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Lowrider Space

Lowrider Space
Aesthetics and Politics of Mexican American Custom Cars

The first ethnographic book devoted to lowrider custom car culture puts a new spin on an aesthetic and mechanical achievement through which Mexican Americans alter the urban landscape and make a place for themselves in an often segregated society.

January 2012
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
256 pages | 6 x 9 | 20 b&w photos, 3 maps, 13 color photos |

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Content from "Lowrider Space"Content from "Lowrider Space"

Aren’t lowriders always gangbangers? And, don’t they always hold high status in their neighborhoods? Contrary to both stereotypes, the people who build and drive lowrider cars perform diverse roles while mobilizing a distinctive aesthetic that is sometimes an act of resistance and sometimes of belonging. A fresh application of critical ethnographic methods, Lowrider Space looks beyond media portrayals, high-profile show cars, and famous cruising scenes to bring readers a realistic tour of the “ordinary” lowriders who turn streetscapes into stages on which dynamic identities can be performed.

Drawing on firsthand participation in everyday practices of car clubs and cruising in Austin, Texas, Ben Chappell challenges histories of erasure, containment, and class immobility to emphasize the politics of presence evidenced in lowrider custom car style. Sketching out a partially personal map of the lowrider presence in Texas’s capital city, Chappell also explores the interior and exterior adornment of the cars (including the use of images of women’s bodies) and the intersecting production of personal and social space. As he moves through a second-hand economy to procure parts necessary for his own lowrider vehicle, on “service sector” wages, themes of materiality and physical labor intersect with questions of identity, ultimately demonstrating how spaces get made in the process of customizing one’s self.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One. Cruising Spaces
  • Chapter Two. Inside Out: The Ambivalent Aesthetics of Lowrider Interiors
  • Chapter Three. Auto Bodies
  • Chapter Four. Work: The Producer as Author
  • Chapter Five. Neither Gangsters nor Santitos
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Reference List
  • Index

Ben Chappell is Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of Kansas.


"Come on, Ben, you can ride with me." Taking Eddie up on the invitation, I followed him through the crowded, sprawling parking lot. It was around midnight on a summer weekend in Austin, Texas, and the lot we stood in, off East Riverside Drive, was packed with cars and people. The police were mysteriously absent from Riverside, emboldening the owners of custom cars to gather in the lot outside a closed bingo parlor to cruise around and show off their rides. A couple hundred people stood around watching gleaming vehicles creep between rows of parked cars and knots of conversation. Chrome and custom paint shone under streetlights while stereos throbbed with bass-heavy Texas hip-hop. Every now and then a thump and clank resounded as a car lifted by hydraulics bounced its front end in the air and fell to the pavement again. Across the parking lot, near a nightclub blaring electronic cumbias for a different crowd, an engine roar was followed by the squeal of tires as someone burned out. I glanced over to see a clean but apparently uncustomized truck lurching forward as smoke rose from its wheel. Standing beside me, Arturo shook his head disapprovingly. "See?" he said. "Once they hear that, then the cops come and we gotta go."

Though there was no sign of the cops so far, Eddie was heading out, having decided he fancied a cruise around downtown. I climbed into his car, a 1970s Monte Carlo in which he had installed a powerful hydraulic system. Eddie had also cut the roof off with a torch. I climbed into the shortened, swivel-mounted seat on the passenger side and was surrounded with blue velvet upholstery on the dashboard and door. After starting the engine, Eddie touched a switch to lift the hydraulics a bit, then dropped the car, and the suspension springs bounced three or four times. I steadied myself with an arm on top of the open window.

As we drove west on Riverside toward downtown, we saw why the police were leaving the lowriders alone. A multiple-car accident on the interstate highway that divides Austin west from east had drawn a line of patrol cars on the side of the road near the wreck. Yet this was a temporary distraction: it would be only a matter of time before they headed back in the direction of the bingo parking lot. Leaving this scene behind, we cruised toward Congress Avenue. As we turned north to cross the bridge, the cityscape of downtown unfolded dramatically before us. The summer night sky was glorious overhead, and in the wide-open car, it felt as if you could take in the whole panorama at once. Moving into downtown, we were quickly surrounded by the full drama of "going out," as crowds flocked to the Sixth Street bar district. When we stopped at a light, it looked as though a couple of Anglo male college students who had apparently already enjoyed a fair amount of nightlife were swaying threateningly toward one another on the sidewalk while female companions made showy efforts to restrain them: "It's not worth it, Drew!" A friend of one of the impaired combatants looked at us as if making an aside from the stage, and said, "This isn't good." The light changed, and we left this entertainment behind, turning back toward the Eastside and enjoying appreciative looks from pedestrians as we took in the view of the city and weekend excitement from the chopped Monte Carlo.

A lowrider is an automobile customized in a popular aesthetic style, which is practiced mostly but not exclusively by Mexican Americans in the U.S. Southwest. A lowrider is also a person who participates in that style of customization by modifying his or her car with such adornments as custom wheels—wire spokes are usually considered "traditional" —an accessorized interior, a high-wattage stereo system, and elaborate and sometimes figurative paint jobs on the car body. Various kinds of mechanical customizations are another feature of lowrider aesthetics. The quintessential mechanical modification is a hydraulic suspension, powered by a rack of batteries in the trunk and controlled from the driver's seat with switches, that allows the wheels to bounce or "hop" vertically off the ground. Beyond customizing cars, lowriding is a social practice: local scenes coalesce around the streets and parks where lowriders gather to cruise, display their rides, and socialize. Lowriders create after-market economies of barter, trade, and resale for cars, parts, and labor. Lowriding also involves competitive car shows where rides are judged for their aesthetics and hydraulic capabilities, earning their owners trophies, cash, notice in the pages of lowrider publications, and occasionally the right to compete in the annual Lowrider Magazine–sponsored car show in Las Vegas, which is the effective national championship of lowriding. Through all of these manifestations, lowriding has remained a site of Mexican American cultural authority for several generations of participants.

The argument of this book is that everyday lowriding is best understood as a material, space-making practice. To view lowriding as a production of space illuminates both the politics of lowrider practice and the personal attachment that lowriders feel for their idiom. Historically associated with urban barrio communities, lowriding is entangled in the politics of place-identity and spatial constructs such as the public sphere. When lowriders put their distinctive aesthetics on display in streets and parking lots, they affect their surroundings, taking part in the ongoing production of social space and the inscription of particular sites as identified places. Further, lowrider cars acquire personal, social, and cultural meanings as well as political valence and emotional force—all of which I refer to as lowrider "significance"—in part from their location and proximity to other things.

