“Lowrider is the Chicano’s way of resisting and saying, “You know what? Sabes que. This is me. Y que?”
Lowriding is more than just old cars; it is about cultural identity, creativity, social change and healing. It has its roots here in California as well as New Mexico, and has grown to be embraced globally, with lowriding car clubs found not only in the United States, but also in Mexico, Japan, Australia and Europe. Lowriding culture came from the Pachuco zoot suit era of the 1930s and 1940s and expanded during the Chicano Rights Movement of the 1960s. Until about 10 years ago, lowriding was viewed as a negative activity among the general public, often being associated with crime and gang involvement. However, for many members of the Santa Rosa and Sonoma County community, including some of our own City employees, lowriding is an important part of individual and community life. Individuals with their own lowriders say that lowriding is about family, community and a sense of pride in their work. Building and maintaining a lowrider is a tremendous amount of work and can, at times, be an expensive endeavor.
For many involved in lowriding, it is a form of healing from multi-generational trauma. David Escobar, Ph.D. Candidate and member of the Sonoma County Lowrider Council says in his article, Lowriding: Ancestral Healing and Political Resistance, “Lowriding, for me, is a form of healing that springs from [the] collective unconscious. It rises out of a natural desire to resist oppression; to reclaim and maintain our sense of cultural identity...Lowriding disrupts the visual aesthetic of established “normality.” It proclaims the ongoing existence of the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.” The work that goes into building a lowrider, including the paint and artwork, can be very therapeutic for many involved. It also provides a space within the community to celebrate cultural identity and self-expression.
Lowriding is not only a form of healing for many, but it has also been lifesaving for some individuals. These individuals credit lowriding with saving their lives, whether it be from gang involvement, mental health or substance abuse issues, or some other life obstacle. While lowriding has been around for nearly 80 years, it has more recently become recognized as a violence and gang prevention strategy. Programming that centers around lowriding provides spaces for young people to learn about and work on these types of cars as well as a space for nurturing mentorships between members of the lowrider community and youth. Several communities around the U.S., including Oakland, San Diego, Stockton, Albuquerque, and now Santa Rosa, have embraced lowriding and have begun developing their own prevention and engagement programs coupled with the build of lowrider patrol cars.
Introducing the Marylou Lowrider Patrol Car
In August of 2020, members from the Sonoma County Lowrider Council, Police Chief Rainer Navarro, and former mayor Tom Schwedhelm met to discuss how to foster a better relationship between Santa Rosa Police Department and the greater community. Following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota and a period of local and national civil discourse and unrest, the goal of the listening session was to provide a space for dialogue and to ultimately create a more in-depth and thoughtful relationship between law enforcement and community groups who have been historically disenfranchised. It was during these listening sessions that the idea for a lowrider patrol car came to be.
After eight months of hard work and commitment, the retired police cruiser has been completely transformed into the Marylou Lowrider Patrol Car (Marylou), and includes body work, repainting, vinyl wrapping, pinstriping, mural work, rims, hydraulics, and new upholstery. The work was completed by six local car clubs including Latin Rollers Car Club Santa Rosa, Ranflitas Car Club North Bay, Viejitos Car Club North Bay, 1 Firme Car Club, Impalas North Bay Car Club, and Good Times Car Club. The pinstriping work was completed by solo rider Paul Marquez of Santa Rosa. The car club plaque mounted in the back of the vehicle represents the City’s and community’s combined efforts to create the Marylou and includes the City of Santa Rosa’s logo.
The Marylou is a symbol of collaboration and teamwork and is used for engagement and educational purposes within the community. In addition, the car also commemorates the sacrifices and the lives lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic with its dedication to Marylou Armer, a former Santa Rosa Police Department (SRPD) detective who became the first officer in California to die from complications of COVID-19. Her portrait, masterfully crafted by City of Santa Rosa Community Outreach Specialist Gustavo Mendoza, adorns the back of the retired 2011 Crown Victoria police cruiser, surrounded by roses and accompanied by an American flag and a depiction of Fountaingrove’s historic Round Barn, all symbols representing Marylou’s commitment to protecting and serving the City of Santa Rosa. Her badge number, 442, is artfully displayed on each side of the vehicle, and intricate pinstriping can been seen throughout the paint job. Each detail is a testament to the time and commitment dedicated to this project and its greater purpose.
These efforts culminated in the Marylou Lowrider Patrol Car Reveal Event which took place Saturday, March 26. More than 500 people gathered at City Hall to witness the Marylou in-person. For Gustavo, the event symbolizes a multitude of things. “I think it takes a special meaning, especially considering the fact that we’ve been in isolation for two years now because of COVID...Not only that, part of the Community Empowerment Plan [includes] the listening sessions that the Lowrider Council came to...as a response to the incident in Minnesota involving George Floyd...so it seems like [while] we’ve been in isolation, we’ve been digging deep at some of the inequities we have as a society. We were able to reflect during that time, and I think people are ready to roll up their sleeves and start tackling some of those inequities and work together.... It was hard work to make the car a reality. The community put their blood, sweat, and tears to get that car to where it’s at today. It’s just a small representation of the work that needs to be done for us to bridge the gap.”
The blood, sweat, and tears that went into creating the Marylou is reflective of the work that goes into every lowrider. For many in the lowrider community, the building and completion of the Marylou has been therapeutic, helping those involved find healing and catharsis after trauma.
By providing education about the communities involved in bringing the Marylou to life, the Lowrider Council, SRPD, and the Office of Community Engagement hope to educate the public and promote the importance of trauma-informed care by encouraging them to find healthy ways to address their traumas by channeling energy in a transformative, expressive way that provides a support network. Gustavo says, “If you’ve been through traumatic experiences, sometimes you tend to self-isolate, right? These clubs come together as a support system, because in some of these clubs...somebody knows how to do hydraulics. Somebody knows how to do stereo systems. Somebody knows how to do paint jobs, so it’s a way of networking and socializing with a group of like-minded people towards a common goal...It’s all about socializing and engaging.”
The Office of Community Engagement will continue to work with SRPD to bring the Marylou to community events and to assist in developing programming around the car. Ideas for programming include development of a youth leadership program, additional listening sessions and restorative circles between SRPD and the community, and workshops that center around lowriding, healing from trauma, and violence prevention.
The project was not without challenges, but Gustavo, the Lowrider Council, SRPD, and other participants in the creation of the Marylou see this as an opportunity to build a path forward. “...for years people from [the Lowrider Council] and the lowrider community have struggled to have a place at the table, and I believe that being able to transform this car is allowing them to carve a place at the table so they could discuss relative issues that are going on within their own community... Oftentimes, you want your voice at the table, and you feel like you're not being heard. And then that's why people protest. That's why people go out into the streets: because there is pent-up frustration, and you feel like you're not being seen or heard. When you drive a lowrider you are seen and heard.” While this project is not the final solution that will end all inequality forever, it is one step in moving forward and one piece of the work that needs to be done.
To learn more about lowriding and the Marylou Lowrider Patrol Car, visit the links below.
The Marylou Lowrider Patrol Car
Lowriding: Ancestral Healing and Political Resistance
Lowriding: Everything Comes from the Streets (KQED)
This Multicultural Roots Project blog was written by Haley Katz, Community Engagement AmeriCorp VISTA and Danielle Garduno, Community Engagement Program Manager.