I saw these words the other day, decalled onto the rear window of a souped-up, black, late-model Suburban -Westbound on Highway 90, just off the I-35 South intersection, near downtown San Antonio- layered over a silver silhouette of our downmarket city’s unprepossesing skyline. The semiotics -hard at work on the darkly tinted window- would seem to indicate that for all practical purposes, San Antonio is a happenin place to chill. Or so the Suburban’s gangsta’d-up Latino owner would like it to be.
The sport rims (silver, wide-spoked), the detailed paint job around the base of the body (stylized red flames), the thumping bass, and the gold chains around the driver’s neck, all took me back to 1992-93, when I produced a TV documentary on San Antonio Low Riders that aired on several stations throughout the PBS network.
In that documentary, Low And Slow, I interviewed a slew of characters iconic to the San Antonio Low Rider community at the time, a multigenerational, rag-tag assortment of individuals, who invariably, at least on air, denied any gang-like involvement or activity; which I later found, could be a rather disingenious assumption.
One of the more revealing aspects of the interviews I conducted, was the constant reference to the car clubs and low riders in California, where, as everyone ruefully ascertained, the Holy Grail for perfomance-enhancing auto parts could be found. Alas, no dependable hydraulics or 120 decibel subwoofers were available here. They were however, plentiful over there.
Just a little of your average, everyday, basic, home-grown, hood-ornament envy. Viagra for the Vehicle, if you will, abounded in the golden shores of LA, but not in the hoods of SA (much could be read into this if anyone would care to extrapolate).
I took these assertions of auto-part inadequacy at face value, and for years bought into the argument that the lack of auto-retail resources in San Antonio, gave the Westerly Vatos in LA an edge in the Thumping-Humping world of Lowriding.
I really felt bad for our guys. Not anymore. Not much anyway.
In the past few years I have spent a good amount of time in California, casually observing rituals and life-patterns of West-Coast denizens; white, black, brown and yellow. What has become clear to me is that yes, Californios in general have a few more toys and toy stores to choose from, but the biggest difference is that they are decidedly more industrious. Be it working, playing, politicking, building cars, or what not, they do it with focus and commitment, and are not much into waiting around for their environment to change, or into complaing about a lack of resources. They create change and avail themselves of resources.
Activism is what first comes to mind when appraising the cultural idiosyncracies of Latino communities in California. Activism in politics, the arts, enterprise, agriculture and migration. Organized activism is the base tenor that defines these folks. Energy and determination are perceived as necessary assets for individuals and communities in the harsh, highly competitive California communities, where adaptation and change are the daily bread, and Chillin is not, in any way, a commodity of value.
But apparently, in San Antonio, Chillin is a commodity worthy of everyone’s investment. We take pride in our rides as much as we take pride in our coolers full of ice-cold Buds, Shiners, Millers, et al. Oftentimes the Chillin pride is geared into overdrive, roaring past the ride pride. I frequently found this to be the case when discussing the craft of pimping rides with SA’s auto locos, where hanging out with friends and beer usually got in the way of installing hydraulics, layering a third coat of paint, or upholstering the interiors. The result in many cases, specifically where the backyard pimpers were involved (many of them mechanics by trade or avocation who actually do the auto work themselves), was that at any given time, a number of cars were strewn around the yard in half-baked incarnations; would-be contenders haplessly waiting for their time to shine.
Since pimping a ride is in fact an expensive proposition, many of the finest-looking, souped-up vehicles one can see in SA car shows are owned by relatively well-to-do, middle-aged and older, men, who contract most of the work done on their cars with specialty shops. A few of them actually tinker with lesser details such as detail cleaning or changing spark plugs, but they do not have the personal inclination, the time, the know-how or the commitment to substantially alter their vehicles to show-car standards.
Of course, rich folks being rich folks, this is also the case elsewhere, where vehicle customizing is a habitual priapic ritual of the Nouveau. Except that for the most part, in the West Coast, the backyard pimpers turn out vehicles comparable in quality to the wealthy-owner, specialty-shop vehicles in SA, and the shop cars in the West Coast are in a class all of their own, an order of magnitude above the high-end finishes one can see in shows here.
To be fair and impartial, and because I do have a sense of pride about being a resident Texan, it is my understanding that as a result of the important hip-hop scene in Houston, the performance-enhanced rides in that city are a sight to behold. But again confirming the argument I’m making, the quality of Houston’s pimped rides is indicative of the industrious, competitive cultural environment of a city not prone to much Chillin.
Maybe our SA vatos are quicker to recognize the superiority of West Coast rides, because California is farther away than Houston, and it is discomfiting to accept that folks just a couple of hours East of us, who could as well invoke the same lack-of-auto-parts-in-Texas excuse -and don’t, can actually produce such outstanding examples of custom rides.
Interesting to note is that, even in what appears to be a narrow, homogeneous cultural subset comprised of folks who engage in the pursuit and perfection of custom cars and low riders, the disparities between communities are such that they belie deep-seated traits endemic to the cultural identity and pride of each city.
In the more committed and competitive social, cultural, and economic environments, Chillin is what one enjoys AFTER doing one’s work.
In laid back SA, Chillin is all we do.
Since our rides aren’t ready, it’s what drives our pride.
It is what it is, and there’s not much we can do.