Muralist and Low-rider Experts 

            On February 10, 2006 our class met at the South Mountain Community center to see two presentations on mural paintings and Low-rider cars.  Both of these are very important symbols of Latino identity, expression and culture and are quite prevalent as one travels throughout the community of South Phoenix. 

            The first speaker was William Calvo, a PhD candidate in the Industrial Design, School of Architecture at ASU.  He is an immigrant from Costa Rica who is studying the design of the Low–rider and also how various cultures and groups transform regular everyday objects of mainstream society into political and cultural statements.   He says that the different colors, designs and artistic flair are given to these cars to express Latino heritage, pride, status, power and traditions, as well as hopes and dreams for the future. 

The 1999 article, entitled Urban Latino Cultures: The Latino Use of Urban Space in East Los Angeles by James Rojas, explains Latino cultural impact on one of the biggest cities in the country.  He says these modifications of chrome rims and simple design of past generations have been replaced by use of “hand painted murals, gold-plated hydraulic scissor lifts, suicide doors, Porsche rims, and other high-tech innovations. Low-riders are no longer the ambition just of teenagers but more often of adult Latinos in their twenties with more discretionary income.  The cost of customizing the car today can cost thousands of dollars.” Also different types of upholstery on the seats and ultimately the use of hydraulics to make the car jump are all ways that one can make their car “another room of their home” that tells who they are and emulates their own personal style.

William Calvo, the graduate student from ASU, later added more insight on this topic.   The Low–rider has a long history that spans back to the 1940’s and 50’s with the Zoot Suits and Panchos car “clubs” in East L.A.  These groups were the first to modify cars in the “lowered” fashion and in 1959, the addition of hydraulics were made to get past the new law that outlawed driving lowered vehicles since they damaged the roads.  The popularity of this type of modified car increased as the decades went on and in 1977 Low-rider magazine began.  In the 1980’s, the Low–rider boom was seen all across the country and shortly after in the 1990’s, the car’s popularity spread across the world. In conclusion, William reminded us that although the car is a part of Latino culture, it is also a large part of American culture too.  The collision of technological ingenuity and Latino identification produced a unique all-American hybrid. 

The second guest speaker was Martin Moreno, a Chicano muralist and artist.  He shared with us his life-long passion for art and showed us slides of some of the 200 murals he has worked on throughout the country.  Much of his work deals with social and political issues in minority and impoverished communities such as the one in South Phoenix.  One particular piece of work shows the factories and fields of his home state of Michigan and tells the tale of how such operations exploit and dehumanize the migrant work force they employ.  Another one named “Pulsations” is located in South Phoenix and contains cultural objects of both African and Latino culture mixed with an image of a poppy sucking the life out of a gourd which in turn symbolizes a drug sucking the life out of the community.  This is definitely Moreno’s comment on what heroin abuse is doing to  the community.

I really enjoyed both of the presentations and came back with a better understanding of the tradition, origins and meaning behind these two common, but vital, symbols of Latino culture.   I could definitely use the knowledge that I learned from the discussions in better interpreting the various murals, cars, etc. as I encountered them in South Phoenix.   Through learning about different cultures such as that of Hispanic peoples, I gained greater understanding and appreciation for diversity and also developed a better grasp of current issues that affect this community, locally and nationally

Learning From South Phoenix   Tom Haas