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Lowrider culture inspires series of short plays

SANTA FE, N.M. — Española, which often takes credit as being the “lowrider capital of the world,” may be logging another landmark in the culture: the first lowrider theatrical performance.

At least Megan Burns, executive director at Santa Fe Performing Arts, said she hasn’t been able to uncover any other published or otherwise recorded stage performance based on lowriders.

So “12 Switches,” a piece put together by students at Northern New Mexico College, may be the first when it premieres Saturday at the college, with a follow-up performance Sunday at the New Mexico History Museum.

“We’re really superproud of the students,” Burns said, explaining that 17 students wrote the piece last semester; it had a reading in December at the History Museum in connection with its current exhibition, “Lowriders, Hoppers and Hot Rods: Car Culture of Northern New Mexico.”

This semester, another 19 students took the script and developed a fully staged production to present it on stage, she said. Few changes were made to the script put together in the fall, with its dozen vignettes presented as independent storylines while keeping the cultural theme throughout.

Students developed the stories by visiting and interviewing people active in the lowrider culture in northern New Mexico, through which they learned about aspects of the culture that reflected both oppression and rebellion, Burns said.

Fred Rael is shown in "Boulevard Legend," a 1964 Chevrolet, in Española, in this 2003 photo by Jim Arndt. (Courtesy of NM History Museum)

Fred Rael is shown in “Boulevard Legend,” a 1964 Chevrolet, in Española, in this 2003 photo by Jim Arndt. (Courtesy of NM History Museum)

While many of the students grew up around lowriders, she added, she was a little surprised to discover that most of them were not actively involved in it. “We found this generation was not as committed to lowrider culture as their parents or grandparents,” she said.

The project got its start when Meredith Davidson, curator of the 19th and 20th Century Southwest Collection at the History Museum, asked Santa Fe Performing Arts to develop a theatrical piece involving the lowrider culture in conjunction with the upcoming exhibit. The organization, which does a lot of after-school programs for youth, also has a Play It Forward project each year or two, developed in cooperation with an organization that may not have the resources to make its voice heard, focusing on northern New Mexico and Santa Fe.

This lowrider performance is that current Play It Forward project; the previous one focused on the stories of children in foster care, Burns said.

In this case, the collaboration brought in Northern New Mexico College and theater instructor Jonah Winn-Lenetsky, who is co-directing the performance with Burns.

“I really think they’ve done a good job of highlighting the focus, dedication and passion you really have to have to do anything fully,” she said of the students’ exploration of lowriders.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about the culture,” she said, which led some people to discourage their children from getting involved with it. “But it’s really been about creative expression.”

She said the students do a good job showing the issues of what people go through in dedicating themselves to remaking their cars into their dream images, and the positive impact such work has had on the Española Valley region.

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