SAN ANTONIO, Texas - When Delia Ramirez describes a males-only car club she tried to join last year, her voice quivers slightly. She describes how the other women—the wives and girlfriends—stood behind the men and didn’t participate.
“That really hurt me…” Ramirez says. “Because we can do what the men do.”
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Determined to be part of a car club, Ramirez asked her son, Ronney Ramirez, to help her start “Estilo Bajito,” which means “low style,” in December of 2011. Their club accepts both men and women.
She drives a black 1980 Chevy Silverado that she calls “Diablito,” or little devil. Inside she has a stuffed devil doll perched behind the driver’s seat, near synthetic red, orange and yellow flowers. She has a plastic devil’s head jutting from the gear shift, and tiny plastic devil heads on the two door locks. To her, a lowrider without decoration just isn’t ready to cruise the streets.
“[Men] clean cars, they clean the tires and they clean in the inside but they don’t put flowers, they don’t put decorations inside of the cars,” Ramirez says.
Her daughter Dalia Rodriguez has Betty Boop seat covers, white flowers and a Betty Boop Doll inside her Ford Mustang.
Lowrider cars usually ride on small tires with a white circular band and have velour or white leather interiors, impeccably shined exteriors, custom rims and spoke steering wheels. Some have intricate airbrushed murals of religious iconography like the Virgin of Guadalupe, expressions of pride like the Mexican flag or faces of loved ones.
Ramirez says “lowriders,” a term that refers to both the cars and their drivers, are usually working class Latinos who can’t afford to purchase a new car. She feels satisfaction when they go to junkyards, buy old parts of cars and restore formerly abandoned cars into attention-grabbing rides.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010, more than 90 percent of Hispanics in San Antonio were of Mexican origin, so it’s no surprise that lowriders are popular here. “When we go to the shows I don’t see too much white. A little bit but not too much,” Ramirez says. “There’s a lot of lowrider Latinos. I think it’s a habit for us Latinos and Mexicans that we like cars, work on old cars. We’re low class, I guess. We’re fixing cars and bringing them back to life.”
Like other lowriders, members of Estilo Bajito like to cruise. Driving down a large boulevard in San Antonio, -windows down, music up – is the best way to get noticed. On Sunday nights here, Chevy Impalas, Cadillac Fleetwoods and Oldsmobile Cutlasses from the 60s, 70s and 80s drive slowly up and down Military Drive, a large thoroughfare.
Lowriders also take their rides to a parking lot or car wash. Men use toggle switches in their hands to put the hydraulic pumps or suspension air bags in full motion. It’s a macho world—the higher the car bounces off the pavement, the more testosterone seeps into the air.
But Estilo Bajito is the kind of club that counters stereotypes. Members are welcoming and transparent and not gang members. One newcomer, Robert Lara, says he spent two years in prison, and now that he’s out, he hopes to keep focused on cars to stay away from the lifestyle that got him behind bars originally.
The handful of women in the club are single moms who say they want their children to take interest in fixing up old cars so they, too, won’t be tempted by criminal life when they get older. It’s time consuming to fix up the cars and it’s costly, so they hope their children will eventually use their spare cash for car parts rather than drugs.
In San Antonio, the car culture of machismo is slowly becoming a vehicle for female empowerment.
“Ever since I was little I always wanted to be a mechanic,” Dalia Rodriguez says. “Why am I going to be dependent on men when I can do work on my car?”
Despite the flowers in “Diablito,” it does get the wrong kind of attention. Delia says police stop them because of the “Estilo Bajito” sticker on the back windshield, which all the club’s members have on their cars. The decal sticker has a white circle around an image of a fedora over a pair of eyes and a mustache. In gothic letters, “Estilo Bajito” is spelled out around the circle.
“They’ll stop me if I go in the night for sure because they already stopped us in the black car. In the ‘Diablito,’” she says. “They stopped us twice already. So I’m not afraid because I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, so they can check anything. Whatever they want to check—they won’t find nothing.”
If a law enforcement officer does stop Delia Rodriguez, he will, however, find a smiling woman with shining hazel green eyes who lights up each time she talks about lowriding, which has become an inextricable part of her identity.