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Challenging stereotypes: Utah lowrider community a source of culture, family

Lowriding has been a lifelong passion for Salt Lake native Nick Peck. It was love at first sight when he saw his first lowrider, a ‘66 Caprice, at 6 years old

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Ezequiel “Cheque” Songer rides his lowrider bicycle at a winter lowrider bicycle show at Salt Lake Community College on Tuesday. Lowriding in Utah is much more than just a car; it’s a culture, art form, an education and a family.

Sydnee Gonzalez, KSL.com

Lowriding has been a lifelong passion for Salt Lake native Nick Peck. It was love at first sight when he saw his first lowrider, a '66 Caprice, at 6 years old.

"Here comes this car coming down the street," he said. "He laid it on the ground and it just emitted a shower of sparks. I didn't recognize it, but I was just transfixed. My grandfather told me later in life, he said, 'I knew that night, that's when they ruined you.'"

The artistic, flashy nature of lowriders didn't appeal to Peck's grandfather, a mechanic who had grown up during the Great Depression and who viewed cars as a purely practical matter. But the two inevitably bonded over their shared love of cars.

"My grandfather used to come out and shake his head, but he was proud of what we'd done," Peck said. "He would love it when he could get involved when we were doing mechanical stuff. We would call him because they're all older cars and he knew those cars like the back of his hand."

Peck set multiple world records in competitive lowrider "hopping" in the '90s and 2000s and owns his own auto shop, where he builds, transports and sells cars and parts. Today Peck shares lowriding with his two daughters.

That family-centered focus is typical of lowriding in general, but it's especially strong in Utah. For those in the community, lowriding is much more than just a car; it's a culture, an art form, an education and a family.

"For me, lowriding culture, it goes really deep into the history of generations — of families, uncles, cousins, dads, brothers. It's never ending," said Mel Garcia, a Utah lowrider pioneer who has been lowriding since 1976.

Xris Macias, who grew up around lowriding in Utah and got his own vehicles a few years ago, said lowriding goes beyond just building connections.

"It's not just about having the vehicle itself but being connected to that culture as a whole. I really identify with it as a Chicano living in Salt Lake City," Macias said. "There's an element of decriminalizing a lot of what's happening and keeping kids out of incarceration and drugs, learning about your history, your culture, your identity and being positive as a whole."

Challenging stereotypes

Lowriding has typically been portrayed negatively in mainstream media, which in turn led to public misconceptions about the community.

"I remember watching movies in the '80s and '90s and every time you saw somebody lowriding, it usually had some sort of negative aspect. It was somebody who was a criminal, somebody who's an ex-con. That's the kind of imagery that was presented when the reality was actually very different," Macias said.

"That perception is starting to change," he continued. "There's even local police departments who used to be the ones putting a stop to the culture that are now trying to build their own vehicles or trying to be involved in the community more and more."

Utah lowriders have worked hard to bring about that change by building positive relationships with law enforcement and putting an emphasis on community work, including anti-drug and gang education events for youth, fundraisers for churches and Little League, and free community events.

"We're involved with law enforcement just to show them that this is who we are. This is who we represent and when you see a car club plaque, it doesn't affiliate itself with a gang," Garcia said, adding that the community has a zero-tolerance policy.

"Lowriding as a whole — whether it be with cars or bikes or just a representation of the cultural identity — is a well-rounded education," Macias said, adding that it teaches everything from STEM and financial responsibility to patience, discipline and the importance of family.

Nine-year-old Ezequiel "Cheque" Songer is a testament to lowriding's impact on the community's youth. Ezequiel has been building cars with his dad since he was 5 and before that, his dad used to put on lowrider videos to help him stop crying as a baby. He said lowriding has helped him stay out of trouble.

"People think that lowriding is just to show off your car," he said. "I like hopping all the cars, looking at them and making them. ... I also taught a couple more kids about lowriders"

The benefits of lowriding extend to adults, too. Connie Medina-Escholt got into lowriding after experiencing depression following the death of her 3-month-old daughter.

"When I'm feeling down and it's like, 'Let's go cruise,' or I could call a member and be like, 'Hey, it's a nice day, let's go cruise,' and that helps me with my depression," she said. "The lowrider community, they are a family. If somebody needs help, somebody's in an accident, they need help with their bills or somebody's car got ragged — we're gonna raise that money, we're gonna help, we're gonna do whatever we need to do."

A growing community

Although Utah's lowrider community isn't as big as it is in states like California, Arizona and Texas — those in the community say they can go head to head with larger states.

"It's growing every day," Macias said. "We're a force to be reckoned with for sure."

Pioneers in the community take pride in how much the community has grown since the '60s and '70s.

"The culture here and the Chicano movement has come a long way from when I grew up in the '70s. You didn't have very many Chicanos," Garcia said. "But I think the people in general out here are really close, especially this lowrider community in Utah."

DJ Lee Mont — who has worked with Garcia to build to lowrider community over the decades — agreed.

"Lowriding goes back to the '50s and '60s," he said. "But once it hit Utah is when we knew — 'OK, now we have something that we can call our own.'"