Ruben Olmos: Lowrider
by Michael C. Taylor
The term “lowrider” refers to elaborately customized cars lowered to almost ground-scraping levels, and to those who build and drive them. Although the tradition of lowriding grew out of West Coast and Southwestern Latino communities in the late 1930s, lowriding is now widely recognized as a vibrant international movement. All lowrider vehicles must lay low; the most celebrated cars lay no more than an inch or two above the ground, and are frequently adorned with elaborate paint jobs and glimmering chrome accents on the engine, grill, trim, and door handles. Many lowriders also boast hydraulic suspensions, which allow drivers to raise or lower the car with the flip of a switch. The interior of a lowrider is often fastidiously upholstered in leather, tweed, or velvet, and equipped with one of-a-kind steering wheels and specialized stereo systems. Lowriders choose their vehicles with a critical eye towards classic lines and vintage designs; Chevy Impalas, Caprices, and Bel Airs, Lincoln Town Cars, and Cadillac Fleetwoods are all favored in lowriding circles. Likewise, lowriders lean towards the cool and classic in their choice of music; a Sunday drive wouldn’t be complete without a loping jam by Thee Midniters, The Temptations, or Brenton Wood gently pumping out of the speakers.
Ruben Olmos is a lowrider nonpareil. As the president of the Burlington, North Carolina-based Lowyalty Car Club, the 31-year-old Alamance County resident has played a critical role in raising the profile of lowriding throughout the South. Since founding Lowyalty in 2004, Ruben has led the club to international acclaim with a series of distinguished wins at a multitude of lowrider car shows. Along the way, his Burlington home has become a nexus for North Carolina’s burgeoning lowrider scene, a place where lowriders young and old gather to exchange knowledge and anecdotes about what it means to ride low. Ruben’s dedication to the craft and practice of lowriding is also unparalleled; he is eloquent and articulate in his understandings of the ways that lowriding works simultaneously as a rich expressive practice, a political statement of identity, a method of memory, a celebration of community and family, and a deeply personal aesthetic practice. Ruben asserts, “Lowriding has always been here, but not as big. We’re getting there though. The cars here are looking better every year.”
Ruben, a first-generation Mexican American born in Chapel Hill, is the oldest of six boys. During his adolescent years, the Olmos family survived by following the harvest, and spent significant amounts of time in Georgia and Florida—as well as North Carolina—picking fruit, vegetables, and tobacco. The Orange County town of Cedar Grove, however, always remained the homeplace to which the Olmos family returned, and Ruben has fond memories of his rural upbringing. “I grew up in the country,” he explains. “My Dad believed in growing his own vegetables, growing his own chickens, cows, goats, pigs. When we’d go fishing, we’d clean them and my Dad would cook them there.” It was also in Cedar Grove that Ruben informally apprenticed as a mechanic under his father, Ruben Sr., learning the basics of automobile repair and modification; these technical skills continue to serve him as one of the chief mechanics of Lowyalty.
Ruben was introduced to lowriding by a close family friend while he was a teenager. Fully absorbed by the artistic and technical outlets that the practice offered, he subsequently joined a number of lowrider organizations before striking out on his own with the hope of establishing a car club that would celebrate his Alamance County roots. “I heard in that old movie, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” he explains. “I had a ’67 convertible Impala, and I started hanging around at the car washes, restaurants, and taco stands, and people were coming and asking questions.” Over time, Ruben attracted a core group of local lowriders, and established the informal headquarters of the club in Alamance County. Through a democratic balloting process, the name “Lowyalty” was chosen for its nod towards the concept of loyalty, a core value within the group.
Although the popular media frequently presents lowriding as an aggressive, confrontational practice, nothing could be further from the truth in the case of the Lowyalty Car Club. The club is an all-inclusive, multiethnic group that remains fully engaged with their surrounding community, and champions ethical conduct and family values. Under Ruben’s leadership, Lowyalty hosts charity car washes, toy drives, and an annual lowrider show at the Greensboro Coliseum that draws upwards of 2,000 attendees from around the country. Ruben, a devoted father and husband, and a highly valued employee with Meadwestvaco, is unequivocal in his consideration of lowriding as a means towards community and as a method of fostering pride amongst club members: “Growing up, I worked in the fields. Growing up, I lived in a little old trailer with two bedrooms and five brothers. All my friends had nice houses. Growing up, my Dad never had a nice car. Imagine your parents picking you up in an old car, and everybody’s looking at you. I know how that feels. There are people out there living like that. So it’s a big thing to wear that Lowyalty shirt. It makes you proud. I’ve got a member that works in the tobacco fields. You should have seen him when he found out that I used to do that. He was thinking, ‘My [car club] president pulled tobacco. My president worked in the fields. Look what he got. He made it.’ I’m proud of what I’ve done. I know how it feels to be on the bottom.”
Ruben Olmos’s work as a gifted lowrider facilitates serious, deeply engaged cultural conversation that is both personal and political. At a time when the demographic and cultural makeup of North Carolina is changing in such rich and profound ways, Ruben’s guiding contributions to the practice of lowriding are all the more critical for the ways that they add a vibrant voice to the current discourse on tradition and heritage in the South.
Michael C. Taylor is a folklorist and musician living in Pittsboro, NC, with his wife, Abigail, and his son, Elijah. He is currently at work on a musical survey of Warren County, North Carolina.
Taylor, Michael C. “Ruben Olmos: Lowrider.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 56.2 (2009): 14-18.