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The lowrider community wants all of California to join San Jose and end cruising bans

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's a growing push to decriminalize lowrider cruising across California. These classic cars have been a form of art for generations, especially for Mexican American communities. Mary Franklin Harvin from member station KQED reports from San Jose, which recently scrapped its decades-old cruising ban.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARY FRANKLIN HARVIN, BYLINE: On a warm Friday night, just south of downtown San Jose, it's easy to tell which house belongs to Anthony Perez.

ANTHONY PEREZ: Working on a '64 Impala.

HARVIN: His friend's azure aqua Chevy Impala is spilling out of the driveway into the sidewalk, and oldies are echoing from a turntable. Perez works in government welfare during the day, but his passions are rare vinyl and his 1962 two-door hardtop Impala, white with red interior.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE STARTING)

HARVIN: And tonight, we're headed to Santa Clara Street in downtown San Jose.

PEREZ: As you can see, I mean, you're in here, you get behind this big old wheel, and you go slow. Weather's perfect. Like, what else - you know, doesn't get much better than that for me.

HARVIN: The Impala is a boat of a car, and people give delighted double takes as we pass.

PEREZ: See, it's like a carnival ride.

HARVIN: We barely break 25 miles an hour. And it kind of feels like we're in our own parade.

PEREZ: Everybody's your friend when you're driving this.

HARVIN: For the most part, when people talk about cruising, they describe laid-back Sunday afternoons and low-key, family-friendly outings. This is why lowriders like Perez say the cruising ban wasn't about keeping roadways safer.

PEREZ: There's existing laws for not blocking traffic or driving recklessly, so what else could it be besides them trying to marginalize a community or making laws against something that they don't understand?

HARVIN: Until the ban was unanimously overturned back in June, it had been in place since 1986. Dulce Fernandez is part of a lowrider group that worked to overturn the ban, and she says it was an oppressive force.

DULCE FERNANDEZ: And you instinctively grow up looking over your shoulder because you are identifying yourself within the culture. You're identifying yourself as being Latin.

JOHN ULLOA: Its origins are in the barrio experience of the southwestern region of the United States.

HARVIN: John Ulloa is a professor of history and anthropology at San Francisco State University.

ULLOA: So if you're targeting lowriding, by default, you're targeting Mexicans.

HARVIN: Ulloa actually teaches a class on the history of lowriding as part of his school's Latina/Latino Studies program.

ULLOA: If we talk about lowriding in its origins, then very quickly, we can talk about the criminalization of an aesthetic, systemic racism, stereotyping, stripping people of their civil liberties for expressing themselves under the First Amendment of the Constitution.

HARVIN: Still, some law enforcement in San Jose aren't happy with the repeal. The police department wouldn't make Chief Anthony Mata available for an interview. But right before the city council voted to repeal, he told them about his concerns with lowrider gatherings during celebrations like Cinco de Mayo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY MATA: Unfortunately, yeah, there's individuals in cars that take over a shopping center - right? - and do loiter. They do drink. Drugs are there, and there's violence. And it does impact our community. It impacts our business.

HARVIN: Elsewhere in California, Sacramento's cruising ban has also come down recently. And organizers in San Diego County's National City are working towards their own repeal. There's also a move in the state legislature to protect cruising statewide.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DRIVING AWAY)

HARVIN: For Americans, cars have always represented freedom and self-expression. Lowriders are part of this history.

PEREZ: Oh, there he is. What's up?

HARVIN: Back on Santa Clara Street, Anthony Perez says lowriding is so much more than just a hobby.

PEREZ: My mom met my dad cruising, so I guess it's in my blood.

HARVIN: It's part of his origin story.

PEREZ: My mom was out cruising with her friends, and my dad was out cruising with his friends, and they stopped at Jack in the Box. And they met, and the rest was history.

HARVIN: So, Perez says, he was born to be behind the wheel.

For NPR News, I'm Mary Franklin Harvin in San Jose.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAR SONG, "LOW RIDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Franklin Harvin