Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
ESPAÑOLA – A walk around Fred Rael’s Española home is like strolling through a museum of lowrider culture.
It starts with his two conjoined garages with walls covered in car show posters, license plates, rims and other relics from 40 years of lowriding. That’s also where he keeps two of his three vintage cars, a burnt orange 1967 Chevrolet Impala and a black 1994 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham.
His third, a white 1964 Impala convertible, sits in a trailer in the backyard. It isn’t far from about 10 run-down vehicles, most of which Rael says he bought when “parts were scarce” for old cars.
Inside the house, “best of show” trophies line Rael’s living room, where there are also framed covers of magazines like Lowrider and New Mexico Journey that feature him and his cars. Glass display cabinets hold memorabilia, from dozens of diecast models to movies and small themed toys.
Rael started collecting all of this stuff after he bought his first lowrider in 1979 at the age of 15. Since then, he has owned about 20.
When his eldest son was a kid, Rael recalled, if they would go to the store and see a lowrider toy, “I would buy him one, and then buy one for me to keep in the box.”
“I think I’m a little more obsessed than your average lowrider,” he said.
That’s only fitting for the chairman of the Lowrider Museum Coalition in a city that calls itself the “Lowrider Capital of the World.”
Last summer, shortly after the closing of the New Mexico History Museum’s popular “Lowriders, Hoppers, and Hot Rods: Car Culture of Northern New Mexico” exhibition, Rael began working with a nine-person team of car collectors, and city and Rio Arriba County officials to follow through on a long-standing dream of a museum honoring this culture.
Coalition members say the idea, which has been brought up many times over the years, finally has the support to become a reality. Funding from the state Department of Tourism’s Rural Pathway Project will match money from a nonprofit that is redeveloping Española’s old Hunter Ford Complex, providing seed money for the museum.
The state award, which requires members of the museum coalition to attend state-provided business development courses and turn in a development plan by early March, is for up to $50,000. The local match could make the total funding $100,000 as the museum heads toward a potential summer opening.
According to Christopher Madrid, Rio Arriba County’s economic development director and the lowrider coalition’s county representative, the state will decide how much to give based on the plan, which is supposed to outline short- and long-term goals in areas including visitor experience, desired audience, staffing and revenue opportunities.
Though ideas are still being solidified, Rael said the museum should attract both local aficionados and tourists. He knows there will be cars on display on a rotating basis – either inside the museum or outdoors – that there will be sections covering the lowrider culture’s history, information on custom hydraulics and pieces of lowrider art.
The coalition is currently acquiring estimates for exhibit costs. With members and others involved in the lowrider scene who may want to show off their cars, Rael said the community will provide plenty of exhibition materials.
“I’ve always said all you need to do is give us the building and we’ll fill it,” he said.
Issues that have been considered over the past few weeks, according to coalition vice chair and Deputy Ciy clerk Melissa Velasquez, include whether or not to charge admission and adding attractions like a lowrider simulator or a driving tour to nearby body shops or car owners’ studios. Coalition treasurer Bobby Chacon, a Chimayó resident who has been fixing up lowriders for 20 years, also wants to provide workshops on topics like hydraulics and paint jobs.
The museum will start small with the intention to expand as it becomes more established. It will be part of the Hunter Arts & Agricultural Complex, a $4.2 million project to transform an old car dealership on Paseo de Oñate in the heart of the city into an indoor and outdoor community center based around food, retail and events.
The plan includes a shipping container park designed for businesses such as small cafes, stores and exercise studios. The museum will start there. Rael said the coalition is in talks to occupy up to five connected containers.
Once the museum gets its footing, Velasquez said, it can move to the complex’s main building. She estimates that will take two to five years.
“We want them to grow in an organic, sustainable fashion,” said Roger Gonzales, president and CEO of Siete del Norte, the organization that is developing the complex and will provide the local funds to match the state grant. The nonprofit is affiliated with Phoenix-based Chicanos Por La Causa.
A separate goal for the site’s main building, the old car dealership structure, is to have a lowrider-themed restaurant as the anchor tenant. Gonzales said he’s been meeting with prospective restaurateurs.
For the coalition to keep its grant money, it needs to spend it by June 30. To meet the deadline, Gonzales said, Siete will break ground sometime before March 1 on what will likely be a multiphase construction process. If the project stays on schedule, he said, the museum can likely move in during early summer.
In addition to its potential $100,000, the coalition also has a grant application into the McCune Foundation for approximately $25,000.
Rael said telling the history of lowriding in the Española Valley through the decades will be one of the museum’s most important goals. He said that could be done through photographs, as well as taped interviews with locals reflecting on the scene’s heyday.
“There was no history years ago; we were still making the history at the time,” he said. “Now, it’s been going at least 40 to 50 years in the valley. There’s a long history now, and when you see people that used to cruise and they’ve already passed … there’s that history that’s going to be lost.”
Rael recalls a strong cruising scene from the 1970s until the early 2000s. Around that time a steady decline began, which he says was caused by the rising expense of fixing up old cars and a shift in interest to muscle cars.
The drop-off meant there were fewer new young aficianados to replace the older crowd of lowriders who, like Rael, started having families and other responsibilities. Rael himself has three children, ages 31, 20 and 10. “We can’t cruise every night until midnight like we used to,” he said.
Eventually, he started making his lowriders for car shows, which he says have stayed strong, rather than the street.
But Velasquez said she’s noticed a “resurgence” in interest over the past couple of years as something community members bond over. Chacon said the older car owners can now pass their passion on to their kids.
Chacon and Rael both described the lowrider community as one that is hardworking, and family- and friend-oriented, even though outsiders haven’t always seen that.
Negative “hearsay” has also surrounded Española itself, something Velasquez said the city wants to reframe with this project’s. Though the intention is to attract visitors, another crucial goal of the museum is to give residents a sense of identity and appreciation for their roots.
“It’s a positive thing, it’s a thing for the next generation to look up to,” Chacon said of lowriding.
“It’s not bad like all the stereotypes used to be. Every area has a culture they try to follow and keep up with, and in Española that’s what it is here.”