One of my own earliest memories of lowrider style is of an encounter through the medium of text, a particular kind of text designed to serve a specific production of space: as an Anglo middle-class high school student in Ohio, I was reading the novelization of Dennis Hopper's 1988 gang-exploitation film Colors. No literary scholar, I still noticed that whenever the narrative took its protagonist cops into the hoods of Los Angeles, the scene was painted by descriptions of traffic. When this landscape needed a "barrio" feel, the author mentioned lowriders. Like the glimpse of a passing snake in a suspenseful cinematic jungle scene, lowriders played the role in that story of an ominous mobile presence, integral to their setting and imbuing it with threat. I am not even sure I knew what kind of vehicle or person "lowrider" referred to. But it was abundantly clear that whatever or whoever these things were, they were being presented as part of the menacing environment of a particular place. In the elaborate logic of exoticization, this place was meant to entice and fascinate me, even as I was meant to fear it and thus to assent to an array of social measures organized to keep the barrio at a safe distance from my own home—measures including the work of LA cops, depicted with gritty, violent, and hypermasculine heroism in Hopper's film.

Contrast this with the idyllic reminiscences that people shared with me much later in interviews, their own memories of lowrider cars as a familiar presence in childhood. For example, a lowrider I call "Roman" for the book said:

We didn't have actually what you call a basketball court, it was just a pipe with a, a piece of backboard and a rim. So all the local neighborhood guys that were my age then, and younger, would hang out there and play, play basketball. So whatever they were driving and whatever their friends were driving, would show up and park outside […] And as a kid, those—I was always fascinated by shiny wheels and uh … cause these guys had the things I liked. […] I had an uncle that had a lot of friends that were into the lowrider scene. […] My father always had those cars … always had a four-door Impala, a two-door, whether if it was a '63 year model, '64. He always had those cars. […] I would see my dad working on them and I got really familiar with them.

Things have changed since I was in high school, curiously consuming urban popular culture at a distance. Kids of diverse backgrounds in the Midwest are now much more aware of lowriders, and not just as the threatening presence they were used to represent as part of the 1980s gang scares. If more people know what a lowrider is, though, that does not mean they have grasped the significance that Roman attributed to this particular automotive aesthetic as part of his remembered landscape of home. Nor have the ascriptions of gang culture and criminality to lowriders ceased or become more accurate. Perhaps most of all, as it has become widely recognizable, even marketable, the lowrider car style remains exotic to many observers, while its relation to the spatial politics of everyday life in a diverse and stratified U.S. society remains more or less taken for granted rather than thoughtfully critiqued.

By the time of my conversation with Roman in 2001, I had followed a circuitous route to the University of Texas and to a critical and reflexive version of anthropology that eventually made a certain corner of the academy feel like a home for me. Among other things, that meant I was trained to recognize the social relationships involved in research and to resist the titillation of exoticism that treated people's ordinary lives as spectacle. I understood my work to include accounting not only for differences in social position but also for the common material existence that I shared with people whom I would approach as a researcher, an arrangement that enmeshed us all in established political-economic relations and circuits of cultural production and exchange. Whether my fascination with popular aesthetics by this point had left exoticism behind is a question that still requires vigilance and perhaps always will, since the history of anthropology proves that professionalization is no inoculation against it. But at least I could claim increased awareness of the issues and the implications of my curiosity, and I was pursuing other motives than those prepared for me by Hopper's Hollywood. With that training, I went to meet some lowriders.

Going "to the field" is a spatial ritual at the core of modern anthropology. It presumes that research is a process of moving from one's "home" into a space of difference—"the field"—and returning to process the results of an encounter with Others. This intellectual production of space and difference has been subjected to important and incisive critiques that undercut the assumption that the world is naturally divided into discrete areas of culture. These critiques not only shed light on how such boundaries have been historically constructed and enforced, but also challenge students of society to recognize the informal or de facto boundaries that mark out social divides within "a place." According to the maps of academic area studies, I conducted my ethnography in "the same place," that is, without leaving the town, let alone the country, where I had prepared as a student. Yet even critical scholars or those who have been strong advocates for the cultural validity of "marginal" places around the globe at times needed reminding that there is not one "Austin." As I orchestrated opportunities to meet and spend time with lowriders, I shuttled between a privileged space of knowledge production, where I was working to establish a legitimate place for myself, and spaces where that budding credibility meant little. I came to understand how spatial arrangements of difference were not only the product of power and knowledge, but the medium through which those forces worked as well. Though the lines of "difference" that I crossed to practice research were determined by all the usual suspects—culture, political economy, race, and so forth—they were materialized as boundaries between sites of social space.

Lowriders are not responsible for this spatial arrangement, but they intervene in it. The space that lowriders make and the means by which they make it offer glimpses of a general process of cultural practice as spatial production. The immediate implication of this argument is that contrary to prevailing sociological definitions, culture is not only or even principally a set of meanings and values. Processual and poststructural moves in anthropology in the last decades of the twentieth century exposed some of the limitations of any static notion of culture as a system, a code, or a set of rules, yet even with the preferred adjectival form—speaking of "the cultural" rather than "a culture"—there is a persistent habit in scholarship and everyday discourse to imagine this dimension of human life in terms of ideas or propositions to be expressed. In other words, the notion that culture is something conveyed or transmitted by practices or texts enjoys the status of common sense, and cultural products such as customized cars are approached as expressions of something otherwise concealed behind or beneath them, like the script of a play or an army's marching orders.

Material practices such as lowriding challenge cultural theory to account for their significance in ways other than their representational or expressed content. The kind of significance that is a central concern of this book is the social weight invested in practices that generate distinctive contexts by marking and arranging things and by affording particular embodied experiences. Thus, my aim is to explore lowriding as an event in the production of social space, the materialization of "social being". More broadly, the concern is with culture not so much as communication but as a process of producing "spatial fields".

This raises theoretical questions about the workings of identity and politics. When a lowrider builds a car and cruises it, or when lowrider car clubs take to the streets, they do so within history, which is to say that they act within economies of territory and social franchise that are framed by historical relations of inequality and the requirements of "government" in the broadest sense. It may not be an expressly "political" identity that motivates each lowrider to build a car, but by merely existing, lowriders engage in larger struggles to create room for themselves in a diverse and stratified urban social landscape. By crafting "autotopographies" (González 1995), spatial versions of individual and group identity, they render space significant and produce spaces in which to perform acts of signification. Thus, cultural practice and spatial production are mutually constitutive.

In that light, beyond documenting everyday lowriders in a particular time and place, the book also enters into dialogue with other studies that have depicted expressive culture as intervening in contested spatial formations, not only in Mexican American Texas, but also within a broader range of minoritized people's cultural production, and particularly in cities creased by fault lines of race and class, among others. Spatial theory provides some of these researchers with the language to understand what happens when audiences encounter identified cultural forms like hip-hop music and dance or graffiti writing in the public: among other effects, it forces them to confront the question of who has authority over urban space and hence over "the city". My work on lowriders began as another step in this collective project to document and theorize how people of color have developed cultural vernaculars that engage the politics of their social and spatial locations.

