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Arts & Culture

31st Annual Low Rider Festival at Centro Cultural Aztlan

Photo: Photos by Jim Mendiola, License: N/A

Photos by Jim Mendiola

Victor Stewart and his 1939 Chevrolets

Photo: , License: N/A

Victor Stewart teaches his son to sand paint.

Click to see our Lowrider photo gallery.

The first lowrider Victor Stewart customized was a 1967 Chevrolet pickup his father gave him. Most people saw a heap of junk, Stewart saw a canvas. It was 1979. The skills he learned in Body and Paint class at Brackenridge High School suddenly became practical. He chopped four inches off the cab. Chromed the undercarriage. Upholstered the interior in velvet. Painted the car a rich black. And as a final touch, Stewart installed the hydraulics, that mechanically intricate series of pumps, motors, and fluid allowing four ton cars to rise, fall, hop, and cruise, low and slow. It was, he claims, the first lowrider in San Antonio with hydraulics.

Stewart still has the truck. It sits in his Eastside garage sharing space with five ’39 Chevys, two from 1941, a ’42 pickup, and his latest creation, a customized 1947 Chevy convertible, built from the ground up. He’ll debut the new lowrider at this weekend’s 31st Annual Lowrider Festival, sponsored by Centro Cultural Aztlan. 

It’s a perfect fit: an old school veterano and a 30-year-old car show. Both dedicated to promoting lowriders as Chicano art, and both still going strong.

Like with most forms of folk art, the mythic origins of lowriding remain unclear. Most agree, however, that it began in Southern California, during that particular post-WW II nexus of hot rod car culture and second-generation Mexican American kids. Gringo hot rodders wanted their cars to ride high. Pachucos, ever defying the mainstream, wanted theirs to ride low. It was style over speed. Y qué.

Heavy sandbags in the trunk gave way to modified army surplus hydraulic pumps, scraping boulevards across Aztlan ever since. The ingrained old world custom of nightly strolls around the Mexican village plaza was updated on this side of the border to an urban street version with cars. Cruising was born. 

It was an American art form invented and practiced by Chicanos. 

Maligned as hoodlums or thugs, and harassed by the cops, the Mexican kids and their blowtorches nevertheless continued with their baroque and inventive modifications of paint, metal, and chrome. And their canvases expanded: ’64 Impalas; ’49 Chevy bombs; bicycles.

Los Angeles-based artist Ruben Ortiz Torres, who has devoted much of his work to exploring and learning from lowriders, has always looked to the customizers for artistic inspiration.

“I consider them more interesting than art,” he says, “the cars are performative, they function as sculptures, and they work as cultural expressions reflective of a particular community.”

At the Centro Cultural Aztlan, a community-based arts organization that formed in 1977, the analysis hits home. This, after all, is the SA arts center that began the annual Día de los Muertos celebration way before the holiday became hip, and commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo as a critical act. 

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