forward to having cake for the car.”

One Bad ’67 is sparkling green and has two murals: La Virgen de Guadalupe on the trunk and a guardian angel on the hood watching over two children as they cross a bridge. It's an homage to a portrait that was on the headboard of Colunga’s childhood bed where he and his brother slept.

The car holds a special place in Colunga’s heart. Although he says being part of the museum exhibit is an honor, there is a small caveat.

“I told my wife I gotta go see it like every other two days because I missed being in the garage, and it’s the first time I’m gonna be without it for four months being here. So I’m gonna miss it a lot,” he said.

A man wearing a suit, tie, fedora hat and sunglasses poses in front of a lowrider truck. This is Robert Rodriguez.
Laura Skelding
For the Texas Standard
Robert Rodriguez poses with his 1985 Ford F-150. Rodriguez founded Austin Lowriding, a support organization that promotes the lowrider community and spreads awareness of the lifestyle.

It’s something senior curator Kathryn Siefker thought about when talking with folks from the lowriding community about putting together the exhibit.

“You know, they are the primary source in this sense. And so it was a lot of interviewing people,” Siefker said. “It was a lot of spending weekends at lowrider events, and they answered all my millions of questions and explained lowriding to me and welcomed me into their homes, and making sure they felt confident giving us their cars for four months.”

Siefker says Bullock is devoted to telling everyone’s stories, and “Carros y Cultura” begins to bring that ethos forward.

“This story hasn’t had to be told on this scale and at the state history museum, the official history museum of Texas, I think adds a level of appreciation to what they bring to Texas history and Texas culture,” she said.

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Clint Westwood is a journalist for La Prensa Texas in San Antonio. He was one of the advisors for the exhibit and covered the lowriding community for years.

“It’s feels very good, uh me siento muy … excited,” he laughs, quoting from the movie Selena.

“But it is kind of surreal,” he continued. “It’s kind of still sinking in. I never thought our culture would be highlighted this much on a main stage. And being able to highlight the Latino and the lowriding culture to a wider range of audiences, I think it’s a beautiful thing.”

Lowrider car clubs are not just about the bumping hydraulics and sparkling paint jobs. The clubs are known for bringing the community together, raising money for different nonprofit organizations or putting on back-to-school drives. Westwood documented this in his reporting.

“I would write my articles on the lowriding familia, the history, the story of a car that gets passed through generation to generation. The bond that families have together working on a vehicle, the pride, the love that goes into it, the detail …. It’s taking pride in what we have.”

Those bonds are strong, and lowriders are often born into it. Take Mercedes Mata for example, owner of a stunning 1984 Monte Carlo.

“It’s pink, it’s sparkly, it catches everyone’s attention,” she said.

The 20-year-old from Dallas graduated high school early at 16 and knew she wanted to build cars just like her dad.

A young woman shows off her bottom dental grill while posing in front of a lowrider. This is Mercedes Mata.
Laura Skelding
For the Texas Standard
Mercedes Mata, a third generation lowrider from Dallas, poses with her 1984 Chevy Monte Carlo.

“I wanted my own,” she said. “I was tired of being in the back seat.”

So her father made a deal with her.

“He told me, ‘I’ll buy it for you, but you gotta put your own money into it to fix it up.’ So that’s what I did,” Mata said.

There’s also sixteen-year-old Issac Morales and his lowrider bicycle. He and his grandmother named it “The Last Prayer.” Religious iconography adorns the shimmering blood red-wine finish.

“I picked that color because of the way they say, ‘The blood of wine is the blood of the Lord,'” he said. “One of the sides has the Virgin Mary. The other side has Jesus with the cross with the thorn crown. The inside, it has the sacred heart and the prayer hands.”

He and his grandmother would spend time going to church. His grandmother wanted him to become an altar boy, but before he could, she got sick. So Morales decided they could work on the bike together and she would be the inspiration.

