Regulating Lowrider Space

by Ben Chappell

The light poles at the bingo hall held No Parking signs indicating that the lot was a tow-away zone after business hours – that was why that half of the parking lot was so empty on Saturdays. Every now and then, a car would pull into the far corner of the lot, which was across the street from Club InSane, presumably because the club’s lot was full. At least once I saw a tow truck arrive and start to pull a car away just as the driver came out of the club, ran over, and pleaded to be allowed to move the car himself. When I was in the bingo lot with the Kings, we stayed close to our cars, ready to leave if the tow truck came our way or a police officer arrived to clear the area. One night when a police car did pull into the bingo lot, Smiley put one finger in the air and whirled it to indicate “we’re rolling.’” Several people had gotten in their cars and started them up when the officer, an African American woman, got out of the car. “Where y’all going?” she said. A couple of people laughed nervously and paused in the process of leaving, still unsure whether we were being run off as the officer struck up a conversation.

“How much do those lights cost?” she asked, pointing to Smiley’s blue strobes. She looked around pleasantly. “Y’all aren’t doing nothing. Just hanging out here. That’s cool.”

[Book cover of Lowrider Space shows a a baby-blue and white lowrider in a residential neighboorhood, on a paved street with no pavements. The car has the engine compartment open, and the lid is hinged in the front, so the artwork on the lid can be seen from the front of the car. It is an airbrushed painting of the Holy Mary with the Immaculate Heart. Behind the car follows a procession of kids on bicycles, dancers dressed in Aztec ritual attire, and a photographer. Two young men stands in front of a house, watching.]

Lowrider Space: Aesthetics and Politics of Mexican American Custom Cars

Ben Chappell (Author)

University of Texas Press 2012
256 pages, 20 b&w photos, 3 maps, 13 color photos
6 x 9 inches

Her manner was calm and friendly, almost obscuring the subtle one-way negotiation she was carrying on: by stating what we were doing – just hanging out, having a good time – she made it clear that was what we needed to do to stay out of trouble. After a bit of small talk, she said, “Y’all be careful now,” an idiomatic farewell that I heard often in East Austin, and climbed back into her car. As she pulled away, someone behind me called, “Couldn’t she give us a letter that says we’re allowed to be here?” A few people laughed.

After the nice cop had gone, I went to my car to move it closer to the group. Earlier, I had parked some distance away from where the lowriders ultimately gathered, and I was still wary of the tow trucks. I chose not to risk it, having had my share of interactions with the Austin “land sharks” over parking places at apartment complexes in the past. When I got into my car and started the engine, I noticed headlights approaching in my rearview mirror as a late-model car – was it a Crown Victoria? – pulled in behind me. I stayed put. No one got out of the car. I waited for what seemed like a long time until the Crown Vic slowly backed out and drove off to another section of the parking lot. Most likely it was an unmarked police car, and the officers had been “running my plates” to check for any record in their computer. I had sat there for only a few minutes, but it seemed much longer.

By the time I rejoined the group, everyone was watching a large white van with blacked-out windows drive slowly down the side street between the bingo hall and Club InSane. Smiley said, “This doesn’t feel right. I don’t like the way this feels at all.” He turned to me. “You see that van? That’s the jump-out boys. SWAT team.” Suddenly, the van accelerated to the corner and took off onto Riverside, eastbound. A police car pulled in behind it. At about the same time, three or four other police cars appeared on the side street and, along with the unmarked car that had sat behind me, slowly cruised into the InSane parking lot, around the building, and out of sight. Watching them, I noticed a couple more cops standing by the doorway to the nightclub, checking IDs.

A guy I didn’t know pulled up in a Nissan compact with custom chrome rims, but not lowered. “Man,” he said as he greeted the Kings one by one, “I just came from homeboy’s party, and the laws was looking for me ’cause I was racing.” He fell silent when another police car pulled down the street beside the parking lot where we were posted up and suddenly lit up its strobes, causing most people in our group again to instinctively put their hands on door handles or take a couple of steps toward their cars. But the patrol car was headed past us. An import with a custom spoiler affixed to its rear end raced through the intersection, and the cop sounded his siren, peeling out and turning east in pursuit. People started joking about their own jumpiness. Lito, a gregarious lowrider friendly with the Kings who often turned the conversation at cruising sites into a standup comedy routine, singled out one young lowrider who had moved quickly to his car at the sound of the siren: “Cop’s like, ‘weeew!’ and he just starts running. Shit, dog, that’s the Mexican in you! See a cop and buuuuuum!” Lito pumped his arms to pantomime running while he imitated the sound of an accelerating motor with his voice. He acted out a dialogue between two fleeing lowriders. “It’s like: ‘What’s going on?’ ‘I don’t know, dog, just run! I’ll call you later on the cell phone!’”

Lito’s comment on “the Mexican in you” as accounting for a young lowrider’s jumpiness testifies to the constant state of being under surveillance in a barrio space. Traffic stops by police were a ubiquitous means of this spatial regulation, one familiar to all lowriders I met. Roman, who was unaffiliated with a car club but well known locally for his 1964 Impala lowrider, spoke in an interview about being pulled over as his only negative experience with lowriding. Without privileging one dimension of identity over others, Roman portrayed these situations as an articulation of race, class, and style – it was never clear that either his identity as a Mexican American or the distinctive look of his car was the “real” reason for his being pulled over. The heavy implication of stories like Roman’s was that the given reasons were just pretexts.

ben: You said that there were lots and lots of, uh, positive experiences. Were there any experiences where you thought, “Aw, man, it would be a lot easier if I, uh, if I weren’t driving a lowrider right now,” or …

roman: I think that the only part that I had, that came to my mind was, when I would get pulled over driving my car. That was the only time that I would think, “God, man, what the hell am I doing in this car?” I think of, man, just the easiest way to get out of it. But then, uh, I had nothing to fear, ’cause I didn’t violate anything. I would just get pulled over ’cause, uh, let me see … I got pulled over because, uh, one time a cop said that I had too much gold on my car and that it would distract people. I’m like, “Come on, man.” Another time I got pulled over ’cause we went to H-E-B [a local grocery store]. We were going to have a barbecue at my friend’s house who lives over on the other side of Airport. Well, we had four – I remember we had four grocery bags. Of course I was driving, my friend was on this side, Steve, and my friend Robbie was in the backseat. And we had two bags of groceries in the front, two bags in the back, and we got – we just hadn’t been paying attention, and we – I told Steve “Hey, man, put those groceries in the back, I don’t want ’em up here.” So he grabs the bags and he turns around and he gives them to my friend Robbie. Right there those lights came on. “Oh, my God.” Looked over and said, “God dang …” We pulled over where – you know where the tank farm is at? […] We got pulled over there and another thing, we got taken out, they got us out of the car, we got searched, wanted to know what we were doing, what we were doing in the neighborhood, “Are you from this area?”

“Man, I live right here, right in front of Govalle Elementary.”

“Where y’all going?”

The whole time I asked him why had he pulled me over. He goes, “Well …” He wouldn’t answer me. After a good while, after more officers show up, he said, “Under suspicion,” ’cause I was handing bags to the back.

I said, “Man, they’re grocery bags. Man, why don’t you look?” I said, “I got some ribs, I got some hamburger meat.”

“Well, you were passing something. That’s not all I saw.” He goes, “I saw you pass something else.” And all we passed was two bags of, uh, of groceries to the back. Well, uh, in one of the bags was a bottle. It was a Budweiser bottle that big. It was for my friend’s mom, and she asked for it. He wanted to know what we were doing with that bottle, and I said, “I bought it.” I said, “I bought it for my friend’s mom, and that’s who we’re taking it to.” Well, he couldn’t do nothing about it, ’cause it wasn’t open or anything. Well, to make a long story short, we got pulled out, after that he just – I guess he was angry ’cause he couldn’t find anything. Without asking, he started searching my car.

The low-intensity harassment that Roman described was part of a wider controversy over racial profiling, or “driving while Mexican” (see Gilroy’s [2001] comments on “driving while black”).1 1. The Austin Police Department concluded from its ownstudy that racial profiling was not a problem, but the lowriders I talked to would clearly have disagreed (see Knee 2003). But lowriders also noticed that car club affiliation could draw attention, suggesting that a deliberate performance of lowrider identity could fuse with race, class, and location in the interpretive logic of such encounters. Indeed, if the police interpreted club membership as referring to a specific social position, they were not alone. Chris, who was one of a handful of white lowriders I met, was a member of the predominately Mexican American club Nuestra Manera. Chris was well aware that lowrider style privileged a Mexican American identity and thus publicly compromised his whiteness to an extent. Specifically, displaying lowrider style and club affiliation in traffic marked him as a target in ways from which white privilege did not make him entirely immune. Indeed, identifying as a lowrider also introduced a degree of racial suspicion from whites, which a friend of Chris’s reproduced comically in the background of a recorded interview.

ben: The first time I met you, you said – I asked you about being pulled over, and you said, yeah, it’s part of being in a club.

chris: Yeah, you know, when I had those [club] stickers on there, that was a long time ago – when I had those stickers on there, I got pulled over a lot.

ben: Really?

chris: Yeah, when I had [Nuestra Manera] on the, on the back window?

ben: So what you think it – do you think it’s mostly – what makes you, what makes you a target for getting pulled over?

chris: You know, it’s a combination of the accessories, but it’s the stereotype. It’s the perception of the people who are involved in lowriding. I mean, it’s negative. I encounter it everywhere. Everybody’s like – I mean even some racism within, like, you know, ’cause I’m white, within, uh, my own race. ’Cause they’re like – what do they say, they’re like … “What race are you?” You know, just – you know, like …

ben: Like you don’t know who you are? Is that what they – is that the idea?

chris: No, not necessarily implying that, but they’re just like, are you – are you Hispanic? You know what I’m saying? Because they know, you know, they know I’m white, but they’re just implying like, “Do you know who you are?” Exactly. It’s, it’s …

ben: Even at work?

chris: Everywhere. Yeah. Everywhere.

ben: When you get pulled over, how do the police respond to the fact that you’re white? […] Do you ever notice surprise or anything like that, or do you think it’s just …

chris: Um, yeah. Well I’ve heard it from them, too. I’ve, I’ve heard it somewhat. But most of all they pull you over not necessarily because of your race, but more of the car. But, I mean, they just assume that you’re going to be Hispanic.

ben: Yeah.

chris’s friend: [Chris]’s a Mexican wannabe.

chris: [ironically] Yeah, something like that. No, I don’t look at it that way. A lot of people say that.

ben: Yeah?

chris: I mean, I love the culture, so … I mean, I don’t care, you know, they can – you know, I have a clean driving record and I keep all my stuff straight, I have insurance, you know.

chris’s friend: Got a membership to a tanning salon.

While lowriders accepted as common knowledge that performing lowrider style and spending time in a barrio space meant being subject to heightened scrutiny from the police, they often maintained that this was a matter of mistaken identity. Such misinformation could be mitigated somewhat by community connections, though being pulled over in your own neighborhood could also bring a particular humiliation:

ben: Seems like everybody has, um, an experience with getting pulled over by the police. Have you had any trouble with that at all?

smiley: Oh, yeah, when I first started I did. I would get pulled over about, probably once every week.

ben: Wow.

smiley: Um, one time I got, um … charged for a false license plate. Actually it was – the plate numbers were reading back for another car […] Course, it was a mistake that they did at, um, at the title place when they gave me the plates. […] It was fat-fingered in or something in the system. But I think that was my worst experience, because they got me out of the car, they searched me, the car, me and a friend of mine. We were just down the street from his house. The police officer – of course, his [Smiley’s friend’s] mom came out and asked what was going on. The police officer just started rambling, saying that we had drugs, we had guns, we had this, we had that. […] I took it to court for that and, um, I got the ticket dismissed. […] I’ve gotten stopped before, saying, “Hey, you know, your license plate light isn’t working.”

“Oh, really?” Park it, get out of the car, let me see myself, and it is working.

“Well, let me just check your, uh, let me just check your license, see if you got any warrants.” So, I mean, already – my record’s always been clean, and it’s – I mean, I’m going to keep it clean, but. You know that’s the whole thing, they want to – they see a lowrider, they say, “Oh, I know he’s got warrants” or “I know that he’s got something up, he probably has some kind of drugs in his car.” But yeah, I’ve gotten hassled by a lot of police. At the same time, there’s a lot of police officers out there that know who we are and know who I am, so I don’t really get hassled.

Despite the overwhelming body of narrative about profiling and stereotyping, nearly everyone I talked to freely admitted that not all lowriders were innocent, and some went so far as to say that lowriders must share some of the blame for their antagonistic relationship with the police.

ben: So what do you think it is that, uh, makes police target lowriders in particular?

roman: Partly because the reputation our own people’s giving our cars, really, which I can’t blame them for. But also, a lot of it has to do with color. Um-hm. A lot of it has to do with color. ’Cause, uh, I have encountered good officers, I really have. I’ve encountered some that are just nice, I’ve encountered some that – they have, even just at a gas station they’ll walk up and tell me something like, “Hey, just to let you know, you have a nice car and everything, but your inspection sticker’s getting ready to expire in about five days.” Now that’s a good officer. You know, somebody who compliments you, you know, give you a warning on your car, you know, you’re getting ready to – I’ve encountered a lot of good cops, but let me tell you, there’s a lot of bad ones out there, lot of bad ones. Un – very, not too professional, and have no respect. Because they use that badge as authority. A lot of us encounter that, but then again, there’s a lot of bad lowriders out there too. Lot of bad guys.

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