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This Small New Mexico Town Is The Lowrider Capital Of The World

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Tag Christof

Wedged between two national forests and split by the Rio Grande sits Española, New Mexico. With a population just over 10,000, and an economic relevance that peaked when the railroad rolled through in 1880, you wouldn’t expect much more than Southwestern small-town tourist fare here. All the more surprising, then, that it’s become the Lowrider Capital of the World.

This story originally appeared in Volume 3 of Road & Track.


It started small, 60 years ago. The lowrider scene had already taken root in Los Angeles, a new car culture born of rebellion. Its brash, flashy, low-and-slow mantra served as an act of defiance by Chicanos who had long been told to keep their heads down, work hard, and assimilate into the white American mainstream. Lowriders were an outward statement that they weren’t content to blend in. They had arrived, they had a culture all their own, and they wanted people to know it.

That resonated in Española. The town, sometimes called “Little L.A.,” has deep ties to the Hispanic and Chicano communities of Southern California. Families that had been in New Mexico for generations would head west seeking opportunity and return with money and a taste of California culture. Lowriders were a natural fit for Española, a continuation of the artistic tendencies that had defined Northern New Mexico for hundreds of years.

“Back in the days of horses and buggies, Spanish settlers in Northern New Mexico used to adorn their horses. You know, the saddles, they’d make them very ornate and put a lot of work into them so they could show off,” says Fred Rael, chairman of the board of directors for the Española Lowrider Museum, currently under construction in downtown Española. They’d ride into town for church, dressed in their Sunday best, flexing with jewels and shiny trim.

The slow car cruises that clogged Española streets on Sundays throughout the Seventies and Eighties were the same kind of flex. The destination wasn’t the key; it was about showing up with your community and demonstrating your pride through spoked rims, whitewall tires, custom upholstery, gold and chrome plating, and lots and lots of artwork—pinstripes, murals, etching, engraving.

These countercultural movements are always met with backlash. Every form of automotive modification has sent enthusiasts home with warnings, tickets, and occasionally impound fees. Showing off on the street is a surefire way to draw police attention, and lowriders were no exception. Hydraulic suspension, the defining feature of a modern lowrider, was invented in response to harassment from law enforcement. California authorities made it illegal for any part of a car’s bodywork to sit lower than the bottom of the wheel. With hydraulics, you could raise the car to dodge a ticket and slam it back down when the cops were gone.

In Española, lowrider builders we interviewed tell stories from decades past of being stopped for no reason and ticketed for minor offenses. Those bad vibes are gone. In 2018, the city council officially declared Española as a “cruise-friendly municipality” and formally adopted the town’s long-standing nickname, Lowrider Capital of the World.

Today, in backyards and garages all over town, enthusiasts are at work building lowriders of their own or pitching in on someone else’s project. “People here help each other out,” says Jeff Quintana, an Española lowrider builder. “It is part of the culture, because so many people are building these cars. There’s not any competition between us. We do our own work, but when we get stuck there’s always a friend to call. One buddy is a great welder, another is an engine guy. My friend Leroy recently helped me put in a new windshield.”

Every spring, there’s a lowrider pilgrimage to an Española church believed to have special healing powers. All the cars come out. They come from Colorado, from Albuquerque,” says Quintana. “It’s very intense.” And in July, the town celebrates Lowrider Day with a huge parade of hundreds of vehicles.

On either of those occasions, and at any cruise spot throughout the year, you’re likely to find the three exquisite lowriders you see here, along with their owners—all of them from Española, all carrying on the legend of the Lowrider Capital of the World.

chevy impala

Hydraulic suspension allows a car to go as low as possible, but the Impala looks just as good when it’s riding high

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The Classic Perfected: 1960 Chevy Impala

Impalas have long been the go-to lowrider. Sold in massive numbers, cheap to buy—or at least they used to be—easy to fix, and extensively supported in the aftermarket, they’re the ideal blank canvas. When Jeff Quintana stumbled upon the remains of a 1960 Impala while dropping off a load of building materials for work, he recognized the potential in the bare shell. It had no engine, no interior, and was a cosmetic wreck. The owner was using it as storage, but Quintana saw what it could become.

chevy impala

Even the taillights on Jeff Quintana’s 1960 Chevy Impala have lowrider flair, with delicate gold detailing. He’s spent more than 25 years customizing this car.

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“I had always wanted a 1960 Impala because my dad had one when I was growing up,” Quintana recalls. He bought the car for $2000. “I put it on a trailer, got it back behind my house, and started working on the thing.” Quintana had a vision for what he wanted to build. That vision took him 25 years to perfect.

He installed a gold-and-chrome-plated Chevy 350 V-8, fitted hydraulics (and reinforced the frame for hopping), and painted it cherry red over bright white. It’s a classic beauty made even more beautiful, no detail left untouched: Every inch of the car is painted or plated, every surface textured and polished to perfection. From its massive JBL subwoofers to its pristine gold wheels, Quintana’s car is the quintessential image of a lowrider realized in metal and leather.

quintana in a lowrider

By day, Quintana, 51, is a road maintenance foreman. But his real art is building cars and viclas—lowrider motorcycles.

