Larry Martinez’s Buick Regal with mural by Randy Martinez
Chris Martinez in his 1953 Cadillac
Carmelito’s 1955 Chevy BelAir
making lowriders for other people. “I used to just do my own stuff,” he says, “but about 1972 I started working for others. I’ve worked on so many cars, I can’t tell you, and I have about a dozen of my own here that I’ve kept.” Carmelito’s car collection is stashed in secure garages around his modest house in La Puebla, near the homes he and his wife grew up in. Like most Hispanics in Northern New Mexico, his roots go deep here, and just across the field from his sprawling shops and garages lies the large garden where his wife and he, along with her 85-year-old mother, grow chile peppers and other crops, just as the family has done for many generations. His son, Ricky, works with him in the business, and his daughters and grandchildren, who live next door, share his love of the cars. When I ask to see some of the cars out in the open, he directs his grandchildren, ages 12 and 14, to drive them out, and they do so, announcing proudly that they one day will own the cars they carefully maneuver into place for me to photograph. Beside the ’61 Impala they parade out a bright turquoise ’58 Impala, a bullet-gray 1951 Chevy truck, a twotone ’55 Chevy Bel Air, and a 1972 Chevy C10 pickup. Of course, not all lowrider enthusiasts run auto businesses. Most do it as a hobby at home, but they are no less passionate than the workers at the garages that specialize in making custom cars. In fact, it’s hard to draw a line between amateur devotees and professionals because many individuals who work out of their homes occasionally take on work for others, and the professional shops end up devoting a lot of time and energy to the owners’ personal lowrider projects — which often eats up the profit that the business side generates.
window and places the effigy so that his head hangs out, as if he’s cruising in the car. As Elmo backs out of the vehicle, I notice among his numerous tattoos an image of Elmo the Muppet on his shaved head, and I learn that the Sesame Street character is indeed Elmo’s namesake. The whimsical image of the Muppet completely deflates the stereotype of the shaved, tattooed man in baggy pants as a dangerous character. Bobby shows me his blue ’51 Chevy and a ’61 Chevy Impala, which he’s especially proud of because it was recently used in making a Hollywood movie, Blaze You Out. The moviemakers used several cars from Chimayó, including the Impala and some from Eppie’s shop.
I drive up N.M. 76 a few miles from Carmelito’s, admiring the views of the Santa Cruz Valley as it sweeps up through arid barrancas, or badlands, to the towering blue Sangre
de Cristos. I find my way up an obscure arroyo to another car customizing business in Chimayó. Bobby Chacón and his partners run this operation from the yard beside his double-wide trailer in Chimayó, a lot filled with a crazy assortment of old vehicles — the raw material for the polished products that will someday emerge. As I enter, I pass a 1950s-era dump truck with “Los Guys” painted on the door. I’ve heard of Los Guys but I’ve never known who they are. I’m about to find out. As I pull up to the trailer, Bobby and his cousin Chris Martinez come out to greet me. Then a shiny black 1950 Chevy bomb rumbles into the yard and Elmo Sánchez, from Velarde, emerges. The three introduce themselves and name the others who make up Los Guys, but before we can start to talk about their famous bombs, parked all around us, another car pulls up and a dignified, older Hispanic woman gets out and announces to me, “I’m the grandma, Bobby’s mom,” and hurries in to the home. Bobby explains that he has a new baby, only two days old, and he and the other Guys follow his mother inside to see the infant. “I’ll be right back,” Bobby apologizes; family has a high priority, even among the most fanatic lowrider creators. When Los Guys come back from the trailer, it’s all about cars again. Los Guys’ specialty is installing air bags that, like Eppie’s hydraulic systems, raise and lower cars. But as far as their own creations go, Los Guys are known for their bombs, and they roll out a few to show me. First Chris glides by in his dazzling 1953 Cadillac, painted a rich maroon color and restored meticulously. It gleams in the sun like a time capsule from a bygone era, as if it just rolled off the lot to the cool clinking of change in an LA high roller’s pocket. Next Elmo fires up his ’50 Chevy, a dark black beauty. He climbs out of the behemoth, opens the back door, and extracts a life-size Elmo doll. He rolls down the car
Inspired by the lowrider creations at Los Guys’ place, I resolve to visit one more enthusiast that I’ve heard of, Fred Rael, in Española. It’s only a few miles and a cruise through the old Santa Cruz plaza to get to Fred’s place, recognizable by the two large garages and the long, enclosed trailer he uses to haul cars to shows. As soon as I arrive at Fred’s, he asks if I’d like to go out on a cruise, and before long I find myself seated in a ’64 Chevy Impala convertible, floating through the tree-lined thoroughfares of Fairview with the deep bass from his massive car stereo resounding in my ears. Fred flips a switch on a console to raise the car a bit when we cross speed bumps, then lowers it again, effortlessly, when we hit smooth pavement. Fred has a passion for car shows and has been working hard on another Impala back home, in the trailer. The one we’re riding in is his “cruiser,” and he explains that it’s not nearly as fancy as his show car. I’m impressed nevertheless with the fine paint job, including the exquisite pinstriping, of our humble vehicle. We stop in front of the Santa Cruz church, built in the 1730s, one
Jody Garduño with his ‘63 Chevy Impala
Fred Rael with his son Lico
Lico Rael in his lowrider at the Española Plaza.
Los Guys and their bombs
Passing on the passion
2012 Bienvenidos 4 9
Bienvenidos 2012 Summer Guide to Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico