In the 1970s, intricately detailed cars with sleek paint jobs and lowered bodies roamed Story and King through the heart of East San Jose. The largely Mexican-American neighborhood had become an epicenter of lowrider culture, building on what had begun on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles 30 years before.
Robert Diaz remembers getting together with his friends as a young teenager on Friday and Saturday nights, sitting at the bus stop or old Shakey’s Pizza on Story Road, watching cars go by and imagining the day when he would buy his own lowrider. When he finally turned 16, he made the purchase: a beer brown 1977 Cutlass Supreme Brougham with a tan vinyl top.
Years later, Diaz, who is the vice president of the United Lowrider Council of San Jose, “continues to live the lowrider lifestyle.” He drives a red 1964 Chevy Impala Super Sport and his wife, Yvonne, drives a gold 1962 Chevy Impala convertible.
“It’s part of my culture, part of my life,” he said. “It’s deeply ingrained in me.”
But while the lowrider community still has a place in San Jose, its favorite activity of cruising has been banned in the city since 1986. At the time, the city cited traffic jams, criminal activity and the “environment of fear” created by cruise. as grounds for the ban.
That could soon change.
Later this month, the San Jose City Council is expected to discuss whether to repeal the ban altogether — a suggestion made by council member Raul Peralez.
It’s an issue the downtown councilman knows some things about, having grown up lowriding with his parents in San Jose.
When he was old enough to drive, the first car he bought was also a lowrider – an emerald green 1965 Chevy Impala Super Sport with a black vinyl hardtop. The term lowrider usually refers to a custom vintage car with a lowered body, sometimes using hydraulics to raise and lower.
But because of the type of car he was driving and the cruise ban, a teenaged Peralez, who would later pursue a career in law enforcement, was pulled over by police “dozens and dozens of time”. He was made to sit on the sidewalk, was searched, and was suspected of being involved in gang activity or possessing drugs or weapons.
Peralez called the policy “discriminatory in nature” since the police department has historically used it as a tool to police gangs and regulate other illegal activities such as sideshows and speed shows. But lowriders say it’s unfair to equate cruising with breaking the law, arguing it’s about community and showing off their cars, in which they sometimes invest hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But since 2007, when the San Jose Police Department implemented its electronic citation system, no citations have been issued for the cruise, according to Police Chief Anthony Mata. The department, however, does not know how many handwritten tickets have been distributed for the cruise over the past decade.
“I don’t think we’re losing anything,” Peralez said of the potential repeal. “I think we actually gain a lot by making it very clear that we have no intention of criminalizing cruising and that we’re going to be entirely focused on criminalizing things that are inherently dangerous in our community.”
The police department, however, still has concerns about repealing the decades-old law. In a May 31 memo, Mata said cruising leads to “quality of life issues and illegal activities.” Instead of repealing the ban, the department proposes allowing cruising only at permitted or sanctioned events, or suspending the ban for six months to assess the impact it would have. The law defines cruising as “the repetitive driving of any motor vehicle past a traffic control point in congested traffic at or near the traffic control point.”
The criminalization of lowriding is not unique to San Jose, however, according to Professor Arturo Villarreal of Evergreen Valley Community College. Lowriders have long faced harassment and intimidation from police, he said.
If repeal, San Jose would be added to the growing list of California cities rolling back cruise bans. Last month, the Sacramento City Council voted to revoke its ban, and National City is currently testing a six-month trial period to allow cruising. San Francisco allows cruising, but Oakland continues to ban it.
The state Assembly’s transportation committee this week passed a resolution to encourage cities to repeal anti-cruise ordinances.
Anti-lowriding sentiments can be traced back to the Pachucos — a 1940s Mexican-American subculture that was often associated with gang activity and lowriding, Villarreal said. The stereotype was only reinforced by media portrayals like the 1979 film “Boulevard Nights”, about gangs in East Los Angeles.
“Most people just know it on the surface,” Villarreal said. ” It’s deep. It’s a social ritual. It’s a cultural ritual and it has its place. It has its purpose like any other element or ritual or ceremony. It is a form of social expression.
For Ashley Palomo, lowriding is about family and community. Her stereotypical association with gangs and criminal activity, she said, couldn’t be further from the truth.
When the single mother of three isn’t riding with her three kids, she’s an active member of the Sacramento chapter of the Majestics Car Club. And while their cars often take center stage, the group gets together regularly to volunteer, clean parks or fundraise for homeless shelters or schools.
If San Jose decides to repeal its cruise ban, she thinks more people will come to the community.
“I know sometimes people are discouraged from getting out in their car because they don’t want to get in trouble or they don’t want to get a ticket,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of positives in lowriding and I don’t think people realize that until they get there.”
Despite the decades-long ban, Diaz said cruising is still very much alive on the streets of San Jose. But the potential repeal of the ban, he said, will offer comfort and “peace of mind” to lowriders who fear being pulled over by cops looking for sideshows or speed displays.
“We put a lot of money into our cars and for us to go out there to race our cars is not what we want,” he said. “We go out there and sail. We go low and slow and play music and have fun.