Magazines of the lowrider culture have long used semi-nude models in their features and advertisements to attract more readers. Recently one of those magazines, Streetlow, published its latest issue with one of their models wearing a Brown Beret uniform in a sexualized manner. As the Brown Berets have been a symbol in the Chicano community of resistance and revolutionary struggle, this disrespect caused righteous indignation from actual Brown Berets. It also attention to the wider problems of misogyny in this car culture where this would happen.
As for the Brown Berets, women have long been active in the organization since their formation in 1967 and after. Brown Beret chapters today are organized autonomously in different local regions, and has been an organization where women have been prominent in leadership. They have also struggled internally within the organization with sexism and misogyny, facing the same struggles and abuse as from the dominant culture. The Brown Berets as a whole have never been given a proper treatment in any histories, and the role of women in the organization have been given even less. It would be a necessity to get a complete analysis for our future efforts for liberation.
This is a statement from the East L.A. Brown Berets:
April 18, 2016
To Whomever It May Concern:
Any form of image that sexualizes women in the movement is not okay and they will absolutely not be tolerated. We the women do not appreciate this false image for the arousal, fetish, or commercialization of our bodies, as well as the movement itself. We the women in the movement are not sexual objects. In the 1960’s women fought hard against not only society, but the male patriarchal system within the Civil Rights movements groups. The women fought hard for their respectable roles within the movement, where at the time they were only seen as a supportive role; to cook to clean and for personal comfort.The mujeres fought hard to be treated with respect and be seen as equals amongst our brothers in the struggle. They were and continue to be the backbone of any struggle. When you sexualize our women, you downplay their achievements.
We hereby demand that the cover be removed from Streetlow Magazine, and instead invite them to take real photographs of the women within the movement. That being said, we welcome you to provide a true statement of the women within the movement instead of a far fetched sexualized ideal for the appeal of others. We will no longer allow our women to be sexual fantasies and be exploited for their bodies.
She is the birthgiver, mother of nature, she is the struggle in her own way.
Comandanta Luz Catalina and all the Mujeres of the East Los Angeles Brown Beret Unit
This was followed by statements from other autonomous Brown Beret chapters, as well as other individuals outraged by this depiction of a Chicano symbol.
This issue is about common respect for a movement symbol and for the respect of women overall. This current incident shows not only the disrespect of an important symbol for Chicanos, but the larger issue of the portrayal of women in this culture that was created by Chicanos.
History of Lowriders
The history of the lowrider subculture, where stock cars are lowered and customized, comes from the history of the Mexicano people in the United States to preserve their culture from assimilation. Its roots can be traced to an old Mexican ritual called paseo, where young, unmarried villagers walked around their central plaza. It then involved displaying their horses as a symbol of prestige.
The transformation to cars came about in the the 1930’s from the pachuco “zoot suit” culture in Los Angeles and El Paso. Then, sandbags were put into the trunks to intentionally lower the cars, often older Chevys, while cruising. One history states that the pachucos and the car culture that developed from it came about from “a generation caught between cultures, struggling to find their own identity.” The lowrider culture developed through the decades, and it was in contrast to the mostly Anglo hot rod culture, with more emphasis on the style and presentation of the cars. It has been an outlet for creativity for our people. Lowriders became more mainstream, especially spread through hip hop culture to a wider audience.
One troubling aspect of the culture is the role of women in it. Although women have been more involved in the culture in recent years, men make up a predominant part of it. The car shows and magazines that come from it, the most prominent one being its namesake Lowrider, commonly show semi-nude bikini models in its features and advertisements, seen as props next to its cars and automotive machinery. This is often the only image of women that is shown in this culture, and it is not an empowering one.
This particular incident of the sexualization of a movement symbol shows the problems in this culture of the objectification of women. As others have noted, this is a problem in Mexican culture as a whole. This is not the only target. It also shows the limits of cultural nationalism in fighting all forms of oppression. Our revolutionary struggle cannot go forward if La Mujer is not respected. As an old slogan said, “if you are dissing the sisters, you are not fighting the power.”