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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

A lowrider bike club in Napa is spreading Mexican-American pride and combating cultural stereotypes

This story first aired on June 30th, 2023 and it aired again most recently in the February 22, 2024 episode of Crosscurrents.

This story was made to be heard, click the play button above to listen

Saul Vera is a chill, nineteen year old Napa native, with a passion for all things lowrider – customized tricked-out candy-painted cars, hydraulics, and shiny chrome bikes. He’s also president of the Chelu Lowrider Bike Club –Chelu means brother or friend in Spanish. For lowrider enthusiasts like Saul, each bike is a blank canvas for artistic expression –not just technical function. Saul recently showed me a prized bike he made.

"So this is my custom lowrider bike. I even got these spinners down here, those rims right there, crazy hard to find, " Saul proudly shared while standing in front of his bike.

At a vintage car show in Vallejo, where Chelu members’ have their bikes and cars on display. One is decorated with a Las Vegas Raiders theme. Another one, built by Saul, is shiny and silver, and sits low to the ground.

"It has hydraulics too, so it bounces up and down like a lowrider. You flip the switch, it goes up. So that's how that works," explained Saul as he showed me how his lowrider creation works.

He says for many Mexican-Americans, lowrider culture is about more than just flashy cars with cool paint jobs. The members of these clubs see themselves as passing on the torch to the next generation. A lot of the lowrider clubs like his also do youth mentorship, food and toy drives, and volunteer service for the surrounding community.

Saul first started making lowrider bikes when he was sixteen. He finds bike parts through online ads, and has traveled far to get parts. For the one he’s showing me today, he had to go all the way down to L.A.

"When I brought it back up here, I got two different bikes and I put them all together and I made this right here. So most of the parts on the bike are used. I just cleaned them up, you know, to make them shiny again," recalled Saul.

Saul initially started making lowrider bikes through online tutorials. He also gets help from his dad - who grew up making and selling bikes in Mexico.

He got more involved in middle school, through Chelu club founder Pete Duenas. Pete started the bike club ten years ago to provide young people with technical skills to build their own bikes, and life skills towards a more positive future.

"A lot kids is distracted these years, so our part is to try and keep them focused on something positive," Pete says.

And that's what Saul did - dedicated himself to the bike club.

"And I just eventually just made my way to the top. And I'm now president of Chelu Bike Club," Saul says.

Some people build their own lowrider creations as models – to rarely drive on the road. This is not the case for Saul. He loves to cruise around town with his friends on their lowrider bikes, and feels proud to display this important part of their Mexican-American heritage.

"A lot of people build their bikes, like just for show specifically for show. And I said, man, what's the point of that if you're not going to be able to ride it," he says.

"Whenever I go cruising with my friends, you know, we got the music blasting loud, you know we got the oldies and we're just cruising around anywhere — our side of town or we go downtown — everyone's just always staring at us, you know, everyone always asks questions," Saul says.

Along with mentoring young people - part of Chelu’s mission - is to dispel stereotypes about lowrider culture.

"So, you know, the stereotypical thing with Mexicans is, oh, you drive a lowrider, a gangster car, you know? Like, I personally have family members in my life right now that are telling me like, don't be into this bro. You're not a gangster," Saul says.

"They say, you know, everybody out there is like, gang members. I'm like, no, they're not. We do this all for the community. We were like trying to raise money for kids, but, you know, they don't believe all that just because of how they were raised," he says.

Not only does Chelu make eye-catching bikes, they do non-bike stuff too. They host fundraisers, toy drives, and community potlucks. Pete says people – including some local politicians have taken notice as well.

"The mayor comes out and supports us, Congressman Thompson comes out and supports us. We get everybody involved - fire department, police department, we are a community car club. It’s all about bringing the community together and giving back to the same community we live in," Pete added.

Saul says the bike club has already influenced his life goals. He plans to enroll in college to become an auto technician. He wants to build his own lowrider cars – It’s a goal that caught him by surprise.

"I did not think I would be into cars, but now seeing all these crazy lowriders and everything. I want to buy myself one so I can learn. Everybody’s telling me, all my family members are telling me, hey, buy a new car. You’re young, you can get the credit to be a new 2022 car. And I say, nah, I want a low rider. I want an old school 1980s car," Saul added.

Saul says he plans on keeping the lowrider culture alive, for generations to come.

"Once I do have kids. This stuff isn't going away. I'm keeping my bike. When you have a kid, you can raise them just to be in the lowrider lifestyle like me," he says.

He doesn’t have kids yet, but when he does? He’s serious about immersing them in this tradition. He’s already researched low rider pedal toy cars - and even lowrider strollers! In the meantime, until he gets his first lowrider car, you can find him and his friends biking around Napa, blasting oldies.

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