Pride in their ride
Lowriders gear up for higher ground--namely, respect for their craftsmanship


By Rose Spinelli. 
Published September 8, 2002

It is a sweltering summer evening and the sun beats down hard on David Espinoza as he slowly cruises the gentrified streets of Wicker Park in his shiny black 1964 Chevy Impala SS convertible, taking in the rubbernecking pedestrians with aplomb. He appears dwarfed behind the wheel of his capacious car, but when he hits the switches on a mechanized "joystick" panel, it becomes clear that Espinoza is master of his machine.

The switches enable Espinoza to control the motions of almost every surface area of his car. One switch makes the front end jiggle high up; another makes the back end creep way down. Yet another commands the car to slouch to the left, pitching the right side up in the air like a seesaw. Each switch causes the car to creak and bounce as though Espinoza were electronically breathing life into it. When he finally parks, he slowly eases the car frame down, flush with the asphalt.

The "low and slow" carriage of Espinoza's vehicle easily identifies it as a lowrider, in which an elaborate hydraulic system allows the height of the car to be controlled by installing a reinforced frame and adjustable suspension. But it is the chrome plaque proudly displayed in Espinoza's window and identifying it by name that speaks to a deeper affiliation.

Pura Familia--"pure family" in Spanish--is a lowrider club that Espinoza, a Chicago restaurateur, and seven original members founded about a year ago. Together they have taken the high road in lowriding by uniting under their family-based philosophy.

Historically, lowriding has gotten little respect. Dating back to the Chicano community of Los Angeles in the 1940s, it has carried the stigma of street gangs and drugs. "The image is that we're all thuggish and bad-mouthed--and some still are," says the 36-year-old Espinoza, who wants Pura Familia members to be known mainly for their quality craftsmanship. "We work hard for our cars."

Espinoza's brother, Rene, 26 is a member, but the club is not limited to relatives. "When David first talked about forming a club we decided it shouldn't be about being related by blood," says Arturo Martin, 31, a computer engineer. "It's more of a friendship that you have to acquire before you can be part of it."

Martin says they turn down the majority of aspirants. "If they're riding with your plaque, you have to be picky," he says. Applicants are first meticulously vetted by the group and then put on a 90-day probation. Unanimous approval is required for final acceptance in the club.

On holidays the club volunteers its time and donates to food drives and other charities, all in the spirit of "doing something positive." On cruise nights, the guys take their wives and children for family picnics. So when Pura Familia members speak of "getting bagged," you can be sure they're not talking about inebriation; they're referring to replacing their older-style hydraulic cylinders with updated air bags. "Getting off" is not what you think, either; it's a measure of the inches you can "hop" your car off the ground. (The record is in the range of 50 to 60.)

Lowriding has always been a symbol of ethnic pride, but it is also a powerful medium for artistic and even religious expression. The cars display a variety of forms and styles, including images of sacred icons, and most incorporate such details as brightly colored "candy" paints. The upholstery can be plush, with tuck-and-roll velvet interiors, and the cars are so fully "chromed out" that you can see yourself on many of the engine parts. Under the hood are high-power intakes, carburetors and exhaust systems.

The outlay for these dramatic alterations can run as high as $50,000. The work is often farmed out to professional detailers, for painting and chroming, but many useful skills are passed around among devotees. Lowriders also tend to combine their hobby with their professional skills. Rene Espinoza, for example, is a certified welder and has worked as an audio equipment installer.

Rene, who has more than 95 "best in show" trophies, says, "You can go crazy with it. I've put actual chandeliers on the ceiling, custom-cut mirrors, love seats in the back, home stereo systems. We used to put TVs in cars when it wasn't even popular."

Copyright 2002, Chicago Tribune


Copyright 2001 Pura Familia Car Club. All rights reserved.