Jan. 15 2013 10:04 PM

Mexican-tinged American culture thrives in San Diego's Latino community

A custom car for cruising
Photo by Amanda Suter

"I look like this every single day. It's mostly about feeling classy and good about yourself," says Mia Alvarado-Ruffier, a 32-year-old Chicana sitting at South Park's Whistle Stop Bar for "Sleepwalking," a lowrider oldies night. Around her, Latino men and women dressed in perfectly pressed jeans and 1940s-style coifs sway to Brenton Wood's "Oogum Boogum" while sipping on beer.

Her dark, curly hair, parted in the middle, falls down past her shoulders and is adorned with a bright red flower above her right ear. Alvarado-Ruffier's face is powdered pale with two thin, black brows arched over her eyes. Her lips are colored a dark maroon red, popping out like an old movie star's.

"Oogum oogum, boogum boogum / boogum now baby you're castin' your spell on me."

Alvarado-Ruffier is part of a subculture within the Latino community that melds Mexican iconography, beliefs and history with classic Americana. She is a Chicana rockabilly.

The subculture isn't new. Mexican-Americans have been combing pomade through their hair and shimmying to Little Richard since the early days of rock 'n' roll. But in its modern form, it emerged in the early 2000s, says Nicholas F. Centino, a doctoral candidate at UC Santa Barbara who's been studying the rockabilly scene within Southern California's Chicano community.

The look of a Chicano rockabilly is distinct. For men, it's loose-fit khakis or jeans ironed and cuffed, a pair of clean Converse All-Stars or boots, a crisp plaid shirt buttoned to the neck, hair greased back in a pompadour and arms covered in traditional tattoos and tattoos that honor their Mexican heritage.

The women emulate stars of Mexican and American cinema. They curl their hair into soft victory rolls and wear Bettie Page bangs, never forgetting to add a flower to their 'do. Some wear soft red lipstick and cat-eye makeup; others pencil their brows thin and use tons of black liner and dark lipstick to create a stark, dramatic look. They also stick to a dark palette—tight black dresses and tops and dark-wash, cuffed skinny jeans.

"All those design elements come from the mid-century," Centino explains. "They have always been present in Chicano culture. If you look at the rockabilly scene worldwide, the people draw from those American icons, like Bettie Page and James Dean. I think with Latinos and Chicanos, we look to our own icons."

"It's not Marilyn Monroe or James Dean," Alvarado-Ruffier says. "They weren't Chicanos. They weren't us. Me, as a person, I look up to actors and actresses of the golden era of Mexican cinema, like Katy Jurado. The look is so classic and beautiful and simple."

That need to appropriate classic Americana and inject Chicano and Latino traditions is prevalent. In a way, the scene stands as a challenge to racism.

"With the attacks in Arizona and the debate on whether Latinos belong or don't belong, things like rockabilly and the rock 'n' roll scene help Latinos establish a foothold in American history," Centino explains. "We, as Chicanos, can prove that we're a part of American history, especially now that there are so many people that want to deny that."

That notion's especially true when it comes to the classic cars rockabilly Latinos cruise in. The bombers, lowriders and hot rods that they customize become an extension of themselves. With each pinstripe, white wall, chrome pipe or Mexican blanket draped on the back seat of their '50s-era Ford, they join both sides of their cultural identity.

Victor Arreguin runs Los Ilegales car club in Chula Vista. For him, driving a piece of American automobile history and customizing it to reflect his Latino background is the embodiment of the American dream.

"You can't get any more American than driving an American-made vehicle," he says. "Cars like those, it's Americana at its finest. Whether it's a rockabilly guy or a cholo driving it, I think it's a beautiful thing."

Chuck Terror, a DJ and promoter in the Chicano rockabilly scene who organized rockabilly shows at National City's Café La Maze for years, agrees.

"You build a car, you customize it, you want to make that car represent you and your character," he says. "You have to have the old-school Mexican blanket in the back. I remember my dad had one and I always thought it was the coolest thing. You want to have something that represents the Latino culture."

The cars and the rock 'n' roll prevalent in the scene are usually attributed to upbringing. Talk to any Latino rockabilly kid and he'll wax nostalgic about listening to oldies with family, seeing old photographs of grandparents and wanting to emulate their style or working on classic cars with his dad and grandfather. A shared personal history unites them and seems to have ignited an interest in this subculture.

Oddly, the same goes for Irishman Reb Kennedy, founder of Wild Records, a Los Angeles-based rockabilly label made up of mostly Chicano and Latino acts. Twenty out of the 23 artists Kennedy's signed are Latino. Among them are Pachuco Jose y Los Diamantes, Gizzelle, Luis & The Wildfires and Omar & The Stringpoppers.

"The Irish and Mexican cultures are both family-oriented, which means you grow up with music," Kennedy explains. "Music is very dominant in Hispanic culture. We have the best of America's young Hispanic rock 'n' roll talent. They have a sound that's full of aggression, energy and soul, and it's because of who they are and the culture they come from. "

Through Wild Records, Kennedy hopes to give young Latinos some rock 'n' roll idols.

"There are probably 10 acts from '50s ever that the young Hispanic kids can look to as heroes," he says. "We have developed worldwide a Hispanic rock 'n' roll scene for them to look to."

Latino rockabillies will continue to have a presence at car shows, major events like Viva Las Vegas and Long Beach's Iron-N-Ink Festival and anywhere else old-school rock 'n' roll is played, paying homage to their Latino roots and making their mark in America.

Write to alexz@sdcitybeat.com. You can also bug her on Twitter.


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