By José Vadi
Why repealing bans against cruising matters
Lowriders are motorized time capsules that command respect, or at the very least, a head turn. In Sacramento, the lowrider scene is palpable on sight, with Broadway a favorite strut. We were having a drink on this stretch a few months ago when my wife and I saw a couple of cars with nobody sitting shotgun. Instead, pairs of young, done-up couples cuddled in the back, being chauffeured to their high school proms in style.
“My dad did that for me,” she said, describing the ’64-1/2 Mustang I first heard years ago the night I met my now father-in-law. And though not a lowrider, the Mustang was a specialized car nonetheless—and a memory.
Maybe it’s a byproduct of growing up in southern California’s eastern sprawl, the San Gabriel Valley—where we tell generational time by new shopping mall ribbon cuttings, freeway expansion dates, and handed down cars—but seeing a lowrider makes me and many others feel welcome.
Last December, I was driving my mom to her post-op appointment in Downey, south of downtown Los Angeles, from the east-of-east side in Pomona. We started on the freeways before taking the surface streets, my mom navigating us through the paths of her childhood neighborhood—La Puente’s Bassett—along Workman Mills Road, avoiding the bumper to bumper traffic of the 10-605 interchange. We were near Pico Rivera when we saw a street sign saying No Cruising, prohibiting vehicles from moving slowly or returning to the same stretch of road multiple times.
These signs and subsequent “no cruise zones” were part of a wave of legislation passed throughout California cities through the ‘80s and ‘90s. Though largely unenforced today, these laws are increasingly being written off the books, with Sacramento being the first city to repeal their cruising ban and removing such signage citywide.
When San Jose quickly followed suit, City Council member Raul Peralez spoke of his experiences driving and facing police harassment. “Over the years, I was stopped dozens of times by the police,” Peralez said, “And nearly every time, I was made to sit on a curb while I and my car were searched. I was questioned about presumed gang involvement.”
Categorizing cruising as a gang activity or on par with the illegal assemblage of a psychedelic-fueled warehouse rave is ironic now considering how integral lowrider imagery is to the city of Los Angeles’ brand identity. The traffic and pedestrian ribbon cutting of the newly camelbacked 6th Street bridge, connecting East and downtown Los Angeles over the LA River, was led by a local lowrider collective.
Chauffeuring my mom. I imagined all the kids cruising on Friday nights, in lowriders or not, with big bangs and acid-washed denim, hollering at each other across open windows trying to get someone’s number. But the sign, prohibiting vehicles from moving slowly, reminded me of its target—us.
Lowriding’s social undertones have been palpable since its wartime infancy into the Chicano movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Roberto Hernandez formed the San Francisco Lowrider Council to combat waves of police brutality, leading not just to legalized cruises, but new parks, services, and the resignation of cops accused by Mission District residents of abuse. Victor Ochoa’s recent mural in San Diego’s Barrio Logan documents the history of the local Brown Image Car Club. Of the vignettes encompassing the pillars of a massive freeway underpass is a scene where some of the crew’s members participated in the occupation of Chicano Park.
On the cusp of the city of Sacramento repealing the ban in June, the Sacramento Lowrider Commission worked with city officials to host a free all-day event in William Land Park. Lines of cars lined the block, some fully tilted with wheels held in the air like a sculpture with an engine behind it. Other older cars had subtle intricate designs, like one car that tells the history of Mexican and Filipino farm worker movement through airbrushed designs.
This summer, the United Farm Workers marched through the Central Valley—over 300 miles and three weeks from Delano to Sacramento—advocating for Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign AB 2183, the Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act. The UFW’s website says the act would allow farm workers to “vote free from intimidation…in secret whenever and wherever they feel safe.” Local lowrider chapters have been supporting their efforts throughout the Valley, and Sacramento’s Coalition helped escort marchers from the city’s Southside Park to the state capitol for a massive rally held on August 26th. A vigil was erected and held nonstop on the Capitol steps for days, drawing awareness to Gov. Newsom’s deadline to sign AB 2183 — a move publicly supported by President Biden himself. The pressure worked and Gov. Newsom signed the bill into law with two provisions just before the September 30th deadline.
The August rally reminded me of that previous event a few months earlier at William Land Park. At one point, all of the women organizers and drivers from the different Sacramento lowrider crews gathered on stage, with many speaking about a lifetime dedicated to taking a cruise. Hearing them, I really understood the affirming power of cruising on your own terms—and the ability to articulate them. We are law abiding, many organizers repeatedly say in fliers and public comment, a community trying to find spaces to do something they consider culturally significant.
In February 2023, Assemblymember David Alvarez (D-San Diego) introduced AB 436 which “removes the authorization for a local authority to adopt rules and regulations regarding cruising,” essentially creating a statewide repeal of anti-cruising legislation.
As local lowrider chapters advocate towards related causes affecting the greater Latino community, the evolution and acceptance of lowrider culture cannot be ignored. It’s something unique to the state. To invite others to bear witness, to embrace that feeling — that head turn, jaw slack, mouth opening, fist-to-mouth gasp — when time stops and that four wheel soulful strut passes through. I think that feeling has a word: respect.
José Vadi is an award-winning essayist, poet, playwright and film producer. He is the author of Inter State: Essays from California.