And yet even while referencing this spatial politics, scholarship of popular culture in general does not always respond to the challenge posed by Jody Berland two decades ago: to account for cultural practice as being not only potentially about space-and-place, but also about a material process that occurs in specific spatial formations and, indeed, something that happens to social space. Critiquing what was at that time a scholarly silence on the spatiality of music, Berland argued for a materialist approach that takes performance to be integrally bound up in the production of space. After quoting a sound engineer talking about how a particular recording mix would sound on a car stereo system, Berland asks:

Why is the literature on pop music, like that on other genres, other media, so often empty of cars, not to mention elevators, offices, shopping malls, hotels, sidewalks, airplanes, buses, urban landscapes, small towns, northern settlements, or satellite broadcasts? … Why is music so rarely conceived spatially … ?

Appearing in the landmark volume Cultural Studies, Berland's piece was surrounded by other arguments that sought to draw out the significance of various forms of popular culture by examining the meanings they transmit, the consciousness that they signal, or the political economies in which they participate. Berland's polemic suggests, however, that analysts ask not what a popular practice represents so much as what it does. Following Berland, I propose that beyond serving as a mere vehicle for content, cultural forms such as music and the material aesthetics of car customization take part in the production of their contexts.

To pursue the implications of this proposition is a materialist project that prior generations of scholars have justified, even if not they have always followed up on it. What, for instance, would it mean to take Stuart Hall at his word that "popular culture is neither, in a 'pure' sense, the popular traditions of resistance to these processes [of social reproduction]; nor is it the forms which are superimposed on and over them," but is, instead, "the ground on which the transformations are worked"? No less, what of Norma Alarcón's notion of consciousness not as abstract, but as a "site of multiple voicings", or Carlos Vélez-Ibañez's account of a "basic tenet of the [Texas-Mexico borderlands] region" being "the struggle for survival and the search for place and space"? How can scholars take such phrases not as metaphorical but as speaking to actual desires and efforts to gain "a piece of ground to stand on"? Moreover, how can inquiry proceed that seeks to expose theoretical production to the popular practices that already engage such issues of literal space, ground, and location?

Choosing an approach of critical ethnography, I have tried to open scholarly discourse to the full grain of what I call lowrider space. Lowrider space is an assemblage of bodies, cars, and landscapes, and their sounds, colors, textures, and movements—a formation that emerges on some scale whenever lowrider style is on display. To open scholarship to being affected by lowrider space is to seek an analysis that remains attentive to the rich, polysemous, and at times contradictory ways that lowriders as objects, the performances of lowrider style, and the "backstage" practices of lowriding all register as significant and how, in doing so, they characterize space. A priority here is to track how the presence and existence of things come to be felt in the world, becoming events to be reckoned with. It is exactly in these processes that I locate the identifying "power," or significance, of lowriding: in the capacity of a particular material aesthetics to generate impacts upon a perceiver, what could be called its affectivity. I argue that as this affective power joins and intervenes in the production of space, it works on the material configuration of the social. This is what constitutes its emergent politics, more than the development of a particular form or content of consciousness. Lowriders moved my thinking in this direction in two ways: first, by maintaining an aesthetics that values significance beyond words; and second, by engaging the affective politics of space.

Excess Significance

I had been told by lowriders at a couple of car shows that the best place to encounter the Austin lowrider scene was Chicano Park on a Sunday night. To get there from downtown, go west on Cesar Chavez, which some people still call First Street. After crossing the elevated lanes of IH-35, and leaving behind the big hotels and convention center of downtown, pass the pawnshop and the Terrazas Branch Library, then the old house that is now Austin Spoilers and Tint Shop, advertising "Polarizado de Autos." This strip has changed considerably since I began fieldwork; now you might see an upscale boutique and a continuum of real estate operations: to the left, a very hip office with new-economy décor promising the "good life" through condos, then close by on the right, a thrown-up poster-board sign offering "fast cash" for your home.

Eventually, turn south on a street such as Comal or Chicon and head toward the dammed section of the Colorado River then known as Town Lake. A sign names this space Fiesta Gardens, subject to the administration of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. But where is Chicano Park? Perhaps you should stop in the nearly empty parking lot by a middle school and ask the young Latino man who stands alone by his 1980s Buick Regal, gleaming with deep maroon lacquer. As you pull into the space beside him, he is reaching down to spray some foam on the tires and meticulously wipe them so they look shiny and brand new. If you get out of your car and ask him where Chicano Park is, he might give you a strange look, since you are standing in it and anyone who would call it that would know.

Before he has time to explain, a boom of electronic bass makes you both turn your heads as a Lincoln Continental, colored the brilliant tangerine orange of a soft drink, rolls slowly into the lot and backs into a parking space, facing the center. Other cars arrive from all directions, announcing themselves with amplified sound, cruising in tight formations of two or three, or solo. Drivers and passengers pile out of cars to talk and watch the traffic casually as the parking lot fills. In the late 1990s, there might have been headlights that turned into flashing blue-white strobes, or neon colors glowing underneath the cars. A few years later, there might have been SUVs with free-spinning rims, or youngsters driving noncustom cars with the doors open, swerving like bats in slow-motion flight. Next summer, who knows? The crowd is almost exclusively Latino: men and women, some kids and babies; also a handful of black folks and a couple of whites, one of whom holds a camera.

So it went most Sunday evenings when the weather was pleasant and gas prices not too high during the time of my fieldwork. What seemed from a perspective centered on the University of Texas to be a journey into a very different Austin, to lowriders was an everyday or every-week event: going to "the park." In the local cruising scene that converged on Chicano Park, custom cars added visual, aural, and tactile textures to the sensorial urban landscape, or what could be called the emergent sensorium. If you get to know a neighborhood like the one that Austin lowriders call the Eastside, which includes Chicano Park, as something more than a focal point of suburban fear, it quickly becomes clear that the identity of such places results from ongoing, highly political processes, including the everyday productions of particular kinds of space. Is this Fiesta Gardens or Chicano Park? It depends on whom you ask, who is using the space when you do, what they are doing there, and to some extent, what the sensorium of that site is at that passing moment.

Back at the park, cars in various states of repair, a range of vintages, customized and stock, slowly follow a circuit through the parking lot. An SUV rolls past with three young women inside, stereo bumping, windows down. Now it is a Nissan truck, a man and woman in the cab, wearing matching white T-shirts with a logo printed over the heart. A classic Chevy Impala convertible shows up, the interior all original except for the LCD video screen poking out of the open trunk. A handful of people are setting up folding lawn chairs near the curb—parents settle down to enjoy the view while children play chase in the grass behind them.

Soon the air in the park is thick with vibration as multiple stereos create an aural palimpsest, different tracks on different systems overlapping. One driver, standing with friends in the lot, climbs into his Cutlass and fires up the stereo first, then the motor. He touches a toggle switch mounted on his dash, just enough so that the hydraulic pumps make their characteristic zipping sound as the car leaps a little, as if it has been startled awake. He pulls slowly out of the lot, turns a corner onto a residential side street, and disappears momentarily—backstage. Then he returns to view, heading in the opposite direction, but as he takes a corner, he cranks the steering wheel and guns the motor; now he is on three wheels, one front fender of his car cocked high in the air. The front end drops, and he drives slowly past the other parked cars while onlookers pause in their conversation to look. His face is a mask of smug nonchalance. Halfway past the parking lot, he hits the switches again. The front wheels leap, drop, and bounce off the ground, clearing a foot or two of air, repeatedly slamming back to pavement—two times, then three. The Cutlass pulls back into place, and the driver casually gets out to rejoin the conversation. The stereo on the Monte Carlo in the next spot is playing "chopped and screwed" hip-hop out of Houston. The Cutlass's driver cuts a couple of dance steps along with the music, mimicking the slow-tempo stutter of the DJ's "chop." But then an engine revs, and the onlookers turn to look at the next car making a promenade around the park.

Why has it proved so enduring for a particular group of people to decorate cars in ways that enhance the semiotics of these industrial objects, and drive them as a kind of performance on the stage of the everyday streetscape? Scholars have come up with interpretations that are plausible enough, though often in relation only to selected lowriders. For instance, lowrider aesthetics has been likened to colonial-era cathedrals, the practice of cruising to traditional paseos around the zocalos of Mexican towns, and a general lowrider attitude of ineffable cool to the traditional charro masculinity of Mexican cattle culture. Yet all these takes seem to fall short of accounting for the range and diversity of lowrider aesthetics and practice. Furthermore, such interpretations generally proceed on the assumption that a lowrider car carries significance primarily because of something else that it represents or expresses. This follows a habit of validating popular practices as "cultural" by linking them to some older or larger frame, such as the Mexican past. But fixing such a secure, historical root as the key to analysis seems to reduce participation in lowrider style to being an instinctive expression of that essential point of cultural origin or, alternately, of basic psychophysiological drives. Interpretations more attentive to politics and to social structure situate lowriding within a conflicted history of Mexican Americans, but still tend to characterize lowriding as a whole: either as an effect of culture-industry marketing or as resistance, whether or not this is an explicit motivation of lowiders themselves.

As Joe Schloss has observed about hip-hop, lowriding has rarely been studied "in its own terms," even though this is a classic aim of anthropological verstehen. By "terms," I mean not only the literal lowrider vocabulary, but also the terms of its practice. For example, Schloss argues that the focus of his own ethnography, B-boying or break dancing, maintains a vernacular set of priorities around face-to-face "battles," dancing competitions that occur across a scale of formality from impromptu street showdowns to highly organized events. Not only are these local-scale, participatory interactions and the contexts they generate exactly what B-boys and B-girls find significant about this cultural form, according to Schloss, but they also happen to be a component of hip-hop, unlike produced music, that is less amenable to recorded mediation and hence to both mass marketing and desktop research. All this provides Schloss with the rationale for his ethnographic approach, locating his study in the vernacular practice of battles.

Lowriding also has its own terms, parallel to the ways that B-boys and B-girls prioritize battles. The lowriders I met during my fieldwork maintained a preference for the car itself as the focus of activity and reception, which is to say, as the site of significance, rather than assuming that a more basic stratum of reference lies behind or beneath it and defines what it is "really" about. Further, lowriders largely seemed to share a consensus that to be part of lowriding is to participate in it. While not all lowriders lived up to the ideal of building a ride solely with their own labor from a bare frame to the final coat of paint, few would have disputed that such a project is worthy of respect. Likewise, few would ascribe prestige to purchasing a lowrider already entirely customized. As expressed in club names like Custom Creations, lowriding was understood not only as adherence to or appreciation of lowrider aesthetics—a form of "fandom"—but also as a mode of innovation and production. A lowrider is someone who practices these things, who takes part in customizing, cruising, and showing cars.

Like scholarly interpreters, the lowriders whom I met in my fieldwork offered legitimating arguments, but often in the form of either generalities or denials: lowriding is about pride and culture, for instance; or counter to stereotypes, lowriding is not about gangs. Lowriders were eager to describe lowriding as "positive" and to tell me about how "it's a family thing," often going to great lengths to characterize the style as entailing a depth of commitment that made it something more substantial than a "fad" or a consumption trend, representing instead a distinctive subjectivity or "lifestyle." In our conversations, lowriders were often happy to endorse an abstract idea such as that the style "expresses our culture," but as I grew familiar with the space of everyday lowriding, it became apparent that such elaborating explanations about cultural values were not a high priority there. Looking back on the interviews, it seems that statements of the motivation behind the practice could easily have been made for the benefit of the visitor in the formalized space of an interview.

More telling were the gaps in conversation, pregnant pauses, and comments like from Roman: "I don't know if there's a word or a term for that …" and "I don't want to say it's in our genes, but …" Lowriders consistently expressed and enacted a preference for material cars as sources and objects of feeling over abstract explanations about why they mattered. At a Catholic church dinner, I met a man who was nearly overcome with emotion during our first conversation as he explained that he no longer could afford the Buick Regal he once had customized and cruised. Someone else choked up when telling me about an accident that had totaled his finished ride. Lowriders' investment of identity through time, money, sweat, and the deferral of other priorities was intense, motivating some to work overtime during the week to accumulate extra funds, then go home to work right through a weekend with no sleep to prepare a car for a Sunday show. I learned that people identify with their vehicles; indeed, they identify each other by them, so that it was commonplace to hear a reference like "You know Anthony? With the Stratus?" or simply to refer to "that guy with the champagne '66."

These moments among others gestured toward a significance that our talk about lowriding failed to contain, but that rendered the aestheticized cars "feelingful," as numerous semioticians have put it. The power of lowriding to enlist affinity and prompt identification was not evidently dependent upon a relation to any one specific, larger, or more important entity. Indeed, an excess significance in lowriding seemed to generate a refrain that recurred across numerous mediations of lowrider discourse, namely, that the style is "more than" one might assume: "more than a hobby" as a journalist (and probably more than one) put it. The lowrider scholar Denise Sandoval describes lowriding as "more than just customized cars," as, in fact, an ethos: "Family, honor, and respect, those are more than just words".

The efforts to portray lowriding as "more than" runs specifically counter to the tenor of social-scientific explanations or treatments of cultural practice as examples of theoretical propositions. What causes lowriding? Isn't it just compensatory consumption? Out of a context of deprivation, don't lowriders secure nice cars because they can't afford mansions? Or isn't it just a way for a male population that has been historically marginalized as a feminized subaltern to seize the chance to take part in an utterly mainstream means of masculinity? Or isn't it just another iteration of automobility as the quintessential and compulsory ritual of modern U.S. nationalism ? Yes, lowriding probably is all of these things, at certain times, in certain ways, but not "just." The following chapters will speak to some of these threads, but I will resist embracing any one of them as the definitive "final answer" to a cultural analysis of lowriding. In this, I share the view that a distinctive contribution of ethnography can be a suspicion toward "the order of grand summarizing traits that claim to capture the 'gist' of 'things'". The gist signaled by "just" offers a security of knowing, having solved the excess significance of lowriding within an explanatory framework that attenuates the energy of an aesthetic object. Yet it is exactly this affective energy that allows such an object to spark a response. That happens in a malleable, material configuration—a site.

