In Southern California, a distinct growl of car engines are heard on the boulevards, led not by stereotypically macho characters often portrayed in street-racing films like Fast and Furious, but by women — with as much style and swagger — who once felt marginalized in the car culture scene.
"We used to be known as ‘passenger princesses,’ but now we’re running the show,” Sandy Avila, 40, leader of Lady Lowriders, a six-member all-women car club in Pasadena, Calif., founded in 2021, says. “We want people to know how much the scene has grown and how much positivity we’re pushing in it. It's less about speed, and all about family, community and giving back."
On the weekends, Avila leaves a full-time job managing her family’s construction business to go cruising in her ‘84 Cutlass Supreme. The mother of four purchased the car in 2018, and has since reworked the suspensions and added hydraulics to "give it a little extra something-something.”
“I’ve always had a thing for cars,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment. “My dad used to fix lowriders, so it’s been part of my DNA since I was a baby.”
Historically, car clubs (groups of people who share a love for custom cars and a passion for lowriding) have been predominantly led by men, with the exception of a few, such as Lady Bugs Car Club, an all-women club of V.W. Bug drivers founded in the 1970s, and Black Widows Car Club, founded in 2000. But in recent years, a string of newly-founded car clubs, led mostly by Mexican American mothers, have found opportunities to celebrate their heritage while also shifting the misconceptions people have about lowriding, which many say is largely due to how it's portrayed in film and TV.
"Hollywood put a label on us, portraying us as gangsters, always with their cars," says Angel Romero, 44, leader of the Bay Area-based all-women car club Dueñas, founded in 2019. "I was on a radio station one time and we had a caller who said, 'Do I have to be in a gang to have a lowrider?' We laughed it off, but it's something that people generally think. And we've done a lot of work to change that."
Portrayals of women in car films are also changing, she adds, though not as fast as she'd like. In decades past, women would typically fall under a "femme fatale" archetype, she explains, often with "fast car chase scenes" representing a "life on the run or from danger" — like Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and the pairing of Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louis (1991).
In recent years, however, women have been portrayed as skilled drivers (better than the men, in many cases) and the lead protagonists, in franchises like Mad Max: Fury Road and Fast & Furious, the latter of which stars Michelle Rodriguez as Letty Ortiz, a street racer and mechanic at the center of the series.
"I think they nailed it with her character attributes," Romero says of Rodriguez. Still, "I would love to see more movies about women in lowriding on the big screen. We've taken it above and beyond, and it's time for Hollywood to take it the rest of the way.
"Our youngest member is 22 years old and just graduated with a degree in criminal justice, so how's that for changing the persona of who lowriders are?" she says.
In the last year alone, Dueñas raised tens of thousands of dollars for breast cancer, donated hundreds of toys to foster youth and has organized various drives to help people experiencing homelessness.
That mission is a group effort. Other lowriding legends like Debbie "Diamond" Flores, a 53-year-old hospice nurse and leader of the Inland Empire-based Latin Queens, an all-women car club founded in 2021, says women are taking the tradition "back to its roots" of community service.
"People think we’re gang members or something, which is absolutely not true," she says. "We may have tattoos, but we're all professionals. My vice president is a second-grade teacher, one of my girls is a correctional officer and her arms are just all done up. You can’t judge someone by their looks because we're making a move out here, we really are. We're family. We build each other up.
"We've adopted a shelter for battered women and children and we have two shelters for homeless sex trafficking teenage victims," Flores, who drives a '58 Chevrolet Biscayne, says of her group's work.
In August, Flores and Romero will receive an “Icons in Lowriding” award for their respective clubs' service.
'The future of lowriding'
Lowriders, classic or vintage model cars that have been modified to sit as close to the ground as possible through a variety of customization techniques, became an integral part of Chicano culture (people of Mexican descent who are born in the United States) soon after the post-World War II era, when returning servicemen took to modifying their cars as a form of self-expression.
As Denise Sandoval, professor of Chicana/o studies at California State University, Northridge, tells Yahoo Entertainment, the two have been intrinsically linked since the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, when Chicano artists created politically-motivated murals in their neighborhoods depicting the injustices happening at the time — from housing and employment discrimination/segregation to police brutality, language suppression and immigration policies.
"That inspired more riders to put murals on their own cars," she explains. "Cars became a source of cultural pride" and an opportunity for others to "build a sense of community with car clubs."
From murals of Mexican saints to political messages written in Spanish in bright colors conveying their cultural heritage, lowriders have become a symbol of identity and resilience in the Mexican American community.
To that end, Sandoval explains, the idea of "giving back" has always been a vital part of the scene. "I've seen flyers going back all the way to the '60s of clubs doing Toys for Tots drives and community drives," she says. "What these clubs are doing today is nothing new but I think what we're seeing now is women taking a more central role in the culture."
That part is new, she says.
"A new generation is taking up leadership roles and trying to change their communities, but more importantly, they're really challenging these ideas of what women can do, in particularly women of color," she adds. “They are the future of lowriding.”
Women leaders like Flores, who grew up in the scene alongside her late uncle Danny Flores, a well-known lowrider and Chicano activist, are helping in those efforts, noting the feeling she gets when little girls watch her cruising the boulevard in her '58 Chevy Biscayne.
"It makes me so prideful," she says. "When you drive down the street with your vehicle and all you get are these thumbs up, thumbs up, thumbs up, it's an incredible feeling."
Romero, who drives a '65 Chevy Impala, is eager to pass along the tradition to her nieces, something she's especially proud of.
"It's a second full-time job sometimes during the summer, and in the winter with all the toy drives," says Romero, who works a finance job during the weekdays. "They say if you love what you do, you don't work a day in your life. And I love lowriding. It's my life."