Watch this video segment on Tuesday, February 3 at 8pm PST on KCET-TV as part of the Artbound episode, "American Purgatory."
A goateed guy in a plaid shirt and sunglasses revs a tricked-out ride with a purring engine and a mock black 8-ball in place of an antenna. Pale high-rises contrast against darker foliage of the foothills in an unfamiliar skyline, and hydraulic cars bounce menacingly to rap music as curious onlookers gather around. While tattoos, stylized goatees, and custom cars are a familiar scene here in Los Angeles, the film "South American Cho-Low" isn't set in the City of Angeles: instead, it takes place in São Paulo, Brazil.
The title of the movie is a portmanteau of "cholo" and "lowrider," which represents the hybridized subject of the 16 minute film itself: the phenomenon of cholos and Southern California custom culture exported over 6000 miles away to the biggest city in South America. But the theme of cultural and ethnic fusion extends beyond the self-styled cholos of São Paulo, going back to the very root of the word itself.
The term "cholo" technically refers to a "mestizo," a Latin American with Native American blood. It eventually evolved into a pejorative term associated with those living in poorer Mexican urban communities, specifically gang members. But not unlike the word "queer" in the LGBT community, "cholo" is being re-appropriated to reflect its original meaning: a person of multiple ethnic and cultural backgrounds who acknowledges a deep and complex ancestry with pride and confidence. As such, the word cholo is transcending its negative connotations, and as a visual style, it's become perhaps the most dynamic representation of Los Angeles to the rest of the world, Brazil included.
Born in Pennsylvania and raised in Cerritos, L.A.-based journalist, author, and researcher Phuong-Cac Nguyen graduated with a degree in print journalism from USC's Annenberg School. She's written for Los Angeles Times and URB, and currently is a senior researcher for a media-planning agency and manages projects for artist Richard David Sigmund. She recently moved back to Los Angeles after living in São Paulo, where she was a trends analyst for a research and planning agency called Box1824.
While working on a guidebook to São Paulo in 2007, Nguyen came across a couple of guys whose clothes, tattoos, and shaved heads indicated they were from Los Angeles, only they weren't. As time went on, she met more of these people -- most of whom had never been to L.A. So what is it about the visual style that was so appealing to them?
"The look connects with the identity and values of the working class, and I think that's why it resonates so strongly with those who adopt it," Nguyen observes. "The work wear represents taking pride in how you make a living and the tattoos represent family and roots -- it all comes together in a certain look and style."
Nguyen sought to further understand the intriguing connection between the cholos of São Paulo and Los Angeles, and as it turned out, it was the cholo's chariot: the lowrider. She wanted to tell the story of how lowriders came to São Paulo, but it wasn't going to be through the written word. In order to adequately explore the Brazilian subculture, she knew she needed to make a film, and that's how "South American Cho-Low" was born.
"Originally I had planned on presenting the lowriders in magazine feature form, but as I dug in deeper, I felt that it wasn't the right format for something that relied so much on aesthetics -- the cars and bikes, the tattoos, the art, the people themselves," she explains. "A [written] feature wouldn't have captured 100 percent what I was seeing, and I thought that visual element was very important to creating a compelling story. Plus, in my observation, images have really become the stronger communication tool these days."
Beginning with a skeleton crew, Nguyen filmed "South American Cho-Low" over the course of three months on weekends and evenings, since crew members, Nguyen included, had day jobs. The size of the team wasn't the only thing that was small, either. "This was a low-budget movie," she admits. "As the story grew, however, we brought on more people."
The film stylishly weaves together a series of compelling interviews, beginning with tatted, mustachioed Antônio Carlos Batista Filho aka "Alemão." His nickname means "German" in Portuguese -- a sobriquet others gave him while he was growing up due to his pale skin and blonde hair. Alemão describes how he got into the lowrider scene in the mid-'90s after a friend who visited the United States came back with a custom bicycle. That's when Alemão says he began reading lowrider publications. By way of illustration, the camera captures a stack of his magazines with busty, bikini-clad babes modeling against a backdrop of vehicles with metallic paint, sharp fins, and shiny motors.
Another of the film's numerous interviewees is a greyscale tattoo artist who specializes in Chicano-inspired artwork named Luiz Gordo, who calls Alemão "the first Cholo in Brazil." Gordo credits Alemão with teaching people, including Gordo and his friends, about the lowrider lifestyle, implying Alemão is the de facto godfather of the subculture in Brazil. Beyond iconographic elements such as body ink, clothes, accessories, and facial hair, however, a big emphasis of the film remains on the thought and detail that actually goes into the cars and bikes themselves.
Accounting manager Mariana de Paula Martins, 27, shows off her gleaming custom bike adorned with cut-out hearts, each representing a member of her family. A family-oriented, Catholic way of life is one of the biggest parallels between Chicano and Brazilian culture, and it extends beyond simple blood ties. To that end, Martins and her partner Leandro Vinicius Pimenta Cabellos formed an ersatz tribe dubbed Lado Norte. "We consider ourselves a family," Cabellos says in the film. "We're siblings, not by blood, but by lowrider."
"It's something you feel," Martins adds. "You need something in life that motivates you, something that makes you think differently than others. That's what lowriding is to me."
In "South American Cho-Low," Alemão talks about how he was concerned about inadvertently importing an element of violence to an already struggling culture with a deep divide between rich and poor. Because of the pressure to deliver the most impressive bikes and cars, there was the possibility of tension reminiscent of LA gang rivalry. But thanks to clubs like Lado Norte, the focus of lowriding is on community, not contention. Lado Norte helps at-risk kids in the favelas who are regularly faced with crime -- from stealing and kidnapping to drug pushing -- and who are offered few options that aren't on the wrong side of the law. Lado Norte's organizers believe lowriding offers a means of escape from the undesirable elements children face on a daily basis in São Paulo.
At the closing of the film, Alemão reads some of his writing about his own struggles, describing how lowriding offers a means of escape, and how he and his people never give up. "For us, there's no place for tenderness or weakness. Believing in Chicano culture is what makes these things possible ... It's the fountain from which I drink. I deeply respect and admire it."
Right now, Nguyen is submitting the documentary to festivals and thinking about showing it in different communities. (The next screening will be at Lady Jay in Brooklyn on Nov 12.) Nonetheless, the 16 minutes of "South American Cho-Low" feel very short, and the film leaves viewers wanting more. Yet while Nguyen is happy with "South American Cho-Low," she currently has no plans to make a feature-length film, if for no other reason than the fact that she'd need to return to Brazil and shoot more footage.
"Also, my intention was never to present the entire history of lowriders in Brazil," Nguyen explains. "Instead, I'm hoping that people whose curiosity has been piqued will go and discover more for themselves, in the same way that the Brazilian lowriders had to do when they researched American lowriders."