People look over the "Carros y Cultura" exhibit.
Laura Skelding
For the Texas Standard
People look over the "Carros y Cultura" exhibit.

“I was like, ‘Grandma, you know what? This bike, I want you to be a part of it.’ Because we both loved it,” Morales said. “So me and her decided to come up with the names and details and everything. I’m happy that I built it with her.”

And though she’s passed this year, Morales has the bike to remember her by.

Sort of like the memento Trampia Guzman’s grandmother left to the cultura when she passed: curtains.

“The fabric is 60 years old,” he says. “It used to be some drapes that actually hung in her home. I have pictures of me sitting in front as a child, four years old, in front of those drapes.

Guzman has been sewing for decades. He’s the owner and operator of Cultura Boulevard Clothing in Austin. When she passed, Guzman asked for those memorable gold curtains and initially didn’t know what he was going to do with them. And then it hit him.

“I was like, you know what, I’m going to honor my grandmother by making a zoot suit, reminiscent of the ’30s and ’40s era. And I’m going to wear it,” Guzman said.

The gold zoot suit quickly became iconic within the community. It is now on display in the museum along with a sharp black and white zoot suit he tailor-made for his wife.

Trampia Guzman poses in front of two zoot suits he made that are on display at the "Carros y Cultura" exhibit.
Laura Skelding
For the Texas Standard
Trampia Guzman poses in front of two zoot suits he made that are on display at the "Carros y Cultura" exhibit.

It’s a historic moment, contrasting vastly with the zoot suit’s checkered past.

“As you know, back in the ’30s, Hispanics were actually kind of frowned upon for wearing zoot suits — wearing the oversized zoot suits, 40-inch at the knee and the 10-inch cuffs,” Guzman said. “You know, they were considered hoodlums back in the day.”

Guzman says it’s taken a huge leap forward “with people actually embracing the culture, embracing the fabrics, embracing the type of style. And so we just wear it with pride.”

More modern cholo apparel is also highlighted in the exhibit, as well one style of shoe iconic to the Chicano community — the Nike Cortez.

The special lowrider edition is made with material normally used in the interior of a classic car. The design was a collaboration with influential Chicano artist Mister Cartoon, and the pair was provided to the museum by community historian Enrique Navarette.

“I curate and collect a lot of memorabilia — art, photography, clothing, anything that has ties to our culture,” he said. “I felt like it’s important to curate and collect all this stuff, because 20 years from now, if somebody’s not doing it, it gets lost.”

People photograph Arturo Dehoyos’ 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, which features a mural of Mexican ranchera singer Vicente Fernandez, at the "Carros y Cultura" opening reception.
Laura Skelding
For the Texas Standard
People photograph Arturo Dehoyos’ 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, which features a mural of Mexican ranchera singer Vicente Fernandez.

He’s not wrong, and it’s hard to put that into numbers.

A 2013 study done on knowledge loss within indigenous societies laments that “there are no estimates of the rate at which the specific cultural traits of a group disappear,” but it leads to what many in marginalized communities already know — it’s usually up to them to be their own historians. And in turn, passing along the traditions to the next generation.

Like to 8-year-old Sanoma Stewart from San Antonio. Her father Stacy’s car is in the exhibit. It’s sort of like the one driven by the infamous Bonnie and Clyde, except it's a lowrider, so it’s got the bling.

Sanoma may not have a license yet, but she knows her dad’s car.

“I know it’s a ’39 Chevrolet,” she says. “Candy orange.”

The cars and the culture surrounding it is already a family affair and a big part of personal histories. But with this exhibit is an official acknowledgement from the state that Chicano car culture is significant to Texas history and not to be forgotten.

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Kristen Cabrera is a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, where she saw snow for the first time and walked a mile through a blizzard. A native of the Rio Grande Valley, she graduated from the University of Texas-Pan American (now UTRGV) and is a former KUT News intern. She has been working as a freelance audio producer, writer and podcaster. Email her:
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