In relation to scholarly and otherwise "official" attempts to pin them down, then, lowriders demonstrate a kind of identity practice that Michel Foucault commented on as proliferating in the later twentieth century: "Maybe the target nowadays," he argues, "is not to discover what we are, but to refuse what we are". The "what we are" being refused here is the social position into which lowriders have been interpellated, stereotyped, and constricted—that which they claim to be "more than." What is at stake in research on such reidentifications is not so much finding the absolute criteria of authenticity as it is a political question of cultural authority, which is a spatial question. An authority claim is implicit when a scholar apprehends lowriders by fitting them into a definitive "bigger picture." I attempt to practice ethnography, in contrast, as an effort to attend closely to the ways that social actors themselves claim authority and establish the zone of its relevance through an ethos and practice of cultural production. In doing so, they strive to be bigger than the picture.

To take lowriders' emphases on participation and on cars themselves as authoritative is to locate the significance of lowriding in an emergent materiality. Both parts of this term are crucial. In my field experiences, the prioritization of what a car is—its materiality—rather than what it represents was embedded in an understanding of a car being always a work in progress. Ongoing efforts to develop and elaborate the customization of a particular vehicle were spurred by the perpetual challenge to "come out" with something new as each car show or cruising season rolled around. This temporal aspect of lowrider practice gives the style an improvisatory character in which it is less a matter of seeking to conform to some preordained aesthetic ideal than of exploring what kinds of vehicles are possible or imaginable. As much as anything else, this dynamic puts me in mind of a jazz musician's "versioning." According to this analogy, a Chevy of a certain model year becomes like the "standard" song that gets carved up and refunctioned by a performer, like John Coltrane playing "My Favorite Things." Thus, I view lowriding as working more in an experimental and innovative mode than in one simply reproductive of memory and tradition. That is not to imply that lowriders' versioning of Mexican American identity is free-form: it takes place against the backdrop of a particular cultural context, but one that shares the dynamism of lowriding itself.

The aesthetic boundaries that define the limits of what counts as a lowrider change and are subject to debate. For example, I was once present at a car club meeting for a discussion of what constituted "rims." Owning a custom car was the basic qualification for membership in the club, and the minimal standard for "custom" was that the car had "rims." This became controversial when a relative of one of the club officers applied for membership—he had a relatively new car that another member found to be too "factory," or unadorned. Those advocating for the candidate argued that the rims he had put on the car, though not the traditional lowrider wire spokes, were still chrome plated and larger than the factory wheels. The debate, then, was whether these were custom enough.

"He don't even have rims," protested one member.

"Sixteens is rims," said the club officer, referencing the diameter measurement of the custom wheels.

This typified how "lowrider style" did not define a consensual set of criteria or a static list of visual or mechanical devices so much as it constituted a space of aesthetic experimentation, evaluation, and debate. While the "classic" lowrider look would likely be smaller-than-factory rims, rides on the street could show up with either smaller or bigger wheels. What mattered was that someone had intervened in the car's aesthetics, leaving a mark of innovation. While plenty of lowriders traffic in familiar iconographies of Mexican American identity, lowrider aesthetics also tends to place a value on the element of surprise. The challenge was to stay within the unspecified boundaries that would earn a custom car recognition as a lowrider while pushing the limits to make observers "trip out" with surprise. To generate such a surprise effect while also being deemed tasteful according to lowrider standards was to advance the state of the art.

This negotiation of lowrider aesthetics ran parallel with a negotiation of identity, which called into question the relevance of trying to understand lowriding as an expression of a unitary, cohesive a priori culture. Such an instrumental formulation of expressive culture does not begin to account for the complex social maneuvers of a lowrider like the person I call "Thomas." Thomas shares the surname of a successful Latino boxer. He drove a Chevy with rims, though it was a model made after Chevys started to look more like Toyotas, not a big-body GM classic lowrider. Because Thomas's car looked like an import, some other lowriders called it a "Euro." When I knew him, Thomas spoke only English and, in fact, was beginning to master the jargon of the bourgeoisie. Talking about his job once after a car club meeting, he said, "I'm management, dog! I've got like seven people under me." It mattered that this act of identification occurred not in an office but in the parking lot of a car wash on a summer Saturday night.

Thomas the middle manager claimed eligibility for the Rotary, but at other times he also claimed something else. He wore elaborately decorated nonmagnifying eyeglasses, a kind that I have since seen displayed in stores with the label "urban fashion." He participated in an Internet bulletin board devoted to lowriding, and in response to the popular slogan "Keep Austin Weird," he once posted "You keep Austin weird; we'll keep it Gangsta." Still, when a contingent of the car club was about to leave a meeting and discussed stopping by a particular store in one of Austin's poorer neighborhoods on the way to a night of cruising, Thomas demurred: "I'm not going to the ghetto Wal-Mart." Another time, some other lowriders teased Thomas about not liking Mexican food.

Despite occupying an overdetermined middle ground between race, class, and cultural identities, Thomas was a lowrider because he participated in a lowrider scene, which was also true of other participants. This did not mean that a particular sense of authentic identity was required before joining the scene, nor did it mean that "coming out" as a lowrider secured any guarantees about the legitimacy of one's identity. The participatory definition, that lowriders are those who do it, meant that if and when certain kinds of ambivalence, contradiction, or complexity regarding identity turned up, they would not be sufficient to exclude someone outright from the scene.

This is why the "just" interpretations fail to satisfy when they draw arguments toward either-or questions such as where lowriding falls within a U.S.-Anglo/Chicano-Mexican dichotomy. Do lowriders share in the commitments of mainstream U.S. liberalism to individualism, private property, and others? Or do they maintain a position of difference defined by legacies from the past: survivals from alternative social forms such as collectivism or familialism that can be traced to a deep indigenous heritage (sometimes described as so deep that the forms can be conceived only as mystical or genetic, which may amount to the same thing)? Or are they faint, narrated memories of revolutionary collectivism, or more recent habits of mutualista neighborliness, or class solidarity, or something else? Again, the answer is yes to all these as potentialities, for lowriding directly negotiates these boundaries. As ethnographers recognized more than twenty years ago, "actors construct this meaningful order in the process of being constructed in its terms".

If the project is not to locate the authentic gist of lowriding, where then should we look to understand why it matters? Other ethnographers of lowriding have told me they share the impression that the significance of lowriding is not reducible to any simple act of representation or expression, but that it consists of a kind of experience. To speak of "experience" is a dangerous game, since the term has the potential to invoke a mystified transcendence or an escape from mediation. In prioritizing lowrider materiality as experience, I am specifically not arguing that lowriding is somehow more "real" than discourse, which has its own materiality and experiences, or that it is ever unmediated. Indeed, I treat lowriding as something that operates like a "discourse" made of objects as much as statements. Even less would I invoke experience to signal a realm of signification more primitive than text, an expression suited to those who lack words. That idea could easily slide into the notion that practices like lowriding fill a gap left by linguistic deficits due to lowriders' educational deprivation, a proposition that I reject. In fact, lowriders as a whole are quite active in their own textual self-representation. The issue is more that the specific mediations at work in lowrider space are not always identical with the historically particular experiences of writing, speaking, and reading, which make up the "natural discourse" of scholarship. The processes of academic text making (including those I am practicing right now, and those that a formal research interview implicitly invites others to join) are equally "experiential," but generally produce and take place in a specific kind of context that can be easily distinguished from lowrider space. So the experience of lowriding in this text will serve as a heuristic for material, processual, and sensorial details, some of which resist capture or even notice by the self-conscious, precise, and abstracting registers of a scholarly text.

