Page 48

Interior, Carmelito’s ’58 Impala

Elmo Sanchez’s 1950 Chevy DeLuxe

Hydraulic pumps in Fred Rael’s 1967 Impala show car, “Liquid Sunshine”

busy,” Eppie says, pointing to the two-bay garage across the parking lot, bustling like a beehive with men amid vehicles in various states of reconstruction. A mural on the wall behind Eppie’s old Bel Air depicts one of Northern New Mexico’s most potent icons: the Santuario de Chimayó, a church just down the road that has long been revered as a holy site by people from all over the Southwest. It’s an apt juxtaposition, the lowrider and the mural of the church. “That’s part of who we are,” Eppie says as I admire the mural. “How could it not be? Look where we are, man — we’re in the holy land!” Eppie’s shop can handle just about any kind of car customizing, using his own crew or calling on talented workers and artists in the community to modify cars and paint them with air-brush art, much of it featuring religious motifs and imagery that express a strong affiliation with Hispanic culture. Eppie’s specialty, though, is installing hydraulic systems, so that vehicles can be raised up or down. Eppie relates to me how he and others in Chimayó became focused on this particular aspect of the lowrider craft. “It started out because we have rough dirt roads here in Chimayó, you know. So we wanted to bring our low riders to shows, but they’d get banged up on the bumps and ruts and rocks here, so we figured out ways to jack them up, take them to cruise in the shows, and then lower them again when we hit the roads here. From there we got crazier and crazier and built cars that jump and twist and do all kinds of things. “Guys from California started to come here because they made laws out there outlawing lowriders. We didn’t have no laws like that here. We could go as low or as high as we wanted.” Eppie and his father began to explore all the possibilities with hydraulics and they eventually pushed the limits further than anyone had before. As they

perfected their craft, they resolved to prove that they could compete with other car customizers. “I wanted to do something different, and to do it really big, so I took a ’95 Ranger pickup and made it into a hopper. We drove it to the Phoenix Super Show in 2005 and won first place.” That “hopper”— a vehicle equipped with hydraulic lifts that allow it to “hop” up and down, virtually on end—is what put Ray’s shop on the map. I see that its fame has only grown as Eppie shows me the dozens of trophies the shop has won over the years.

I find the passion in the air at Eppie’s equaled at Carmelito’s Muffler Shop, down the road four or five miles in La Puebla, halfway to Española. Carmelito Martinez, the proprietor of this highly successful garage, relates to me his story of becoming a professional mechanic and body worker. “All my life I’ve been working on cars,” Carmelito says, “and I’ve always loved the lowriders. I saw my first one when my uncle Calletano Martinez came home from working in California, in the ’40s. He had a lowrider, and I decided right there that I wanted one of those. My first car was a ’41 Chevy. I paid eighty bucks for it.” Carmelito’s tale jibes with the story told by historians, who identify lowriders as one manifestation of a tradition of customizing cars that began practically as soon as Henry Ford perfected the mass production of automobiles. The tinkering went in many directions, but some car-customizing enthusiasts focused on low-riding vehicles and began to cruise them “low and slow” down urban streets to show them off. Some believe the lowrider phenomenon started in Juárez, Mexico, and its sister city across the border, El Paso, Texas. Advocates of this idea trace the first lowrider

cars to the Pachuco subculture that emerged in those towns in the early 20th century. Others point to East LA as the place of origin. Wherever it started, it is clear that lowrider culture blossomed in Southern California when a burgeoning automobile industry provided an abundance of vehicles, new and used, and trained mechanics with the skills to modify them. Custom cars, including lowriders, emerged in the 1930s in LA. As people made wealthy in the motion picture industry and other businesses spent their discretionary money on custom cars, a new industry was born, transforming stock vehicles in manifold ways. World War II put a damper on the custom car craze, but it reignited in the postwar economic boom when an influx of workers flooded LA for the abundant jobs. Many of the immigrants were Mexicans and New Mexicans, who settled predominantly in East LA. Few among them had extra money for the luxury of buying a custom car, though; instead they found old cars and fixed them up using parts scavenged from junkyards. They developed a particular fondness for lowriders, and East LA became a hotbed of lowrider activity. Carmelito’s tio Calletano was part of this demographic, and he and many other New Mexicans brought their zeal home along with their cars when they came to visit kin in New Mexico. The practice of making lowriders found a niche in the Hispanic culture of Northern New Mexico as enthusiastic mechanics began to turn them out. New Mexicans proved to be passionate about and adept at their craft, perhaps because of a history of folk art and pageantry with deep roots in Hispanic New Mexico. “In those days, we made the cars low by heating the springs with a blow torch,” Carmelito explains. “We still do that sometimes, but now we have these air bags,” he says, grinning broadly as he flips a switch to make his white 1961 Impala sink to the ground with a loud hiss. A good piece of Carmelito’s business comes from

Carmelito’s granddaughter Vanessa Gonzales in a 1960 Impala

Larry Martinez’s Buick Regal with mural by Randy Martinez

Carmelito’s grandson Lloyd Gonzales in a 1951 Chevy truck

48 2012 Bienvenidos

Born in East LA

Profile for The New Mexican

Bienvenidos 2012 Summer Guide to Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico  

Bienvenidos 2012 Summer Guide to Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico

Bienvenidos 2012 Summer Guide to Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico  

Bienvenidos 2012 Summer Guide to Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico