New Mexico History Museum

Lowriders, Hoppers, and Hot Rods: Car Culture of Northern New Mexico

February 10, 2016


¡Orale! Take a ride into the creative reimaginings of American steel as captured in photographs, hubcaps, hood ornaments, car show banners and, yes, actual cars. Lowriders, Hoppers, and Hot Rods: Car Culture of Northern New Mexico, opening May 1 (through March 5, 2017) at the New Mexico History Museum focuses on mobile works of art and their makers—home-grown Nuevomexicanos who customize, detail, paint and upholster these favorite symbols of Hispanic culture.

Photo Curator Daniel Kosharek has pulled together an extensive collection of images by Don Usner, Annie Sahlin, Jack Parsons, Sam Adams, Norman Mauskopf, Dottie Lopez, Gabriela Campos, Meridel Rubinstein and others. In addition, visitors will see a chromed and touchable engine, miniature-scale model-car collections, trophies, memorabilia and other ephemera. The museum lobby will host a rotating selection of cherry examples. The thrill ride doesn’t stop there.

On May 20, the New Mexico Museum of Art will unveil Con Cariño: Artists Inspired by Lowriders, an exhibit (through October 9, 2016) curated by Katherine Ware showing photographs and art inspired by car culture. This summer, the Museum of New Mexico Press will release a companion book featuring essays by Ware and Usner.

“I’m convinced there are two kinds of people in the world,” Kosharek said. “Those who drive for the purpose of getting from point A to point B, mere transportation if you will; and people like me who drive cars to, well, drive cars. Two types of people, two world views. This exhibit is about the latter: People who express themselves through pride in their ride.”

After decades of cruising the streets and back roads of northern New Mexico, lowrider cars have come into their own as a symbol of Hispanic cultural identity. They’re as evocative as red and green chile, rural adobe architecture, and the distinctive dialect of New Mexican Spanish. These cars have been celebrated in books and movies, and their creators congregate by the hundreds in car shows throughout the region to show off their works to an admiring public. That phenomenon is only one part of a broad car culture.

Consider the classic “bombs” (large, rotund American cars ca. 1930–1955); “originals” (old cars restored to their original condition down to the upholstery and engines); “hoppers” (cars outfitted with hydraulic lifters that allow them to bounce and jump like June bugs on a griddle); and “hot rods” (classic American cars modified with large engines).

“It’s all part of an American love affair with the internal combustion engine and the glimmering accoutrements that these vehicles have inspired through history,” said Kosharek, whose own first car was a 1957 Chevy two-door hardtop in matchstick color—royal blue on bottom, baby blue on top.

The term “lowrider” refers to either a car whose suspension has been lowered to inches from the ground or the person who drives it. In Spanish, it’s bajito y suavecito, or low and slow. Lowriders, the cars, are built as works of art, expressions of faith, to honor the dead, bring families together, center a marriage, and most important, provide a proud ride. Lowriders, the drivers, require the skill of an engineer, the aesthetic of an artist, and the patience of a monk to create highly personalized, one-of-a-kind, mobile expressions.

In the 1980s, Española, NM, proclaimed itself the Lowrider Capitol of the World and, for years, Riverside Drive has been a place to see the best examples. In 1992, the Smithsonian Institution put “Dave’s Dream” on permanent exhibition. Started by Dave Jaramillo of Chimayo, the 1969 Ford LTD was completed by his family and friends after his death in a car accident. Some of the cars bear airbrushed murals to the dearly departed or pay homage to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Others sing in simple celebration of their original appearance, only better—somehow sleeker, certainly lower, boasting lustrous paint jobs that evoke sweet candy apples, deep mountain lakes and dangerously seductive lipstick.

Their origins remain up for debate, with post-war El Paso and Los Angeles making the strongest claims to birthing lowriders as a Latino reaction to Anglo hot rod culture. Today in those cities, along with San Antonio, northern New Mexico and elsewhere, car culture thrives. Lowriders, Hoppers and Hot Rods seeks to elevate that culture beyond its common stigmas and stereotypes to celebrate skilled craftsmanship and commitment to family and community. Car clubs regularly reach out to local youths, giving them gears-and-wrenches reasons to drive a straight road.

Programming events will roll down the window for a glimpse at those cultures, including roundtable discussions with premier artisans, a poetry slam with youths mentored by adults, a collaborative theatrical event with Española high-schoolers, lectures, film screenings, and demonstrations. Details for some events are still in the shop. In the meantime, stay tuned to find out whose cars will get the star treatment inside the museum itself.

At the New Mexico Museum of Art...

