Lowriders-–those heavily customized cars and trucks that cruise only a few inches above the asphalt--have been around since the 1940s.

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For some people, the vehicles conjure up images of a fringe subculture, perhaps associated with youth and gang activity. But Charles Tatum’s new book, Lowriders in Chicano Culture: From Low to Slow to Show, sheds a different light on the multifaceted cultural tradition of the lowrider.

“It’s very complex,” says Tatum. “Like any manifestation of popular culture, it’s got deep roots and a historical context.”

Tatum, a professor of Spanish at the University of Arizona and former dean of the College of Humanities, says the lowrider is part of an expressive culture that reflects the social, artistic and political dimensions of the Chicano experience.

His book “shows that (the lowrider) is a very popular icon that has a long history in Chicano literature, particularly in urban culture, going back to post World War II,” he says.

Tatum says lowrider culture began as a spontaneous urban phenomenon in the barrios of East Los Angeles. The style quickly spread westward through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and beyond. He points out that over the last 60 or 70 years, lowrider culture has evolved into a unique aesthetic that maintains a connection with the past.

“It’s become an international phenomenon,” says Tatum. “Now they’re doing trucks, they’re doing station wagons, they’re doing European cars, they’re doing Japanese cars.”

With roots firmly planted in the Mexican American neighborhoods of the southwest, Tatum says the lowrider represents a cultural marker of America’s fastest-growing ethnic group.

Tatum recently presented a program on lowriders as part of the University of Arizona Confluence Center for Creative Inquiry. The presentation featured vehicles from two of Tucson’s lowrider clubs: Groupe and Swift.