Last Friday (July 17), I took a little trip to neighboring Lincoln Heights for a special private event for the soon-to-open (July 25) art exhibit and gallery entitled L.A. Story: A Lowrider Cultural Event held at La Plaza de La Raza.
I was invited by my friend and photographer Art Meza aka @Chicano_Soul to experience the stories from those who are capturing the lowrider scene the best: the artists, photographers, and the lowriders themselves.
As many of you know, Universal Pictures is banking on the Chicana/o community to support its upcoming Lowriders film, which is currently in production. Since it began initial filming in the Eastside, Lowriders from the get-go alienated the Chicana/o community thanks to the paternalistic response of @filmcrewLA (now @ForLocations) and also because of Hollywood’s history of depicting Chicana/o culture as deviant and backward.
The L.A. Story art exhibit is curated by Pep Williams and is “dedicated to celebrating the culture and lifestyle of the classic Lowrider and the journey on the streets of “El Blvd” and truth be told, the lowrider exhibit was a much needed break from the endless racist stereotypes we are forced to endure by Hollywood and other media narratives.
Thus, L.A. Story is the story of La Gente, which dramatizes the need to collectively belong to a community, while at the same time responding to injustice, segregation, racism and the conservative tendencies of Euroamerican culture since the post-World War II years.
As part of Chicana/o socio-cultural history, the lowrider aesthetic defines for a generation a sense of continuity, survival, and creativity. Although the Chicana/o voice is clearly present in L.A. Story, a closer look reveals how culture is fluid and how other racial/ethnic communities, such as the Black and Japanese have also been impacted by the lowrider culture.
Inside the Gallery
As you walk the L.A. Story gallery space at La Plaza de la Raza, you can’t help but think of the working-class origins of the lowrider phenomenon with the Pachucos and Pachucas who cruised the streets of Whittier Blvd or Downtown L.A. in the 1940s and 1950s. I visualized these images when I saw a framed poster of Luis Valdez’s classic play Zoot-Suit, which was signed by Ignacio Gómez, one of the contributors to L.A. Story. And again, these images came to mind when I came upon a Chaz Bojorquez framed Boulevard Nights poster.
Usually when one thinks of Lowrider culture, it is assumed that it is mostly a Chicano (men) socio-cultural practice, but women are also actively involved. This was conspicuously missing, however, as there are only three contributions by muXeres: Adriana Avila, Laura Pelayo, and Stephanie Bueno. This does not in any way diminish the exhibit, however, but something that did catch my attention since several of the pieces prominently feature muXeres.
As a life-long Boyle Heights resident, one of the better contributions to the L.A. Story art exhibit is Adriana Avila’s Bloody Mary, an art piece done in oil and gold flake. Bloody Mary depicts the iconic 6th Street Bridge (scheduled to be demolished soon) in Boyle Heights from the vantage point of the concrete Los Angeles River. With yellow roses adorning the skyline, this seems like a fitting tribute and eulogy to what the bridge represents not only to the history of Boyle Heights, but to the city of Los Angeles.
One of the highlights of L.A. Story is without a doubt the Gypsy Rose, which is described as “the world’s most famous lowrider,” and this is what most people are eagerly anticipating at the opening reception. Appearing in the Chico and the Man series in the 1970s, the Gypsy Rose has gained fame for the lowrider cultural scene. In 2011, hundreds paid their final respects to the creator of the Gypsy Rose Jesse Valdez, a founding member of the Imperial Car Club, who died of colon cancer at the age of 64.
Art Exhibit and Benefit
There are several dozens pieces spread throughout the gallery space featuring artists, such as Frank Romero, Omar Mendoza, Julian Mendoza, Takashi Kikuchi, and many more. For those old enough to remember cruising down Whittier Blvd. in East L.A., this is definitely a stroll down memory lane, and an invitation to relieve those memories.
I highly recommend that you make the time to attend the opening. Not only do you help to counter Hollywood racism but you also send a message that are our stories are not to be commodified for profit. In addition, the art exhibit is also a benefit for La Plaza de la Raza as it continues its cultural programming for the community.
The grand opening is tomorrow (July 25th) beginning at 7pm featuring Tierra, Lala Romero, MC Pancho, host Compton David, skateboarder Pep Williams, actor-writer Enrique Castillo, an art exhibit and car show, ages 21 & over. Ticket prices are $30 and proceeds go to support La Plaza de la Raza.
What follows below are two interviews I did with photographer Art Meza, one of the contributors to L.A. Story and independent author/publisher Santino Rivera, who released Lowriting: Shots, Rides & Stories from the Chicano Soul (2014) as they discuss their work, lowrider culture, and what it is to have Chicano Soul.
Interview with Art Meza aka @Chicano_Soul
What is L.A. Story?
L.A. Story is the latest cultural event being put on by artist, Antonio Pelayo and his company, Exodus Events. It will be a concert/ art exhibit celebrating Lowrider culture. How often does Lowrider culture get celebrated? Not often enough. And certainly not by Hollywood. Lowrider’s and the Chicanos who love them are never shown with respect in movies. Instead they’re portrayed as gang members and their cars are paid for with dirty money. Now I’m not gonna say that doesn’t exist but I haven’t seen it and my photos share what I see.
How did you get involved with L.A. Story?
