A couple weeks ago, Berkeley muralist Miguel "Bounce" Perez got an itch to turn his 1979 Sedan Deville Cadillac into an art installation. He stuffed cushions in the back seat and hung a huge altar made of palm leaves and stereo speakers from the trunk. He placed a large projection board on the front window and planned to screen movies there — City of God, an experimental video with a lot of abstract lights, and a home movie of people talking about his deceased father, Paul Perez. Miguel drove his car out to a warehouse party on East 12th Street and 17th Avenue in East Oakland. It would have been a huge hit, he said, had the party not been shut down by Oakland police before it actually started. Nonetheless, Miguel was pleased with his Cadillac. It had ancestral significance, not only because of the altar — made for Día de los Muertos and for his father, who passed away in October — but because it connected him to a lineage of men who had all used cars as their artistic medium. Raised in a family of mechanics, handymen, and low-rider enthusiasts, thirty-year-old Miguel was just starting to connect with his roots.
Ergo, Miguel's new low-rider exhibition at La Peña Cultural Center. Called "Hecho en Berkeley," it celebrates an unsung and largely undocumented Berkeley subculture. In the 1970s, his father and uncles ran a car club called Pueblo Nuevo, mostly out of home garages throughout West Berkeley. (Miguel would later reappropriate the name for an art gallery he opened on San Pablo Avenue.) Paul Perez was a Filipino immigrant who hung out with a lot of Latino kids, including the brothers of his girlfriend, Rosy, Miguel's mother. He worked as a gas station attendant throughout high school and learned about engine and body work. Paul could do surgery on automobile innards, but he was also an artist of sorts. He knew how to fix a ride up, make the wheels bump, and give it a pretty patina. "He was, like, the man of the car club," said Miguel. "He was the one that did all the work putting the hydraulics in everybody's car."
Paul Perez immigrated to the United States at age ten and eventually settled in West Berkeley. He became enamored of low-rider culture pretty early on. As a teen, he learned how to eviscerate and completely redesign a car's interior, tricking it out with crushed velvet seating, swivel chairs, hydraulic wheels, gold plating with diamond cuts, an opalescent glaze, and even a gold chain steering wheel. ("The joke was they did that so they could drive with handcuffs," Miguel said.) In some cases, he cut diamond-shaped holes for the car antennae, or removed the door handles and installed a switch right beneath the fender so the door opened with a kind of space-age exquisiteness. The guys at Pueblo Nuevo would buy old Monte Carlos or Buick Rivieras, paint them the same candy-bright colors as their girlfriend's nail polish, and cruise up University Avenue at two miles an hour. "That was their art show," said Miguel. "That was their main advertising."
Low-rider buffs formed their own self-contained art scene in West Berkeley. The men dressed in wallaby shoes, Pendleton shirts, and pleated pants — "everything was ironed real crispy," said Miguel. They listened to Chicano soul music and spent their weekends working on cars. Many of them would grow up to be craftmakers. Paul Perez ultimately ventured into home refinishing and woodwork, and helped Miguel build the Pueblo Nuevo Art Gallery in 2008. The women feathered their hair and wore jackets with "Homegirls de West Side Berkeley" inscribed on the back. They had shows at Laney College that were often twenty to thirty cars deep. Paul took photographs of their shiny outsides and sleek interiors, many of which reappear in his son's Hecho en Berkeley exhibit. The photos show red-and-white Impalas, a gold Monte Carlo, and a black Ford Thunderbird with a custom-made grill. Clustered among these vehicles are the characters who populated Pueblo Nuevo: Rosy, Carlos, 'Lita, Melvin, Raymond, Eddie, Paul, and Jose "Baby" Ayala. The "Hecho en Berkeley" logo derives from those old homegirl jackets.
Miguel grew up in the same part of West Berkeley as his parents. By the time he was born, though, the old car clubs had been supplanted by a 1980s gang culture. "In the 1980s, people started seeing gangster movies and picking stuff up from Los Angeles," Miguel explained. "And cars got too expensive, you know?" Despite his environment, Miguel was too clean-cut to be a bona fide gang member himself. He attended St. Joseph's Catholic School, drew comic book characters, and geeked out on photography. He did, however, glom onto one aspect of the gang lifestyle: graffiti. At age ten, Miguel got into tagging. He started by writing his full name — Miguel Perez — out in cursive, and later got the nickname "Bounce," from the Roger and Zapp song "Bounce to the Ounce." His uncles taught him how to write in Cholo lettering, most of which derives from Olde English script. "Bounce" eventually traded his Sharpies for an aerosol spray can. As a Berkeley High School student, he launched his own city beautification project, bombing any wall that came within range. He got arrested a couple of times, but kept at it. Now he paints murals.
Low riders all but disappeared from Berkeley a couple decades ago, and many guests to the "Hecho en Berkeley" show might be surprised to hear that a scene ever existed in these parts. Some aspects of the scene rematerialized in scraper cars, the modified Buick Regals with big rims that became popular in Oakland during the hyphy era. But for the most part, contemporary car culture has revolved around the fetishization of brands. It wasn't like that in the 1970s, Miguel said. Indeed, the whole point of low-rider culture was to take a bucket that nobody wanted and turn it into a piece of art. "It was all about the modifications," he said. In that sense, Paul Perez and his brethren weren't mere hobbyists. They were artists working with scavenged materials. With low riders, they brought autobody work into the craft realm.