As golden hour tints the streets of San Diego, the smells of exhaust smoke and hot rubber coat the air. Clashing metal and purring engines echo across Highland Avenue. The crowd can be faintly heard under the grooves of R&B. Vehicles of all shapes, sizes and colors fill a parking lot, surrounded by chatty onlookers. Suddenly a nearby car jolts from its back wheels, flying up nearly 90 degrees. The crowd collectively gasps in awe.
This is not a regular car. It’s a lowrider. A car heavily modified so the body stands just a few inches above the road and a hydraulic system that includes an adjustable height suspension. One paint job later, and the car turns into a jumpy spectacle on wheels.
“I live it,” said Jovita Arellano, president of the National City United Lowrider Coalition.
For decades, celebrations like these were effectively criminalized in California. Car enthusiasts were largely forbidden from driving their pirzed possessions around various cities. But on April 4, the National City’s City Council voted to repeal a cruising ban, allowing lowriders to hit the streets after over 30 years. The vote was a monumental step for the community, as National City is famous for it's lowrider culture.
But the vote represents the end of a long, messy battle amongst lowriders and the city. The history of lowriding is fraught with legislative barriers, racial discrimination, and a fight for culture. In the 1950s, the state enacted a law regulating lowrider cars through the California Vehicle Code. And in the the 80s, California introduced a clause allowing local law enforcement to stop drivers from cruising. This led cities like San Jose, Sacramento, and National City to ban cruising and regulated cars.
The laws were meant to curtail unsafe gatherings. National City enacted an ordinance in 1992 after a spike in crime. Mayor Ron Morrison claims the criminal activity came from people outside National City, and not from lowriders.
Since the 1940s, lowriders have been a staple in Mexican-American and Chicano cultures. Enthusiasts put their hearts and souls into their cars, customizing decorations and parts. For decades, fans would show off their cars by cruising down streets like Highland Avenue or Sunset Boulevard. Gatherings were a common way for fans to socialize. The last few decades have seen a decline in lowriding, as regulations have put a stop to cruising and large meetups.
But that might change. Bill AB 436, introduced by California Assemblymember David Alvarez, would lift the California Vehicle Code regulations that forbid cruising and driving modified cars. Proponents of the bill argue lowriders should not be punished for enjoying their hobby, citing the strong cultural ties.
“If you go to any of the car clubs, you see the comradery that exists,” Alvarez told NBC 7.
Lowriding fans argue the criminalization of lowriding and cruising perpetuates racism and unchecked discrimination. In the case of National City, police officers are free to determine what is and isn’t cruising, opening the case for implicit bias and discrimination.
Arellano and the United Lowrider Coalition have been fighting alongside Alvarez in repealing the ban. They’ve worked extensively with the city council— with mixed results— in event planning and legislation discussions. The coalition hopes to move past old prejudices and stigmas.
“Thirty years later, that stigma of the lowriders being in crime and being bad people…stayed for years and years,” Arellano said. “When we went to city council to ask that it be repealed, that stigma was somewhat still there.”
On May 6, National City and the United Lowrider Coalition hosted a cruising event as part of a 6-month pilot program. The plan was to allow one cruising day a month. The city wanted to use these events to assess future lowrider legislation. Their first event attracted thousands of people from across the country.
“It was fantastic,” Arellano said. The event had a kickoff at Sweetwater High School with mariachi bands, dancers, and tons of food sold everywhere, she said.
The celebration brought in lots of revenue for neighboring businesses. But things took a sharp turn. National City was not prepared for the large turnout. Buses to be re-routed due to overflowing traffic. After some heated back and forths, the ULC canceled the program, announcing it in a press conference. Both parties shared conflicting accounts of what happened.
“[The event] was for 200 cars and 50 spectators, not for thousands of cars and tens of thousands of spectators,” said National City Mayor Ron Morrison. “Staff sat down with them and said that is not what you filled out in your application.”
While the first event was covered by the city, the ULC claims they were going to charge them over $18,000 for each future cruise to cover bus routing and law enforcement among other expenses.
But Morrison says that the $18,000 figure was for cruising events at that same scale, and that the city was going to cover the second cruise. The mayor also said the ULC should be held to the same standards as other event organizers.
“We bent over backwards to help them out,” Morrison said.
Arellano claims at one point, then-Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis stopped returning their calls.
“It was really bad,” Arellano said. “They didn’t want to meet, we didn’t have the money, we can’t work with the city to get this done. The mayor totally turned her back on us.”
Despite the conflicting accounts, Morrison emphasized his issue is not with lowriding, referring to them as “art pieces on wheels.” While he claims the ordinance has not been enforced since 1992, he wanted National City to evolve its stances on lowriding.
For Arellano and the ULC, they’re celebrating their decades-long fight for lowrider acceptance. The 2023 Chicano Park Day Celebration saw plenty of lowriders lined up on the streets, with attendees eying the colorful spectacles. As cities adapt to changing times, lowriding culture continues to grow.