Fred Rael moved to Española in 1977. He bought his first lowrider in 1979 at age 15, the year before he got his driver’s license, and he’s built about 20 more lowriders since.
Now in his 50s, Rael is the chairman of an effort to cement the lowrider legacy in Española, the self-described lowrider capital of the world.
The Española Lowrider Museum Coalition – a group of lowrider enthusiasts, city representatives and others – started meeting a few months ago, following the success of the recent “Lowriders, Hoppers and Hot Rods” exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe.
The coalition’s hope is to establish a museum that will serve as a lasting testament to the culture of the low-slung customized vehicles. It also hopes to convince tourists to make a stop in town and not just pass through while traveling between Santa Fe and Taos.
“If you go to Roswell, Roswell is famous for the alien sighting. Whether people believe it or not, they gravitate toward that museum in Roswell because that’s what their expectation is,” Rael said. “Roswell is famous for aliens. And Española is famous for lowriders.”
Española City Manager Mark Trujillo said the idea of a lowrider museum has generated a lot of interest around town. The city has appointed a liaison to the committee, and Trujillo goes to the monthly meetings to keep up on the status of the project.
“The excitement and the passion and the individuals they’ve brought together, it’s just amazing. It’s going to happen,” Trujillo said. “We’ll help however we can.”
Melissa Velasquez, the deputy city clerk and vice chair of the coalition, said the group is in the process of determining whether it wants to become a nonprofit or whether it would rather try and partner with an already established nonprofit. After that bit is figured out, the coalition hopes to start applying for grants or seeking donations and find a space for the museum.
Rael said he hopes that by next spring, the museum will have some kind of presence, even if it’s only a storefront.
Velasquez doesn’t build lowriders herself, but grew up watching them cruise the streets of Española or drive by on Good Fridays while pilgrims made the Easter procession to Chimayó. She said the benefit of the museum could go beyond financial impact.
“I think this would restore the confidence of the community – the overall pride and reassurance of cultural identity,” she said. “I think a lot of people recognize that and want something to be a part of and to identify with.”
The heyday of Española’s lowrider scene – the late ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s – brought hundreds of lowriders out to Riverside Drive on Friday and Saturday nights, Rael remembered. He and Velasquez agreed that the trend started to die down in the early 2000s.
Rael said he isn’t exactly sure why that is, but he suspects the stories of other drivers mirror his own: They had kids, settled down and had less time to spend on cars.
“Now that most of us are at that age where our kids are grown, we’re back,” he said.
Rael said he doesn’t anticipate that the golden days of lowriders will return. But he’s hopeful that establishing a lasting testimony to the lowrider culture, hosting more events and cruising just for the fun of it will both help get more cars on the streets and encourage young people to get interested.
And he’s seen it start to work. In March, Rael and other members of the Española lowrider circuit started cruising on Sunday nights. Other people have started to join in, he said, even the younger crowd.
If nothing else, the museum is an effort to preserve a long-established cultural and artistic tradition in the Española Valley.
“If we were to stop right now and all of the lowriders – we didn’t show them anymore or ride them anymore – we’d still have decades of history in this valley,” Rael said. “All of that history, it should be displayed somewhere. It shouldn’t be forgotten.”
Contact Edge at (505) 986-3055 or email@example.com. This story was first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sister publication of The Taos News.