A concern with experience is nothing new in ethnography, a field based on scholars placing their own textual practice in contact with situations that matter to people in various ways. This reflects the importance that ethnographers have ascribed to contextual specificity, the historically particular ways in which social relations are "realized". Ethnographers conduct research through embodied coparticipation with other people in social space. What they are after, then, includes the "full force" of "being there," being actively present in sites shot through with memory and varying political impacts. In this sense, the material of ethnography is the affectivity of particular sociospatial, sensory configurations. As phenomenological and embodiment-focused ethnographers have argued, researching this is a matter of activating diverse "modes of attention", an anti-Platonic stance that treats embodied situations as events worthy of contemplation in and of themselves, rather than viewing them as principally symbolic or symptomatic. I likewise orient my study toward particular forms and instances of embodied practice, for this is what lowriders engage in, and if I did not respect what participants view as the source of integrity of their vernacular practice, I would be dismissing their cultural authority, even explaining it away.

The effects generated by lowrider style, however, are not uniformly or necessarily positive and affirming. Lowrider significance describes the potential of a car to generate not only affinity but also alarm, or to provoke reaction. When, by chance, I met the president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of a South Texas town, he asked what I was studying and met my answer with clear disapproval. "Why don't you study people who are doing something for their community?" he asked. Even as lowriders themselves deliver a coherent narrative of "positivity" and its aliases—pride, culture, and so on—lowrider style has often sparked reaction on the part of authorities, who read its semiotic excess as a symptom of debased character and a signal of criminality. This feeds the long history of police subjecting lowriders to heightened levels of surveillance and control through traffic stops. In part, the policing of lowriders responds to a stereotype that gangbangers love lowriders—perhaps a kernel of truth that is then reversed and extended into the assumption that all lowriders are gangbangers.

But it is also framed by the identification of lowriders with sociospatial contexts in which violence is undeniably a presence. In popular accounts, the unequal spatial and social distribution of everyday violence in the United States tends to get read in essentialist terms of character, psychology, race, and cultures of poverty, or through a general narrative of moral decline. More plausibly, violence as a characteristic of urban everyday life articulates quite mainstream notions of masculinity with the circumstances of a specific, racialized class position. The gender component of this includes mandates to possess things and territory and to protect possessions through destructive force. The historical positioning of minoritized urban communities, however, has complicated these gendered imperatives by making people particularly subject to the structural violence of racism, criminalization, and impeded social mobility while also being relatively deprived of what is embodied in middle-class suburbia: the means to control territory on a sufficient scale to form enclaves and keep violence at a distance.

All these social relations resonate in the aesthetics of identity, which is why to speak of lowrider aesthetics is by no means a flight from the political. On the contrary, I suggest that social relations are intensified by and draw force from the affectivity of semiotic distinctiveness (style identity). It was reactions to lowriding and efforts to regulate urban space that often brought this to the fore during my fieldwork. At that time, I attended town-hall meetings about what was then Austin's new "community policing" agenda, with its emphasis on what were called "quality-of-life issues." It was immediately clear that such language would have implications for lowriders. After all, consider some of the modes of automobility that could be expected to raise alarm about the quality of life of an area: the sounds of high-powered subwoofer stereo systems on a public street, or the presence of aging, undrivable vehicles in a front yard. These are exactly what lowriders would take to be signs of the good life. What landlords, middle-class aspirants, and code enforcers would see as "a junk car problem," lowriders would identify as a precious and rare resource, the parts car. Thus, new governmental strategies oriented toward a semiotics of security and risk politicized the diversity of spatial and material aesthetics in Austin, and lowriders along with it. This is one reason that lowriders can simultaneously represent positivity and stigma: lowrider style is situated squarely within the conflicts and contradictions of contemporary life in the United States. More than representing them, lowriders are shaped by these contradictions, and embody and respond to them.

The Affective Politics of Space

The excess significance of a customized ride lies in its capacity to deliver impacts, including moments of "aesthetic experience". Aesthetic experience, as distinct from aesthetic judgment, consists of moments of perception that first produce an embodied response in a perceiver, and that later get processed as feelings, anxiety, evaluation, identification, or some other recognizable category. As Roland Barthes writes about the difference between engaging with a photograph as an aesthetic or familiar image rather than as a datum of scientific consideration, the intellectual quest for ideological or symbolic explanation may tend to make the force of an image "less acute". Such a blunting effect goes a long way toward showing why lowriders may be less excited by metacommentary on their work than by the cars—the work—themselves. Yet a growing literature in theory and cultural criticism both calls for and provides "equipment" for modes of attention to the affective dimension, and to events on the scale of the ordinary that are infused with affectivity. Kathleen Stewart describes the object of such work:

Ordinary affects are the varied, surging capacities to affect and to be affected that give everyday life the quality of a continual motion of relations, scenes, contingencies, and emergences. They're things that happen. They happen in impulses, sensations, expectations, daydreams, encounters, and habits of relating, in strategies and their failures, in forms of persuasion, contagion, and compulsion, in modes of attention, attachment, and agency, and in publics and social worlds of all kinds that catch people up in something that feels like something… . At once abstract and concrete, ordinary affects are more directly compelling than ideologies, as well as more fractious, multiplicitous, and unpredictable than symbolic meanings.

Attuning scholarship to affectivity requires projects that are concerned not only with history in the sense of what happened, but with what Lauren Berlant calls "the conditions of an historical moment's production as a visceral moment" (2008, 846; see also Benjamin 1968a). I propose that lowriding, as a spatial and aesthetic practice that works on the sensorium of specific sites, produces "new visceral imaginaries for what the present could be" (Berlant 2008, 847). Visceral imaginaries occur not only in the domain of ideas but also in material formations. This book is largely concerned with visceral imaginaries that take the form of spatial fields, something like what Nancy Munn describes as a way to understand complex and layered affectivities associated with ritually marked travel. In her work with aboriginal people in Australia, Munn develops a notion of spatial fields as carrying a certain ritual status that may at times render the space around a marked person as forbidden to others:


It is space defined by reference to an actor, its organizing center. Since a spatial field extends from the actor, it can also be understood as a culturally defined, corporeal-sensual field of significant distances stretching out from the body in a particular stance or action at a given locale or as it moves through locales … The body is thus understood as a spatial field (and the spatial field as a bodily field).

As the body moves, the center of this spatial field is temporary and shifting, its boundaries are "quasi-perimetric," and its significance is "concrete if transient". Besides being mobile, such a spatial field not only emerges with reference to particular bodies, but also is realized affectively as a palpable bodily experience. This is what renders distance and proximity "significant." In similar ways, lowrider space forms a temporary zone within and around a lowrider car as it moves through traffic and as it is customized, occupied, driven, and in these ways "animated" by the person who thus identifies as a lowrider.

Affectivity is inherently spatial, operating on scales of event, force, perception or proprioception, and impact. This is another reminder of how lowriding engages with urban politics, for, as Nigel Thrift puts it, "Cities may be seen as roiling maelstroms of affect". Whether or not such affectivity is a unique property of cities, Thrift demonstrates in several of his theoretical works that affect is universally salient in the spatial productions, political assemblages, and everyday social processes of cities. Moreover, Thrift presents this as a kind of subjugated knowledge, in that urbanist scholarship has been far from open to affect as a relevant source of data. As part of the long history of urbanity, that heterogeneous category of experience in which people share or contest space in relatively concentrated circumstances, affectivity has emerged not only as an epiphenomenal feature of dense population, but also as a dimension of all relations and processes of politics, understood in the broadest sense as the shifting lines of confrontation and solidarity by which people encounter, understand, and engage with relations of authority and governmentality.

What Thrift notes is that people involved in the government of cities, as well as in their representational identification and marketing, have come to recognize that any historical assemblage of power depends and relies not only on rational discourse and official political process, but also upon people being moved in various ways. Affectivity is thus marshaled for diverse projects: for instance, measures designed to produce an effect of comfort in people's spatial semiconsciousness make them feel safe and at home. This is obviously a concern for real-estate interests. It also matters to those whose positions of authority depend on the support of constituencies. Thus, a range of "cultural" or aesthetic concerns contribute to an affective politics of urban space: historic preservation; neighborhood, street, and park names; the characteristic details of the built urban landscape and the managed ecosystem; and economic projects such as "renewal" and "development". Affective politics frame such issues as who has access to and is welcomed in the public , how various scales of allegiance and citizenship are negotiated, and who can claim identification as "the community". Such issues intensify and locate historical constructions and hierarchies of race, class, gender, legal status, and others. Perhaps most generally, these are versions of the Lefebvrian question of the "right to the city".

When a lowrider cruises down a street, its spatial field, an aura of identified spatiality, goes with it. The emotional and political charge that seems to infuse encounters with this mobile zone of lowrider space reveals that lowrider style is not a simple or neutral kind of picturesque "difference." In this way, it is never "just culture." Rather, to perform lowrider style in any site carries a strong and immanent rhetorical argument: that this is lowrider space. Yet this is a visceral more than a textual argument. As a mobile, material medium, rich with signs that are not always referential ones, lowrider style engages in iconic, metonymic, and other kinds of semiotic relations with other objects, genres, spaces, and imaginaries. A manifestation of lowrider space ties the immediate context of a lowrider car to the barrio spaces of Latino urbanity in the United States, both material and imagined. The impact of this varies depending on how that immediate context has been spatially produced so far—a lowrider in the Eastside barrio produces different effects than one cruising Congress Avenue, the center of official and "mainstream" Austin; it generates others yet on the upscale suburban boulevard of Bee Cave Road.

The effects-cum-affects of such an event, as well as the interpreted responses that follow its initial impact, depend on whether one wants or expects to be standing in a barrio. What does that term signal? Is the barrio home? A repository of memory and a source of authenticity? Is it a bad area? A property-value vortex? A lowrider not only raises but also weighs in on these questions in an assemblage of allusions and possibilities that are rendered precise by their material form, but nevertheless at times maintain a certain ambivalence. A lowrider car intervenes in the emergent character of social space not necessarily to resolve such contradictions—the car itself is, after all, a place-identified means of mobility—but primarily to assert its material presence. Such a presence can pose a challenge to a public that tends to expect encounters with the Mexican American part of Texas to come in more consumable forms, like music, food, fiction, and mispronounced place names. Thus, regardless of whether the stated motivation of lowrider cruising is to get noticed, to show off, to court romance, or to take in the spectacle of a weekend night in the city, there is an immanent politics to the ways that a lowrider moving about in public affects the production of city space and spatial imaginaries. It is a politics that is not necessarily an expression of consciousness or a reasoned-out position within some debate with clear-cut sides and stakes. It is a politics of presence.

The sites of lowrider space are places where a performance of lowrider style lays the contested political-cultural landscape bare, or makes this fluid landscape momentarily "snap into place" as a condensed structure of feeling. For Mexican Americans in U.S. cities, moments of such clarity or intensification engage a historical tension, as outlined by Raúl Homero Villa, between spatial practices of "barrioization" and a collective cultural memory of "barriology." Lowriders embody the relation between local, "barriological" cultural practices that affirm an identification with barrio communities on one hand, and on the other, "barrioizing" social processes that relegate Mexican Americans to designated spaces, erase them from the public sphere, and subject them to repressive patterns of social control.13 As a cultural form that both creates and refers to barriological memory, while simultaneously becoming a target for police practices that make up part of barrioization, lowriding embraces the ambivalence of urban Mexican American experience. Louis Mendoza elaborates on Villa:

The barrio, too, has often been a source of ambivalence for Chicanos, because it is both isolating as well as insulating. It signifies Chicanos' social status (economic and political subordination), but it is also their refuge, a safe-house from a harsh world wherein Raza can escape their "minority" status and be surrounded by that which is familiar and comforting.

Again, the politics of a barriological form like lowriding lies not in transcending such ambivalence, but in refusing to repress it. Occurring at this ambivalent intersection, lowrider space is both material and metaphorical. It refers to the production of actual, spatial configurations of bodies, things, and environments so that the whole assemblage takes on a particular character, a "geographical identity". To the extent that this spatial production always occurs in relation to an imagined and constructed mainstream public sphere, lowrider space also constitutes a metaphorical "space" within the social: room to be Mexican within America. Exemplary of this, Villa points out the barriological production of an alternate city within the metropolis of Los Angeles:

If not always with the producer's awareness of their collective effect, these practices cumulatively produce and reproduce a mexopolis within the metropolis … This Raza second city—contrary to the rigid laws of physics but consonant with the fluid arts of urbanity—exists in the same space of the putative Anglo-American first city (signs of its diminution are everywhere to be seen), yet in a significantly other place from its dominant cultural milieu.

Thus lowriding draws upon and materializes social imaginaries, or what I would call "imagined cities". Both official and alternative versions of geographical identity are imagined, in the sense developed by Benedict Anderson, Arjun Appadurai, and Charles Taylor: they are collectively imaged and put into practice. The question is not which city is real as opposed to imaginary, but rather what imaginaries will be brought into visceral materiality through ongoing and repetitive performance, becoming part of the "second nature" of urban space that frames and partially determines future practice and spatial formation.


