Breaking Away


The body of Steve Hernandez's lowrider bike is bondo-covered and painted black. An antenna sticks up from its rear fender; "gangster" muffler pipes jut out from its back. "No, they don't shoot flames," the 14-year-old says. "They're just for show." Also for show are the green, white, and red tassels that hang from the bike's body which match the colors of the Mexican flag and represent Mexican pride. Brown pride. But the most distinguishing characteristic of his cruiser is its 20-inch fork, which he swapped for the Schwinn frame's original. "It makes it look longer and lower," he says. "You know, lowrider."

On any given day, you can see Hernandez pedaling down the streets of his hometown, Willmar, Minnesota (about two hours west of the Twin Cities on Highway 12). Most likely, he'll be cruising the town's main drag, where Highway 71 curves and turns into First Street. Willmar is a relatively sleepy town of roughly 18,000 located in farm country in the middle of the Little Crow Lakes region. Yet judging from the McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken stuck between the residential homes lining the main strip and the Jennie-O turkey-processing plants dotting the town, Willmar is in the midst of a significant expansion.

"I moved here nine years ago from Texas," Hernandez says. "My aunt, she was here first. She works at Woodland Centers--it's like for crisis people, I don't know. And she called us and told us it was really nice over here, so my parents decided to move. My dad's a welder, and my mom doesn't work."

Hernandez fancies himself as a burgeoning cholo, a sort of '50s Chicano beat rebel; he compares the type to a character played by Andy Garcia in his favorite film, Hoodlum. "I dress up like this, all the same color, all brown. And you wear suspenders, and pants that come up to here," he says, leveling his hand half a foot above his waistline. "You just get low, you just get low."

Hernandez began creating lowriders three or four years ago, taking most of his ideas from the Lowrider magazines that he buys at Wal-Mart. "This one is only a temporary bike. I made it in two days," he says with an eighth-grader's bravado. "I just made it until I get my other bike back. My other bike is worth more. It's better than this one. This one is just for now so I won't have to walk."

Hernandez's real bike is currently on display at Gus Lucky's Gallery in Minneapolis, along with five other lowriders made by members of his club, the Eternal Styles Low Rider B.C. & C.C. (bike club and car club). The number of members in the group varies depending on whom you ask. Jon Rangel, 16, who founded Eternal Styles in 1996 and is currently its president, addresses questions about membership with a shrug. "I don't know. I know guys at Jennie-O who build cars," Rangel says, "and there are lots of guys building bikes around town."

The club took a more organized shape during the past year when Rangel hooked up with Francisco Morales, the club's adult sponsor, and a youth worker at Willmar Junior High. Morales tried to give the club more focus, organizing meetings, arranging for a work space at Willmar's armory, and writing grant proposals. He also placed an ad in the local paper asking for bike donations. The community responded with 71 bikes, which are now stacked in piles in a garage behind Morales's house. The four kids that he and Rangel both recognize as members of the club--Rangel, Hernandez, Arturo Ruiz, and Gilbert Reyes--restore the bikes and sell them for money that goes into the club's treasury. The teens also use the parts to construct their own lowriding creations.

At the gallery opening in Minneapolis, the Eternal Styles boys stand apart from Gus Lucky's crusty punk patrons. A girl dressed in a black miniskirt and knee-high boots walks by. With tattooed arms and long black hair that probably hasn't been washed this month, she earns a rolled-eyed look from the Willmar boys, who joke with each other in muffled, rapid-fire Spanish.

The Eternal Styles' elaborate, chrome-plated lowriders also stand in opposition to the junkyard circus cruisers of the local Hard Times bike club, who are also displaying works in the exhibit. The Hard Times crew's fully functional abnormalities have seats boosted to shoulder height, and a mix-and-match construction that recalls a two-wheeled Frankenstein. Hernandez's prize bike, by contrast, is lavishly finished. Like his temporary wheels, this bike is covered with the colors of the Mexican flag, extravagantly displayed on a velvet seat. Hooked to the back is a CD player and a speaker that he uses to play hip hop and Mexican dance tunes.  

Like a Mercedes salesman on the showroom floor, Rangel, who wears a sports jersey, fat pants, and gold-chain jewelry, saunters confidently around his bike. It's really a trike, the extra wheel necessary for carrying all the excess baggage. "I got a CD player, 12-inch subwoofers, midrange tweeters, and a car battery pumping the juice," Rangel says. "The tires have 144-spoke rims. And I have a triple-chrome-plated frame." Crushed black-and-red velvet covers the handlebars, the seat, and the chain-link steering wheel. Wine glasses sit on lowered reflector mirrors that almost scrape the floor. "I plan on putting hydraulics on it, make it jump like that," Rangel says, bouncing his hand up and down.

Obviously, the bike is more fashion than function--it even has a cell phone--and the final cost for its construction is close to $2,000. He doesn't ride it around much now, mostly because the piece connecting the stereo to the body is weak, and also because he fears his enemies. "There are a lot of people in Willmar who are jealous of me," Rangel says. So his lowrider is usually displayed in his basement.