Con Cariño: Artists Inspired by Lowriders. Opening May 21 at the New Mexico Museum of Art, this exhibit demonstrates the importance of lowriders as a rich subject for New Mexico artists. Curator Kate Ware has pulled together work by more than a dozen photographers, sculptors, and painters exploring issues of family, gender, religion, and community. More than 40 contemporary works will be on display by artists including Lawrence Baca & Ron Rodriguez, Justin Favela, Miguel Gandert, Alex Harris, Nicholas Herrera, Arthur Lopez, Norman Mauskopf, El Moisés, Jack Parsons, Meridel Rubenstein, Luis Tapia, Don Usner, and others.

And, from the Museum of New Mexico Press... 

¡Órale! Lowrider: Custom Made in New Mexico. In September, Museum of New Mexico Press will publish a beautiful book featuring photography taken during the past 40 years by two dozen New Mexico photographers, including Meridel Rubenstein, Alex Harris, Jack Parsons, and Miguel Gandert. The photographs were selected by Daniel Kosharek (Photo Curator of the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors) and Katherine Ware (Curator of Photography, New Mexico Museum of Art). The publication includes an essay and photos by Don J. Usner titled “Cruising in the Heart of the Lowrider World” and an interview with Meridel Rubenstein by Katherine Ware. Stay tuned for details.


A full summer of activities swirls around the exhibits, kicked off on May 22 with the first official Lowrider Day on the Plaza. The event includes a parade of cars from Fort Marcy to the Plaza, displays throughout the day, hopper demonstrations, a proclamation by Mayor Javier Gonzales, and a series of awards for lowriding participants.

Sunday, May 1, noon–4 pm, Opening of Lowriders, Hoppers and Hot Rods, New Mexico History Museum: Step into a photo booth to snap a souvenir of your day, check out the video loop screening of South American Cho Lo, and attend a 2 pm lecture about the history of Lowrider Magazine by its former editor, Ray John. Free to NM residents.

Friday, May 20, 5 – 8 pm, Reception for Con Cariño, New Mexico Museum of Art: A fun-filled evening of art, music and hors d’oeuvres celebrating the lowrider exhibit plus Finding a Contemporary Voice: The Legacy of Lloyd Kiva New and IAIA.

Saturday, May 21, 10 am–5 pm, Opening of Con Cariño, Museum of Art.

Sunday, May 22, 10 am–5 pm, Lowrider Day on the Plaza, History Museum and Museum of Art: Meet the people who create these works of art. The day includes a car procession, displays around the plaza, a mayoral proclamation, hopper demonstrations, and awards—plus free admission to both exhibits for NM residents.

Sunday, June 19, 1:30–3:30 pm, Community Day and Families Make History workshop, History Museum: Design and paint a miniature metal car and learn about the science of motion by experimenting with a DIY car propelled by air. At 2 pm, noted author and activist Denise Chávez speaks on chicanas, lowriders and the differences between southern and northern New Mexico. Free to NM residents; children free daily.

Sunday, July 10, 1 – 4 pm, Family Day, Museum of Art: Hands-on art-making and lively 30-minute family tours. Explore Con Cariño, along with Finding a Contemporary Voice: The Legacy of Lloyd Kiva New and IAIA, and stage your self-portrait in a dress-up photo booth in the exhibit Self-Regard: Artist Self-Portraits from the Collection.

Sunday, July 17, 1:30–3:30 pm, Families Make History monthly workshop, History Museum: Are you ready to “Low Write”? Learn to write your name lowrider style, listen to car-inspired poetry and write your own with northern New Mexico poet and artist Tara Evonne Trudell. Free with admission; Sundays free to NM residents, children free daily.

Friday, August 12, 9–10 am: CreativeMornings, History Museum: Enjoy a talk by Albuquerque’s Rob Vanderslice, internationally known award-winning lowrider car painter. Free.

Sunday, August 28, 2 pm, “Behind the Locked Doors of General Motors Design,” History Museum: Santa Fe Concorso President Dennis Little, the former head of GM’s design studio, gives a glimpse into creating the cars of the future. Free with admission; Sundays free to NM residents.

Sunday, September 25, 2 pm, “Growing Up in a Lowrider Community,” History Museum: Photographer Don Usner, whose work is in both museums’ exhibits, talks about his youth in the hotbed of lowrider culture, Chimayó. Free with admission; Sundays free to NM residents.

October 16, Poetry slam, History Museum: Levi Romero, associate director of Chicana and Chicano Studies at UNM, leads a lowrider slam with young poets. Free with admission; Sundays free to NM residents, children free daily.

Sunday, November 20, 1:30–3 pm, Families Make History monthly workshop, History Museum: Mike Roybal, a primo auto detailer and president of the Latin Dezire Car Club in Las Vegas, NM, shows how to use airbrushes to paint flames on paper. Free with admission; Sundays free to NM residents, children free daily.

Funding for these exhibits and programs has been generously provided by the Museum of New Mexico Foundation, McCune Foundation, and the City of Santa Fe Arts Commission and 1% Lodgers’ Tax.

Related Photos

Three Wheel
1963 Chevrolet Impala
San Gabriel Park
Lowrider Car Show

Back to Press Release List »