I reached out to Antonio and Pep Williams (curator of the art show) when I heard about this event because my goal with my photography has been to capture Lowrider and Chicano culture and share it as I see it. This exhibit is filled with talented legendary artists like Chaz Bojorquez, Frank Romero and Julian Mendoza among others and is the perfect place for it. I knew I had to be a part of it.
Describe the pieces you have included in the exhibit?
I’ve got two pieces in this show. The 1st one is titled “Colores Chignons”. It’s a photo I took of comedian and El Mas Chingon, George López’s ’51 Chevy. This ride has a matte olive green paint job that is played down to bring more attention to the metal flake painted Mexican Flag on the roof. Lowriding is worldwide now but it all started with Chicanos. The 2nd piece I have in the show is titled “Impala en Aztlán”. It’s a photograph of a ’63 Chevy Impala taken in front of the Toltecs en Aztlán mural at Chicano Park in San Diego. This image caught my attention as I was walking by because what I saw was our people, our struggles and our history all up on that wall and an extension in the form of what many consider the Lowrider car of choice, a Chevy Impala, a beautiful paint job of its own. Lowrider cars have always been an extension of their owners creativity, personality and I think that’s why they’re special.
What is Lowriting?
Lowriting was/is our (Santino Rivera) attempt to share that. By connecting with people who also share the love of the culture and including them in this Chican@ Literature anthology was a great way to get that positivity out there. I’m proud and still humbled to be a part of Lowriting.
I’m not the most knowledgable on the subject of Chicano Studies. I don’t speak the best Spanish. Hell, I don’t even eat chile but my photos have already inspired pride in youngsters to learn more about themselves and history. I know I’ve inspired a few to pick a camera and document for themselves and I feel that is how I can contribute to helping the cause.
What is Chicano Soul?
Chicano Soul is more than just one guy. It has grown into a movement and I will continue to hustle and inspire as many as possible. I got lucky and fell into this photography but if my photos can help our young Chicanit@s see the beauty in their skin color and/or culture I’m gonna keep doing what I’m doing.
Interview with Santino J. Rivera
What is Lowriting?
Lowriding: Shots, Rides & Stories from the Chicano Soul is a book that I published in 2014 about lowriding culture and lowrider. It contains photography by Art Meza and short stories, essays, artwork and poems by a multitude of Chicano/as from across the country. It is the first of its kind and has resonated with people worldwide.
How did Lowriting come about?
The book came about after seeing some of the car photography that Art Meza was doing as a hobby in and around L.A. I wanted to publish a book of his work and we talked about what that would be like. This was after Ban This! was published and we decided that it would be amazing to publish some of Art’s work and pair it with stories about lowrider and lowrider culture in the same kinda way I did with Ban This. The process was very organic and I held open submissions in order to get the best material. The book has stuff from the likes of Luis J. Rodriguez, Lalo Alcaraz and Danny De La Paz just to name a few.
Why was Lowriting an important project considering there are several books on Lowriders already available?
I think the book is important because it broke new ground. There are several books about lowrider out there but in my research many of them deal with things from a historic point of view or an academic one or even anthropological. But I wanted to publish a book that told the stories behind the cars themselves and the culture that loves them. I also wanted the book to be from a Chicano/a perspective as opposed to an academic one. Despite being ignored by the press and academia, the book has really resonated with the car culture itself, which is a total and complete success in my opinion. I didn’t publish this book for lectures air fancy schools but for the families and people who sacrifice to make their lowrider dreams a reality.
What can we learn about Lowriting especially in light of Hollywood’s upcoming Lowriders project?
I believe that you can learn many things, one of the most important being that lowriding culture is as American as muscle car or classic car culture. The latter two get put on a pedestal by the mainstream while lowrider, and the folks associated with the cars, get demonized and stereotyped. Hollywood serves to reinforce these negative stereotypes ad nauseam. I took it upon myself to show people that the culture and the people are much more than what is portrayed in the movies and deserve as much respect as the classic car culture gets. American Graffiti is heralded as an American icon while Boulevard Nights is relegated to a “gang” flick. That’s wrong.
What future projects do you have upcoming?
Right now I am getting ready to release #FuckCancer: The True Story of How Robert the Bold Kicked Cancer’s Ass by Robert Flores. It tells the story of how Robert Flores, a butcher from Santa Ana, was diagnosed with and ultimately beat stage IV colon cancer, which in many instances is a death sentence. It’s told in his own voice, diary-style and includes photographs from Art Meza as well as a foreword by Gustavo Arellano, who is Robert’s friend. You can also read one of Robert’s poems in Lowriting!
After that I am set to release a couple of new books of my own material and possible an anniversary edition of my first. After that…I am keeping things secret for now.
Why did you feel a need to create your own publishing company?
I felt the need to create my own publishing company because I got tired of collecting rejection letters from publishers and ultimately took matters into my own hands. The mainstream publishing world doesn’t publish books like I do and despite the call for “more diverse books” the selection is still slim and often not even supported by those doing the calling. But I’ve been doing this in one form or another for a very long time and try and pass on the knowledge that I’ve accrued to others (especially the youth) in hopes that some of them will see that it’s possible for them to pursue their artistic dreams. Everything that I’ve done with this venture has been community oriented and grassroots and I’ve very proud of that. Not a lot of publishers can say that.