Ricardo Cortez and the ABCs of Lowrider Culture
Ricardo Cortez’s “Lowrider ABCs” showcases the art, culture and history of lowrider culture. Illustration by Isaac Herrera.
Picture this: San José, 1977, the intersection of Story and King Streets are thrumming to the beat of old school funk and disco as a steady stream of decked-out lowrider cars stream through the boulevards. So often the cars, customized classic two-doors with bright paint and bouncy hydraulics, tell the stories of their drivers, says artist, author and 2022 San José Creative Ambassador Ricardo Cortez, ’15 MFA Digital Art.
“A lot of folks, myself included, identify lowriders as the person, the individual, and the car becomes an extension of their lowrider identity,” says Cortez, whose first book, “The Lowrider ABCs,” comes out this fall. “As the lowrider and driver, you become the artist creating the car. You embed your own artistic style, your own influence in the car. The car becomes a movable billboard of yourself driving down the street.”
Cortez first encountered lowriders as a middle schooler in San José, when he noticed his classmates building cars that “hopped” thanks to modified suspension systems. As a child who participated in San José State’s MESA program, he recognized how the cars combined artistry with engineering and innovative design thinking. He begged his grandfather to let him tinker with his ’54 GMC pickup or his classic ’67 Buick. When his grandfather finally relented, Cortez says the cars “became part of my identity.”
Not only were the cars beautiful, they were literal vehicles of expression for the aspiring artist, who found community in building, designing and driving with his friends and fellow lowriders. Cortez’s parents, Chicanos who grew up in the Bay Area, encouraged his passion by buying him model cars, paint sets and copies of Lowrider Magazine — a publication started by Sonny Madrid in 1977.
Decriminalizing art and culture
Growing up in San José during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Cortez’s exposure to lowrider culture was tempered by the city’s ongoing ban on “cruising zones.” The 1986 legislation, which restricted the number of times drivers could cruise along the same street, passed during an era when San José was recognized as the “capital of lowriding.”
“The research has shown that the cruising ban was really targeted at the lowrider community, because we were the only ones out there actively cruising every weekend,” says Cortez. “And so the ordinance was a tool used to pull lowriders over. It’s almost like they were criminalizing an entire culture — it felt like they were criminalizing these cars and the people who drive them.”
Cortez adds that because lowriding is an extension of community culture, the ordinance felt like a judgment not only on how and where people drove, but also on the creative and ingenious way in which they expressed themselves.
The conversation about lowrider culture shifted in 2022, when the San José City Council officially overturned the ordinance banning lowrider cruising. Cortez, a board member with the United Lowrider Council of San José, celebrated alongside hundreds of fellow residents, artists and car aficionados. This historic move may have added statewide pressure to reverse the ban. On Oct. 23, 2023, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law lifting restrictions placed on lowrider cruising across the state.
These new laws signify a renewed appreciation for lowrider culture, says Cortez. He hopes to continue contributing to the tradition by sharing the art, history and technological innovations of lowriders, and credits his time as a graduate student at San José State with helping him apply his skills. Despite the long history of lowriders across the region, he recognized that there were few public avenues to recognize their contributions to Chicano culture.
This is where his artistic talents came in: When the pandemic hit in 2020, he began digitizing his old copies of Lowrider magazine, with the hope of making the content accessible to all. He began interviewing locals who had contributed to lowrider car shows and events throughout the decades and editing together footage of impressive auto innovations on his YouTube page. In 2022, when he was named a Creative Ambassador for the city of San José, Cortez hosted a series of workshops for kids and teenagers designed to teach them how to design custom light boxes that reacted to sound.
“They would create custom artwork, affix them to boxes, and then we would go through the circuitry and learn what each component does,” Cortez says. “They’d walk away with this customized art piece, as well as new knowledge about the technology, and hopefully some knowledge about the history of lowriding.”
Cortez has also sought out ways to educate and involve his own daughter in lowrider culture. Not long after she was born, he built a Power Wheels-inspired lowrider that could raise up and down. When trying to find books about lowriders, he was disappointed to see that most of the children’s books focused more on the cars than the drivers. His answer? “The Lowrider ABCs,” a children’s book that explores the historical significance, artistry and innovation of lowriders, with a few San José shoutouts sprinkled throughout.
He hopes the book, which comes out December 1, will underscore the cultural relevance and importance of lowrider culture while educating future generations. He also believes that San José State plays a unique role in cultivating and preserving the tradition.
“The community around us, especially near San José State, is the epicenter of so much for San José,” he says. “Students can take pride in that, whether it be identifying with the Chicano movement and all of the progress that has been made with students standing up for themselves, to the innovation and ideas that come from people like Sonny Madrid who created this amazing worldwide magazine. They should have pride in Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the famous athletes who raised their fists at the Olympics. San José State has a really important history that creates part of the identity and fabric of San José itself.”
A proud Spartan, Cortez credits his time at SJSU with teaching him to combine his interests in history, culture, art and innovation.
“My professors taught me so much about how the technology that surrounds us is not just meant for Silicon Valley executives,” he adds. “Instead they prompted me to ask, ‘How can we use these tools to create beauty and art?’ For me, it was always about, how can I use these tools to do something culturally relevant? San José State gave me my Chicano voice: a way to express myself through art.”