Lowriders a high point with owners: Ramon Guerra lost his heart, and his girlfriend, to a Chevy Impala by Alisa Valdes of The Boston Globe (The Ottawa Citizen, 8/29/97)




    The first time Ramon Guerra saw her standing in the sun, he

knew he had to have her, even if she belonged to another man. He

approached respectfully, and confessed: "I love her. I need her.

Please let me buy her." The man said no, and eyed him

suspiciously. Mr. Guerra came back the next day. And the next,

and the next.



   Eventually, the other man gave up."I'm not married to her," he

said."Come back on Friday with $3,500."



   Mr. Guerra was there Thursday. He whisked her off to his house

in Brockton, Massachusetts, and locked her in the garage, spent

seven hours a day there with her. The girlfriend he had been

seeing was furious. She dumped Mr. Guerra, saying that was too

much time to spend with ... a car. Even a '64 Impala.



   There are many rites of spring and summer in Boston, and one

of them is the emergence of the customized cars known as

lowriders, the slow yachts of city streets.



   Canonized in Latino neighborhoods, a lowrider is any car that

has had its frame purposely lowered. Some are so low, they scrape

the ground. Many also have hydraulic systems that allow the car

to rear up or bounce. The reasons given for these alterations are

no different from the reasons anyone proud of their car gives:

beauty, class, style, attention.



   Too low to the ground to navigate icy roads, Massachusetts

lowriders disappear during winter. They are kept in garages,

where their obsessive owners toil away on projects that, come

spring and summer, often rival magnolias in their magnificence.



   For Mr. Guerra, 23, the sacrifices for his Impala these past

three winters have been many. He has lost a girlfriend and

skimped on necessities in order to put more than $12,000 into

"Momo's '64." Mr. Guerra, who is on disability, said he spends

his money first on his two young children, then on his car. And

that's it. There's none left over.



   But the rewards that come with the good weather have been

plentiful: Momo's '64 has earned Mr. Guerra 10 trophies at car

shows in Massachusetts and Connecticut. It has also given Mr.

Guerra strong friendships with the 15 guys in Ground Level

Cruising, a lowrider car club of which Mr. Guerra is a member.

There are eight such lowrider car clubs in Boston.



   "A lot of our guys are like Ramon," said Ground Level's

president, Jose Vasquez."I mean, we don't smoke, we don't drink,

we don't hang out on the corner. We work on our cars."



   Members of Ground Level can be found competing for prizes at a

car show in Marshfield, Massachusetts, wearing their black and

raspberry uniforms, the ones that have "Say No to Drugs" printed

across the front, and the club logo on the back.



   "Everybody knows this car is the bomb," said Mr. Guerra."But I

don't front when I go to the shows.



   "You know, everybody likes to compete, they talk their trash.

I just come in quietly, and let the judges talk for me.



   "You should see the guys' faces when I drive into a show.

They're like 'Oh, man, not him,' because they know I'll win

something."



   Owners of lowriders, he said, are competitive. But in a

positive way.



   "We compete, but it's all good. We know anyone who does this

has to have heart," said Mr. Guerra, who said this winter's

project will be to airbrush a painting of the lighthouse in San

Juan onto his hood.



   "We are all out here representing our people."



   The lowrider tradition began in the Southwest, according to

experts in Chicano studies. With money scarce and car culture

developing in the late '40s and early '50s, people began

customizing used autos.



   Though the first lowrider is said to have been created by a

German-American in Los Angeles, the craze caught fire with

Mexican-Americans.



   In the '70s, Puerto Ricans in New York and San Juan adopted

lowriders, but often used later-model Hondas and Toyotas instead

of the old American cars preferred in the Southwest.



   The taste for Japanese lowriders quickly spread to Boston,

where the cars began appearing in large numbers about 10 years

ago.



   According to Lonny Lopez, the publisher of Lowrider Magazine,

the Puerto Rican lowriders, known as "euro cars," have become an

international phenomenon.



   Lowriders are also becoming "incredibly popular," he said, in

Massachusetts, Chicago and Indianapolis.



   And in California, he said, Chicanos have begun adopting the

Puerto Rican style of euro cars, while on the East Coast, more

Puerto Ricans are going back to the old American cars, like Mr.

Guerra.



   This summer, Mr. Guerra could be found cruising the streets of

Brockton and Boston on alternating weeks, displaying the

improvements he made on his car last winter: The body has been

painted, maroon with gold flecks; the detailing has all been done

in gold; the rebuilt engine gleams; and there are four hydraulic

pumps and the 12 batteries needed to run them in the trunk.



   You can also find Mr. Guerra every couple of days wiping down

his ride at the Nice 'N Clean car wash in Bridgewater.



   "I go there when there's a lot of people," said Mr. Guerra.



   "There is nothing like the feeling you get when people look at

you and they're, like, daaaaamn, that's a nice car.



   "To me, that's what summer's all about."