South American Cholo: Lowrider Culture in São Paulo

If you take only a quick cursory look at the photos here — classic cars bouncing and cruising, Latino gang tattoos — you might assume that they depict a barrio in East Los Angeles, the birthplace of lowrider subculture in the United States. But, in actuality, this is São Paulo.

Why are Brazilians donning baggy shorts and wife-beater t-shirts to become self-styled cholos? How did they come to adopt this slice of cultura chicana as their own? A new short documentary, South American Cholo, provides an engaging answer.

The film is directed by Phuong-Cac Nguyen, an American journalist who’s lived in São Paulo for years. Nguyen authored the guidebook Total São Paulo: A Guide to the Unexpected, and — as a expat from Los Angeles — was drawn to the oddity of paulistas (residents of São Paulo) imitating a uniquely Mexican-American subculture.

[ It should be noted that, in the US, ‘cholo’ was originally a derogatory term for people with Mexican or mixed ancestry. The word was reclaimed during the 1960s as a symbol of pride and non-assimiliation, and today is associated with both the hip hop and lowrider scenes. ]


Parallels between LA and SP

I recall my first trip to downtown São Paulo from its main airport, Guarulhos International; two things were immediately apparent about this megacity of 20 million people: 1) the highways and streets are choked with traffic; and 2) virtually every visible structure is clad in graffiti. Qualities it shares, on the surface, with Los Angeles.

But Nguyen thinks the similarities among the lowrider’s in LA and SP are more than skin-deep. In an interview with PRI’s The World, the filmmaker discussed parallels that she observed between the two Latino cultures in general:

Brazilians and Mexicans share many of the same values and beliefs: the Catholic religion, where Mary is an important figure, especially in a physical form; [they both] place an emphasis on maintaining close ties with family and friends; and of course, having a strong sense of pride is very important.

As a group, Brazilians are known for their love for fun… the cars, bikes and events are ways for them to express this lighthearted approach toward life.


the film “South American Cholo”

The original lowrider movement was imported from the barrios of Juarez, Mexico — where, in the 1940s, guys used sandbags to drop their cars menacingly low. The scene soon gravitated to the Mexican-American neighborhoods of Los Angeles, and is now strongly associated with the diner culture and vintage vehicles of the 1950s.

More than just cars, though, Nguyen’s film examines some of the major figures in the São Paulo scene like Antonio Carlos Batista Filho, a fashion designer better known as Alemão (the German). The director explores why these men are so obsessed with thug life in East LA — from the tricked-out bicycles to the tattoos with deeply Catholic imagery. One of her observations is that the Brazilian spin on cholo culture is devoid of any violence:

There are Brazilian lowriders who have L.A. gang-style tattoos, but yet they’re definitely not associated with them. When you take those tattoos away from the context of L.A., they become just symbols.

I don’t mean to say that these gang tattoos don’t carry weight with them, but… Brazilians have been able to show that parts of the culture can survive without the violence factor.


Cholos came by way of Japan

Ironically, the seeds of São Paulo’s subculture began in Japan — a nation with deep ties to Brazil. Paulista Sergio Hideo Yoshinaga worked in Japan for a year in 1990’s and became enamored of the burgeoning lowrider movement there. When he returned home to São Paulo, Yoshinaga opened a garage which modifies retro cars. Recently, he spoke with the New York Times about his influence on the local movement:

I was a pioneer when I returned to São Paulo. Now there are these third-rate imitators here, saying they’re cholo-this and cholo-that. Some think they can buy into the culture with their money.

Of course, to be a cholo in Brazil is not a poor man’s pastime. Most of the cars and after-market parts need to be imported. Yet, even with this impediment, today’s lowrider scene is exploding to include car clubs, cholo-inspired fashion labels, and bicycle shops that modify two-wheelers for hipsters on a more modest income. According Simon Romero, writer of the NYT article:

Some who cannot afford to buy vintage cars and customize them into lowriders simply roam São Paulo’s labyrinthine streets at the helm of bicycles accessorized with high-rise handlebars and banana seats.


Photos: From the film and its Facebook Page

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Fredrick Haugen

Fredrick Haugen

Fredrick is the founder and editor of Brazigzag, an inside guide to the diverse and enchanting culture of Brazil. A writer and artist, he also teaches yoga. Follow him: @fredrickhaugen

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