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Quintana also builds viclas, customized motorcycles that share the baroque aesthetic of lowrider cars. He calls them “Chicano-style bikes.” His 1997 Harley-Davidson Heritage Springer and 1992 Electra Glide look more like Chicano-style spaceships.

But his real love is the Impala. “I can’t even imagine how much time I’ve put into it over the past 25 years,” he says. “It’s a labor of love, the car I have always wanted to build.”

1982 cadillac fleetwood brougham

You may recognize this 1982 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham lowrider from the 2006 music video for T.I.’s “Top Back (Remix).”

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The Two-Sided Story: 1982 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham

If Quintana’s Impala is the embodiment of classic lowrider style, James Leyba’s 1982 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham represents the cross-cultural appeal of these machines. The Brougham was originally built as a lowrider in Compton, California, the epicenter of early West Coast hip-hop culture. The intricate paintwork layered over the baby-blue base coat was done by legendary custom painter Kenneth “Doc” Stewart. The result was attention-grabbing enough to earn a spot in T.I.’s “Top Back (Remix)” music video in 2006, where you can see the Caddy cruising body-up on its hydraulics and getting lathered up by dancers. Near the high point of the hip-hop lowrider revolution, this was one of the cars that repped the scene on a national stage.

cadillac is owned by james leyba

Today the Caddy is owned by James Leyba, 35, a quality- control inspector at Los Alamos National Lab, seen here with his wife, Stefani Martinez-Leyba.

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But that was 15 years ago. Earlier this year, the car turned up on Facebook Marketplace in Albuquerque, New Mexico, just as Leyba was looking to take on a new project. He had sold his last build—a “hopper” Volkswagen built for hydraulics competitions—in 2018, when his mom was diagnosed with cancer. But he had finally found the time to get back into the game. The Brougham was perfect.

“I like the Impalas, but for me, the square big body of a Caddy is just something I’ve always loved,” Leyba says. “I saw the movieThe Wash with Dr. Dre. They have that seafoam-green Cadillac with a peanut-butter top and interior. I’ve loved it since that day.”

1982 cadillac fleetwood brougham

Detail of the paintwork and boxy body. Leyba is in the process of overhauling and modernizing all of this Caddy’s guts, but the sweet paint job is here to stay.

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Finding a car with such a rich history also gave Leyba the chance to rescue something special. Its music video days may be behind it, but the Caddy is getting a full overhaul from Leyba and his friend Leroy “China” Martinez. They’re reinforcing the frame, chrome plating the underbody, and tidying up all the details that were skipped on the initial build. All of the major components are getting overhauled—the 4.1-liter V-8 engine included. Everything will be updated to modern standards, cleaned up, and strengthened. The lone exception is the paint job. Leyba will retouch obvious flaws, but a car painted by Doc himself is too special to respray.

“It had its first story in Compton, in the video,” Leyba says. “I want to give it its second story.”

chevy monte carlo

Martinez has been perfecting this car since he was 16.

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The Love Letter: 1983 Chevy Monte Carlo

Orlando Martinez Jr. doesn’t just love lowriders. He loves the scene, he loves the way these cars bring people together, and he loves his town. His build—a 1983 Monte Carlo he named “Española”—is a rolling testament to that passion. It’s not the result of one grand vision, but a constantly changing creation that he started when he was 16.

1983 chevy monte carlo

Orlando Martinez Jr., 41, with his nephew Gabe in his 1983 Chevy Monte Carlo. Martinez works for a tourism company giving tours of Santa Fe—in a lowrider.

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“I’d save money and buy the wheels, then save more the next summer to get a paint job. And, you know, I added a little bit at a time to it,” Martinez says. “Then I took the car completely apart in 2000 or 2001, did a whole frame-off reinforcement, and got it all ready for hydraulics and chrome plating.”

For decades, the Monte Carlo has been not just a project, but a teacher. Martinez learned body work, fabrication, and hydraulic assembly working on the car. The one thing he won’t take credit for is the paintwork, which was done by local legend Rob Vanderslice. He gave Vanderslice no direction, no design brief. Just handed over the car and asked him to work his magic. “Rob’s an artist, you know. He does the renders in his head,” Martinez says. “I was just fortunate enough to get one of his works.”

Martinez’s philosophy is not about building the perfect car or stopping at the completion of a single vision. It’s about putting in the work, experimenting, changing, and learning from the community.

“I like the way it makes people happy. It brings out a positive energy, you know?” he says. “When people see your car and then they start asking you questions. Or you see how it makes little kids happy, you think maybe one day they’ll want to do something like that. That’s what makes me happy.”

1983 chevy monte carlo

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Lowriders may have started as a way to carve out a corner of Southern California car culture, but in Española, they rule the town. And that seems to make everyone happy in the Lowrider Capital of the World.


Source: This Small New Mexico Town Is The Lowrider Capital Of The World

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