Members of the Suavecito Car Club devote time to cars rather than gangs

Can a Cutlass fly?

Can a Cutlass fly?

Photo Illustration by David Jayne

Ten Hot Wheels motor down Virginia Street in a single-file line on a Saturday night. They’re lucky—no traffic lights split them up this time. They park at El Pollo Loco restaurant for supper.

“Kids look at us in admiration,” says Gonzalo Ramirez, 23, wearing a gray-hooded sweatshirt that reads “Suavecito Car Club.” A co-president of the club, he says the goal of Suavecito is to offer people an alternative to gang life while improving the reputation of low-riders.

On this cold night, the sweatshirt hood obscures his face. Only the groomed goatee and mustache are distinct.

“Five years ago, we couldn’t do anything” because of the stereotype that low-rider cars were associated with gangs, he says. In the meantime, Suavecito has spoken with law enforcement in Reno, Sparks, Carson City and South Lake Tahoe. “Now they recognize our club sticker and know we’re not associated with any gang. We show each other respect.”

Ramirez says Roberto Nerey of Unlimited Intervention, a local nonprofit devoted to improving life in the Latino community, has helped convey the message of Suavecito’s purpose. Unlimited Intervention has organized the 10th annual A Day in the Barrio at Rail City Casino on May 4, for which Suavecito is sponsoring the low-rider competition. Automotive enthusiasts all over Northern Nevada have been preparing for months for this event as part of the Cinco de Mayo celebration.

“The first year we held the event the Reno Gazette-Journal called it a ‘gang picnic,'” says Nerey, 31. “Fortunately, that image has changed.”

Although A Day in the Barrio has been organized by Nerey since its inception and has always featured low-riders, this is only the third year Suavecito Car Club has sponsored the car competition.

They show off their cars but don’t really compete, says Jesus Perez, 23, another co-president. “We don’t want to take home our own trophies,” he says, wearing a white cap embossed with Suavecito’s logo that casts a shadow over his eyes.

Ramirez is upgrading his hydraulics for the show.

“My goal is to break my car in half [by hopping it],” he says. “I’ve never seen it done in Reno. … I’d be really happy if I got it to flip over. … It excites me when the crowd gets into it. So if I flip my car and the crowd goes wild, my work is done.”

“A Day in the Barrio brings the Latino community together,” Nerey says. “It gives them something in common to look forward to.”

The afternoon also features a posole cook-off, Latino student awards, a boxing competition for adolescents and a low-rider bike competition, also sponsored by Suavecito Car Club. Like their automotive cousins, some bikes are equipped with luxury sound systems and even hydraulics. Bikes are more accessible to adolescents without drivers’ licenses.

“Suavecito Car Club and Roberto [Nerey] are working to get youngsters into low-riders and out of the streets,” Ramirez says. “If you have a 12-year-old working on a bicycle, he’s not going to pay attention to gangs.”

Yet, a lot of participants in the competition are active gang members.

If anyone displays gang colors at the event, he is asked to remove them. Despite the growing size of the event—50 cars from all over Northern Nevada competed last year and more are expected this year—A Day in the Barrio has experienced no incident of gang violence in its 10 years.

Some weekends, pistolas and lines of cocaine rest on the table, says El Greco, 27, an active gang member. This week it’s vice grips and a car magazine.

Outside, two men are looking under the hood of a blue sports car. Shades of the old paint job are still visible. The owner is sitting behind the wheel.

Gonzalo Ramirez, front, and his friends trick out their low-riders.

Photo by David Robert

“Don’t ask where he got it,” El Greco says.

The owner wants the car painted a new color for A Day in the Barrio.

“Thanks to Cheeko (Nerey), you got people investing their time in cars,” El Greco says. “They’ve been preparing [for A Day in the Barrio] for months. It keeps them occupied.”

El Greco is also entering a car in the competition.

“There’s a lot of other things I could do on my free time,” he says, “and it’d be nothing good.”

After the others have gone inside the apartment, El Greco caresses the roof of the sports car; the alarm beeps once.

“One way or another,” he says, “people are going to have their low-riders.” He believes a car is a piece of art that reflects the owner’s personality. It is one avenue of peaceful expression available to gangsters.

Low-riders have articulated Latino culture since they originated in Los Angeles during the 1950s. Paint jobs were murals that told stories; hydraulics were cannibalized from Caterpillar earthmovers.

“The best thing to do is support [low-riders],” El Greco says, “and try to work with us, try to make it into something positive. That’s one way of diminishing the violence.”

Several members of Suavecito Car Club have endured gang life, including Ramirez. Although his arms are still inked with markings from his past, he freed himself of his gang seven years ago, when he learned he was going to be a father.

He and Jesus Perez founded Suavecito three years ago as an alternative to gangs. Since then, the club has grown from two to 10 members, with three presidents, one who drives from South Lake Tahoe for their weekly meetings.

“We got luxury, we got old school,” says Salvador Perez, 22, brother of Jesus. Their cars range in age from a ‘99 Mustang to a ‘64 Ford Galaxy; several members have two vehicles—a classic and a newer car.

They work on each others’ rides, Ramirez says. Each member has a trade: Ramirez wires toggle switches, Jesus constructs interiors and makes canvas tops, Salvador does hydraulics.

The 10 club members round the parking lot like a centipede as they leave El Pollo Loco. The first and last cars meet as one completes the loop and the other begins.

On a typical weekend, Ramirez says, between 80 and 100 car enthusiasts cruise the streets of Reno in low-riders, hot rods, trucks and SUVs.

“We encourage, not criticize,” Salvador says. “If we see a cool car, we give them props.”

“We’re competing every weekend,” Ramirez says. “At a stoplight, if a guy hits his hydraulics, we have to hit ours.”

If the contest draws on, they might meet in the Dairy Queen parking lot to continue. The winner will be the person with the best setup, Ramirez says.

“If we get beat, we come back stronger the next weekend."