Lowriders riders part of proud, political Mexican-Amercan culture

The lowriders are a crowd favorite at Bay Area parades and events. They've been a part of San Francisco and Mission District culture for decades, but there is also a social and political history behind the custom cars.

"I feel proud, that I can do something to just make people smile," said Roberto Hernandez. 

He owns a lowrider himself, and was born and raised in the Mission District. Hernandez founded the San Francisco Lowrider Council in 1980.

The colorful cars customized to bump, bounce and glide down city streets "low and slow" as the saying goes, are cultural icons in Western U.S. cities, especially Los Angeles and San Francisco. The cars often include motifs and designs in their custom paint jobs, that are an expression of Mexican-American identity.

"Lowriding is a Latino invention. It's part of our culture, it's part of our DNA," he said. "Lowriding is an art-form. It takes time, money and love."

If the car was the canvas, 24th and Mission streets were the gallery.

For decades, the lowriders cruised those neighborhood streets on weekends, to showcase their artwork: "It was a total parade, every Friday and Saturday night," Hernandez said.

But like the Mexican-American community itself, the lowriders faced negative stereotypes and discrimination.

In 1958, California law made it illegal to operate a car modified to sit lower than the wheel rims. The lowrider community responded by adding hydraulics, to lift their custom cars with the flick of a switch - and avoid citations or arrests.

Hernandez said that despite those measures, police in San Francisco would regularly arrest lowriders for cruising in the mission. Hernandez said he was arrested 113 times. The citations and arrests prompted him to form the San Francisco Lowrider Council, and begin organizing protests against the police citations.

"When we started protesting, that's when it got worse," Hernandez said. "They [San Francisco Police] brought out the riot squad. I met with then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein and the Chief of Police. Everyone agreed our civil rights were being violated, but nobody was doing anything about it."

The lowrider council filed a civil rights lawsuit against the City of San Francisco and its police department, and won.

"That was the beginning of the movement, knowing that when we organize, we can create change," Hernandez said.

Since then, the group has been involved and active in other social movements - advocating for the Latino community on issues like Immigration and police brutality.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lowrider Council opened the Mission Food Hub to help feed hundreds of Mission district families. The group raised and delivered 70,000 pounds of food to feed farm workers in the Central Valley.

"This is a community that has made a tremendous impact," said Mayor London Breed at a community celebration, marking 40 years since the Lowrider Council was formed.

Sometimes, Hernandez says he can't believe how much perceptions about the lowriders have changed in the past 40 years.

"Before it was looked at as something people didn't want to associate with, like 'Oh, those are bad boys'. Now, it has turned into something so beautiful that's respected as an artform and admired around the world," Hernandez said.

It gives him and other lowriders a sense of pride, and a feeling that after cruising all these years, they've finally arrived.