SAO PAULO, Brazil » Jose Americo Crippa’s 1974 Chevrolet Monte Carlo boasts just about every feature that a lowrider should have, including dazzling chrome wheels, a sliding ragtop roof, a candy-apple red paint job and hydraulic pumps that enable the vehicle to bounce several feet in the air at the press of a button.
"I’m pimping it," said Crippa, 41.
With a knowing smile, Crippa, a businessman who owns a carwash and a hamburger restaurant, jokingly acknowledged that his pimping extended only to the restoration and customization of vintage automobiles. He peppers his Portuguese with his own interpretation of the street slang of the Mexican-American subculture rooted in East Los Angeles.
And he tries to look the part, too, down to barrio-chic details like his footwear, a pair of Nike Cortez track shoes, and the 8-ball tattoo on his forearm.
The spread of this seemingly distant subculture, with Brazilian followers calling themselves "cholos" and cruising around in their low-and-slow automobiles, is raising eyebrows here in South America’s largest city. Some who cannot afford to buy vintage cars and customize them into lowriders simply roam Sao Paulo’s labyrinthine streets at the helm of bicycles accessorized with high-rise handlebars and banana seats.
Even when they just strut around in oversize khaki shorts and white muscle shirts, they speak to something larger: the global fluidity of conceptions of ethnicity, identity and style, propelling a street culture once so closely tied to the borderlands of the United States and Mexico well beyond its birthplace.
Japanese musicians, for instance, are rapping in astonishingly precise Spanglish. Lowrider Volvos can be glimpsed on England’s country roads. Rap pioneers like Spanky Loco have cult followings in places like Barcelona, the Catalan capital in northeast Spain. In New Zealand, Maori youths on lowrider bicycles are recording music videos featuring a posse of men in flannel shirts and smiling women washing down vintage American cars.
"It’s kind of ironic because if some of these imitators are dropped into parts of LA, the cops could arrest them or the gangs could roll up on them," said Denise Sandoval, a professor of Chicano studies at the Northridge campus of California State University. "But the digital culture we’re in facilitates this fascination with LA’s urban culture, and it’s gaining momentum."
Sandoval, who studies the spread of the subculture around the world, said she was amazed when a friend, Estevan Oriol, a photographer who documents California’s street cultures, returned from a trip to Sao Paulo with photographs of lowriders in seemingly pristine condition, along with their proud owners.
In some ways, Sao Paulo might seem to be a good place for a hard-edge lowrider scene to flourish. Parts of the traffic-choked megacity, with a metropolitan population of about 20 million, make the sprawl of Los Angeles seem somewhat quaint in comparison. Graffiti murals decorate elevated highways and asphalted river canals.
Still, the adoption of the lifestyle in Sao Paulo, which already encompasses hundreds of people involved in car clubs, bicycle shops and homegrown fashion labels, reflects immigration patterns and issues of ethnic identity that stand in sharp contrast to those in the United States.
The word "cholo" itself has a contentious history. In the Spanish colonial era, it was a derogatory term for some indigenous people, and by the 19th century it was used in the United States to demean Mexican laborers and some mixed-raced people, according to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Latinos and Latinas in the United States.
By the 20th century, the term "cholo" shifted to refer to people associated with a gang, or to those who simply copied their aesthetics and style, implying "a refusal to assimilate" into the dominant mainstream culture, the encyclopedia explains. Today, the term is deplored by some and embraced by others.
In Brazil, however, lowriders and the aesthetics of Mexican-American street culture took a different route, one that sometimes passed through another country first. "I saw my first lowriders in Japan, and I was immediately fascinated by their allure," said Sergio Hideo Yoshinaga, 43, the owner of a garage in Sao Paulo where motorists pay hefty amounts, sometimes reaching more than $100,000, to have their cars transformed into curb-crawling masterpieces.
Yoshinaga is one of thousands of Brazilians, most of whom are descended from Japanese immigrants, who moved to Japan in the 1990s in search of relatively well-paying factory jobs. He stayed only about a year. That was long enough, Yoshinaga said, to be immersed in a scene big enough to support an array of car clubs and a Japanese edition of Lowrider Magazine.
"I was a pioneer when I returned to Sao Paulo," Yoshinaga said. "Now there are these third-rate imitators here, saying they’re cholo-this and cholo-that," he said. "Some think they can buy into the culture with their money." He dismissed such aspirants as mere posers.
The perception of authenticity here does come at a price, explaining, perhaps, why many in the scene come from solid middle-class backgrounds. A pair of Dickies work pants, an essential part of the wardrobe, costs about $20 in the United States but can go for well over $50 in Brazil. Add in the prices of imported shoes, hairnets and flannel shirts and the expenses go even higher.
Buying a car made in Brazil, even if it is used, is often at least twice as expensive as in the United States, largely because of taxes. Then there are the additional prohibitive duties on imported cars, like the 1970s Oldsmobile Cutlasses or Buick Regals that are coveted by lowrider clubs not only in Brazil but also around the world. And gasoline is considerably more expensive in Brazil than in the United States, averaging more than $5 a gallon, largely because of heavy taxes.
Even so, Sao Paulo’s lowrider devotees find a way, relating tales of traveling to the United States on buying missions to bring back hydraulic-pump systems, tire rims and cans of candy-tone automotive paint in their luggage, all the while praying that customs agents will not discover their precious cargo.
"I was incredibly impressed by how resourceful they are," said Phuong-Cac Nguyen, a journalist from Los Angeles who is making a documentary about the subculture in Brazil. "These guys face obstacles at every turn, but that’s where their jeitinho comes into play," she said, employing a beloved word used in Brazil to describe the circumvention of rules to get things done.
Some in Sao Paulo’s circles take their dedication to a new level. Antonio Carlos Batista Filho, 47, a blue-eyed clothing designer whose nickname is Alemao, or German, has been immersed in the subculture since the early 1990s, after watching American movies about California gang life.
Batista Filho said he had now amassed a collection of posters, paintings, movies and clothing that he hopes will form the basis of Sao Paulo’s first museum of what he called "cholo culture." He is encouraged, he explained, by the entrance into the scene here of young Spanish-speaking immigrants from neighboring countries.
Sao Paulo’s newest self-described "cholos" largely come from Bolivia, a poorer neighbor that has become one of Brazil’s largest sources of immigrants. In a development somewhat reminiscent of the migration of Mexicans to the United States over the last century, thousands of Bolivians have recently put down stakes in Sao Paulo in search of work.
Some of them find in the city’s scene an avenue of self-expression. Tomas Cahuana Huanca, 27, a Bolivian who works in the city’s garment industry, rides his lowrider bicycle, which he designed himself, around Sao Paulo’s old center. He said that some "cholos" here were involved in gangs, but not many.
"That’s more in Mexico and some in the United States," Huanca said. "The culture here is really about the bikes, the cars, the style."