This book recounts lowrider space as I found it in Austin, Texas, among mostly English-speaking, nonimmigrant Mexican Americans. The social position of Austin lowriders is both locally specific and generally significant. Locally, it marks the history of one sector of Mexican American Austin: those of at least the second generation in the United States, many of whose parents had Spanish beaten out of them at school in the bad old days. As one former resident of the Eastside barrio, a publically employed physician in his sixties when I met him, told me, his kids grew up with the clear instruction that English was the way and the means to social mobility. This was one of multiple factors that distinguished some Austin Mexican Americans from immigrants recently arrived from Mexico, who were a driving force behind Austin's revived Spanish-language cultural scene (providing a market for newspapers, radio and TV stations, nightclubs, and other Spanish-dominant arenas). By the same token, Mexican American Austin is also set apart from the storied and studied region of South Texas, which stands in the folkloric and anthropological literature as an area of concentration of lo mexicano in the United States. The lowriders I met were of a generation that is subject to a kind of reverse stigma of presumed culture loss. From a Mexican national point of view, they could be construed as being mired in pocho inauthenticity, culturally denuded by a migrant past; from a Chicano/a one, they could be seen as victims of continued colonization. Yet in occupying this fraught position, Austin lowriders represent an enormous population of Mexican Americans around the United States who have experienced a measure of integration into the mainstreams of American life. This was certainly not an unproblematic integration that proceeded according to the classic immigrant "ethnic model" that promises social mobility in exchange for assimilation to unmarked (hence Anglo) norms. In any event, while Austin lowriders showed themselves in many ways to be well acculturated to consumer society and fluent in the public culture of the United States, the sociological notion of assimilation as a waning of ethnic difference was not in evidence —and given their racialization, not an option.

Casual talk in Austin's lowrider scene frequently expressed participants' profound knowledge of the limits of the bootstraps-and-melting-pot narrative. While lowriders indicated a sense of being entitled to inclusion in the U.S. public sphere—as often as not by participating in consumerism—they also seemed to have few if any illusions about the limits to social mobility posed by the enduring salience of race and their own racialization, or of the class position determined by their relations to higher education and employment. The specific historical situation of Austin Mexican Americans whom I met in lowriding was that of being too "American" to be identified within certain essentialist or nationalist notions of "Mexican," yet being by no means "white." This is one sight line along which the current project, while referring to a very specific time and place, may offer more general resonance.

To pursue and represent this articulation of contested identities with emergent materiality, I required an improvisatory bricolage of methods. Though I conducted some recorded interviews, I generally found that participation in everyday lowrider activities yielded more of the "poetic wisdom" I sought. Perhaps less sentimental than it sounds, poetic wisdom describes an embodied knowledge of the means of productive cultural action: the practices of making, understood through participation. Establishing a relationship with a car club, I was able to travel with club members to car shows elsewhere, including in San Antonio and Houston; view film and music video representations of lowrider style with them; and engage in some of the same print and Internet discourses that they did. Most importantly, during the longest period devoted to fieldwork in 1999–2001, I participated in the everyday life of the local lowrider scene, including not only car shows, but also car club meetings, fund-raising car washes, and "taco plate" sales. I engaged in negotiation and exchange on the informal market of used cars and custom parts, and cruised streets and parking lots on weekends. After my graduate studies, I returned to Austin for intensive stints of fieldwork in 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2006. My field experiences are documented in written field notes, photographs, and recordings of soundscapes and audio notes made while I was driving.

From that collection of stories, documents, and souvenirs, I offer the chapters that follow. The first three begin with what is perhaps the most obvious scale of "urban space," the city streetscape, and then "zoom in" on progressively smaller scales in order to draw closer. Chapter One, "Cruising Spaces," deals with the everyday politics of occupying and moving through urban space in lowrider cruising and related practices. Sketching out a partial "identity map" of Austin, I relate how lowriding as an identity-marked version of automobility contributes to the inscription of barrio space. Considering the subtle negotiations of space and identity that go on when lowriders cross neighborhood boundary lines, I interpret lowrider cruising as a counter-cartography that unmaps certain "imagined cities" and renders others as visceral impacts on the sensorium.

In Chapter Two, "Inside Out," I shift scales to consider the aesthetics of a lowrider car as a mobile, interior space. I view the establishment and adornment of car interior "rooms" as a process of self-definition and public presentation in a larger social context that creates a scarcity of personal space. I note how, in the process of customizing interiors, lowriders depart from or exceed the norms of bourgeois interiority in specific ways, instead manifesting a nonautonomous yet heterotopic space that resists foreclosing on diverse possibilities.

Chapter Three, "Auto Bodies" draws closer yet to address the embodied practices of lowriding. Following Lefebvre's rejoinder that social space begins with the body, I take note of the contrasts between lowrider embodiment and the way bodies are represented in lowrider media. This requires that I confront the use of women's bodies as objects to decorate cars in lowrider photography, which reveals gender to be a point of contact that connects lowriding with two much larger social formations: media culture and automobility in general. I argue that lowriding is neither immune to the ideological baggage of these associations nor fully defined by them, proposing that it is the emphasis on embodied practice that opens possibilities to practice a nondismissive critique of lowriding and to imagine a less gender-restrictive future for it.

The next two chapters spin out some of the implications of considering lowriding as a material practice. Chapter Four, "Work," engages the materiality of lowriding as a working-class pursuit as I narrate my own efforts to participate in the economic context of Austin lowriding. I endeavor to give flesh to some of the arguments from the previous chapters, namely, that a lowrider manifests personal histories of work and struggle in material form, and that the importance of this materialization is what makes participation in lowriding a cultural priority. In describing my experiences in attempting to earn the funds for my own lowrider in the at-will service sector of the "new economy," and to secure the car and parts necessary in the secondhand market of barrio automobility, I elaborate on the point that cars themselves are what matters about lowriding to participants.

Chapter Five, "Neither Gangsters nor Santitos," returns to the scale of the city streetscape to address the ascribed criminality of lowriders as part of a general stigmatizing of Mexican Americans, enacted in the mundane space of traffic. This is part of a broader set of minoritizing cartographies with which difference has been managed in U.S. cities. Thus, lowriders are implicated in larger social debates about the nature of "security," the limits of the public sphere, and the categories of political subjects who can claim protection from the police. I note that this web of implications can imbue everyday aesthetics with life-or-death consequences.

Finally, in the Conclusion I pull together strands from the previous chapters to elaborate on the intersections of aesthetics and politics that they suggest. This calls for methodological attention to material practices in everyday life, a dynamic notion of culture as a mode of performance that engages imaginaries in order to produce contexts, and most generally, a politics based on opening up future possibilities rather than shoring up past positions. While this work cannot define any such politics exhaustively, I argue that it becomes more possible when one takes vernacular subjugated knowledges seriously.


““The book is thus an example of a good, systematic analysis of spatial phenomena. The book ultimately explores the myriad ways that these cars can be experienced as spatial phenomena, and how such realities create a compelling visual culture.””
American Studies