A mirror lies on the floor under the bike's center, and it's covered with items that are significant to him: eight balls, and a paperweight with an arachnid trapped in the middle. Off to the side of this display sits a can of Popeye spinach. (Popeye is Rangel's nickname; he signs his schoolwork with the name too.) From the front, the assemblage takes on the air of a shrine. A votive candle adorned with an image of Christ and a statue of the Virgin Mary stand on a tapestry depicting the Last Supper. "I believe in God," Rangel says in a low, reverent voice, pressing his open hand to his chest.

Originally from Laredo, Texas, Jon Rangel moved to Willmar with his mom and three brothers about seven years ago. "I was 9 or 10--I can't remember anymore," he says. "I don't know who my dad is; all I know is that he's black. My mom would live in Minnesota in the summer because there would be work. That's why a lot of Mexicans live in Minnesota. Where I'm from, there's not a lot of work, so my mom would come to work in the fields."

"I've seen a lot of lowriders in my life, and I watched all my friends that had them, and I would help them fix them. One of my cousins had his own car club, and I was thinking in my mind about starting my own. But I was only 9 or 10. How was I gonna start a car club? So I built a bike. I didn't have all the parts that I wanted. In Minnesota, there was a bike shop, but they didn't sell anything I liked, anything lowrider. So I started the club, and we started ordering parts. The people in Willmar are surprised to see someone doing something for the community. There's some people who think Mexicans are trouble because we dress baggy, and saggy. I wanted to show them I could do something positive. When I turned 15, I got a good job, and I fixed up my bike."

Rangel has indeed become well known in Willmar, where he's credited with starting something like a youth movement. "He's one of my best friends," says Sarah Peterson, a barrista at the Light House Coffeeshop. She wears her blond hair in a neat ponytail, and her eyes widen as she becomes animated. Peterson quickly adds that she hasn't seen the guys in the Eternal Styles for a couple of months. "I've been in home school. My parents teach me the curriculum. They took me out of school because I wasn't that good and because my mom thinks it's bad there. She wants to take my little sister out. She's in the seventh grade. There are a lot of fights at school. We have to have a drug dog at the senior high now to sniff around for marijuana and cocaine. At the senior high, they have cops."

Peterson remembers when the Eternal Styles began. "I got into the club, and I helped Jon make contracts for the members," she says. "They needed rules to show people that they weren't a gang." The contract details a code of ethics, where the members promise to work hard, and not steal or commit violent acts. "The group wasn't going good, so they needed rules," she says. "The guys don't seem to hang out together that much in school, but that's just my opinion." For a girl who liked to play basketball with the guys from the Eternal Styles, and hopes to build a lowrider car for herself one day, making the contracts was the least she could do. "I like to do guy things," she says. "And this year, the lowrider style started to be popular. And Jon is cool, although he usually can't keep a girlfriend. I had a crush on him. He knew that, but if I would've gone out with him, it would've ruined our friendship."  

Francisco Morales, who is originally from Puerto Vallarto, recognizes the difficulties the boys face in establishing an identity in rural Minnesota. As we drive around Willmar in his minivan, he pulls into the entrance of Mobile Park Estates, which houses many of the town's Chicano residents. "I wanted to show you this," he says. "The people living here are, how shall I say it, they are not wealthy. With so many racist people around, they are protective, they are struggling." On a warm summer evening, the street that runs between the trailer homes is filled with sounds of Spanish music and kids playing basketball. He stops the minivan before one group.

"That's Arturo Ruiz," Morales says quietly, pointing to a tall, slightly pudgy kid who clutches a basketball to his chest. "He's in the club, and he has a bike in Minneapolis. He cannot come there, though, because he has to work with his dad." A shy boy, Ruiz explains that tomorrow, instead of going to Minneapolis with the rest of the Eternal Styles for the exhibit's opening, he will be detasseling corn.

Commenting on Ruiz's dilemma later in the evening, Morales shrugs his shoulders. "Some of the parents would rather detassel than go work for Jennie-O. It's a hard job. Lots of people must deal with the cold meat. They have arthritis, and their fingers are twisted. When I came here from Mexico, and I started to look for a job, everybody said, 'Why don't you go work for Jennie-O?' I said, 'Why does anyone who speaks Spanish have to go to Jennie-O?' That's why I like working with these kids, to show them that there are other alternatives."

For the Eternal Styles boys, school has already finished, and summer jobs fill their days. Rangel works as a busboy, saving money for his future projects. He's 16 now, old enough to get a driver's license, and to finally mature into the next phase of his dream: lowrider cars.

"Right now, members of the club have six or seven cars. They're not all fixed up yet with hydraulics," Rangel says. "But my cousin is coming down. He comes down every summer, and we'll work on them. I want to go back to Texas, so I can learn more about cars."

The Eternal Styles Low Rider B.C. & C.C. exhibit will show 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. (or by appointment) Mondays through Fridays through July 10 at Gus Lucky's Gallery, 1626 E. Lake St., Mpls.; call 639-7614.

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