Roberto Hernandez, head of the San Francisco Lowrider Council, turned the ritual of Saturday night cruising on Mission Street into a statement of cultural identity. He is more than just a lowrider, however; he is also deeply involved with the community’s youth, teaching them about their Mayan ancestry through art and painting lowrider cars. Some of his students’ paintings are currently on exhibit in the show “Mundo Maya 12:12:12” at Galeria de la Raza through Dec. 29. Hernandez took time out to discuss his art, philosophy and favorite cars with Mission Local.
Mission Local: How were you able to get something that is seen as a negative by authorities, lowriding, to be seen as a positive vehicle (excuse the pun) for change in the community?
Roberto Hernandez: Well, because one of the things that we did was we changed the concept of it being [a] negative thing to do, and I began to talk about it and address it as the art of lowriding, because it’s an art form for a lot of us — the art elements that go into a car, the paint jobs and the art that we put on the cars. The other thing is, it’s an invention. We invented that. It’s a Latino invention … It’s been a long process to educate the people about that, but at the end of the day, people got it, you know?
ML: Are young males more attracted to working on lowriders or painting them, since working on cars is a male-dominated activity — more so than young females?
RH: It draws both. There’s a lot of females that are actually … into lowriding, but people just don’t know that because they associate males with lowriders.
ML: Has working with the community’s youth affected your art in any way?
RH: Yeah, because every piece of art that I create has a message, you know? It’s a statement that I’m making … it tells a story, and that’s my intent in my art, is to create a story.
ML: When you were younger, did working on cars or cruising the Mission keep you out of trouble?
RH: Oh yeah, for sure, because it takes a lot of time to work on your car. If you want to learn, that’s something you want to keep learning and you want to keep learning and you want to keep learning, you know?
ML: A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle said that you’ve “mellowed into a community organizer” now that you’re in your 50s. Is it accurate to say that you’ve “mellowed,” or have you always been involved with your community?
RH: I was always involved with my community.
ML: You told the Chronicle that you have ceremonias when you work on the cars with your students. Can you elaborate on how working on cars is a spiritual activity for you and your students?
RH: Well, actually … with the students … working on cars is just one element. There’s a lot of different elements. So whether we’re going to learn how to draw circles today or whether we’re going to learn about the Mayan food or whatever we’re going to learn about for the day, we begin it with a ceremonia and we honor our ancestors, and most important is that part of the ceremony is that we spend a little time checking in, you know? “How you doing?” We call it regalos and cargas. Regalos is “What gifts have you received since the last time we were together?” We also share [cargas, or burdens] “What’s holding you back? What are your struggles? What’s… bringing you down?” So it’s a form of basically bringing everybody together to practice our indigenous ways, because anytime there’s a gathering, we always have conversation and we check in with each other. So what I’ve done is … helped them open up and … let out what you’re feeling and you can walk freely.
ML: Is there ever a struggle to get these kids to let that out, to open up?
RH: In the beginning there was, there sure was. But it became a matter of trust. And they saw … who I was and they got to know me and I knew some of them, so there was already that level of trust, but as we went through it became a little more … [In] the beginning some of them held back, but … as we moved on they all opened up.
ML: Do you open up to them as well?
RH: Yeah. They are my cargas. They are my regalos.
ML: This year is particularly significant to a lot of people because it is the end of the fifth Mayan calendar. Some predict doom while others predict renewal, and yet others think nothing will happen. What does this year and the end date mean to you? What do you think will happen on Dec. 21, 2012?
RH: It’s a new beginning, and it’s a beginning that’s going to create change and hope for our community, you know? There’s a … consciousness that’s being built here in this country here today, more than ever before. It’s just a lot of work that’s being done that a lot of us have been doing. We’re all connected and … we’re going to create that change, and Obama was part of the greater change, but we the people are the ones that are going to create the change.
ML: You told the Chronicle that you experienced a “transformation … atop a Mayan temple.” Exactly what kind of transformation did you experience?
RH: Ah man … it’s hard to explain because it’s like really magical when you’re standing on top of a pyramid. And I’ve done that throughout all of Mundo Maya when I’ve been through Mexico or Guatemala. And when you’re up there, there’s just this energy, just this … this clarity that you get, and it’s a time when you get to meditate and really get in touch with Mother Earth and the beauty of everything Mother Earth gives us. For me that’s transforming in so many ways, to be grateful for, and not take for granted, this earth. And one of the things that I learned was that we are here to visit Mother Earth, and what we do as we’re here visiting Mother Earth is part of our journey. We don’t know when we’re going to get here and we don’t know when we’re leaving, you know? What are we going to do while we’re here?
ML: What’s your favorite car?
RH: ’64 Chevy Impala.
ML: If there was one thing you could impart to your students and the youth of this community, what would it be?
RH: For them to learn about their roots and their culture, because once you learn your roots and your culture, then you know who [you are]. … That’s what I struggled with, being born here in San Francisco. I wasn’t taught in the schools. Nobody really taught me who I was, and it wasn’t until I learned who I was that I was able to connect with myself. Spiritually, my heart, my soul, my body and my mind … I know who I am today, and I’m proud of who I am today.
ML: What inspires you? How do you choose the designs on the cars? What kind of process do you go through in making the stylistic decisions for the art on your cars?
RH: It just kind of naturally comes. It’s like, the middle of the night, wake up and boom, there it is.