The Dukes - Julio Ruelas - Fernando Ruelas - Oscar Ruelas - Ernie Ruelas - Ruelas Bros.
The Dukes “It’s a Family Affair” by Denise Michelle Sandoval
The best examples of low riding are the stories, which center on the family. More importantly, the history of low riding is an everyday practice within much of Mexican American Los Angeles, which revolves around la familia and the strong bonds created because of that union. Low riding is a tradition that is passed on from one generation to the next, from father to son to grandson. Los Angeles is also the birthplace for the oldest low rider car club, the Dukes, who prove that the strength of the lowriding tradition is found in la familia. They are also very dedicated to keeping nuestra cultura alive in the barrios of Aztlan. The Dukes are known for customizing ’39 Chevys a choice that made them stand out from the rest of the low riders in the 1960s and 1970s when most lowriders were customizing cars from the 1950s and 1960s. Today these trendsetters are “godfathers” to the new generation of lowriders, especially the younger generation that is enticed by the challenge of customizing a ’39 “pachuco style” like the Dukes. This car club is a beautiful example of the lowriding tradition and their story has its beginnings in a time period in Los Angeles history when being Mexican was a reason to be seen as inferior to Anglo Americans.
It is a story that begins just south of downtown Los Angeles on 41st street and Long Beach Avenue. In the mid-1950s Josefina Ruelas, a single mother of four boys (Julio, Oscar, Fernando, and Ernie), immigrated to Los Angeles from Tijuana and settled in with Uncle Tinker and Tia Chana. Uncle Tinker, who became a father figure to his nephews, introduced the boys to auto mechanics in an attempt to keep them off the streets and in the process, he taught them about taking pride in their work. The most important lesson that he imparted to them was the positive influence of la familia working together. These would be lessons the Ruelas brothers would one-day pass on to their own sons. As Fernando remembers in the documentary Low and Slow:
My involvement in low riding goes as far back when I was a young kid and my uncle was a pretty good influence on that, being he bought us a go-cart. He also took us to the scrap yard where they had tons of bicycles and he’ll go out there and he’ll buy them for us and we’ll put them together and we’ll do all these different types of modifications…My mother played a pretty good role into this because she preferred us out there with the go-carts and with the bicycles and the skateboards and the scooters than being on the street (Monica Delgado and Michael Van Wagenen, Low and Slow, 16mm, 27 min., Ritual Films & Publications, 1997).
At age thirteen, they each had a car that they began to customize and each of the brothers became a “specialist” in certain areas of car customizing. For example, one brother would specialize in bodywork, one in upholstery and another in electrical wiring. Since each one had different talents, they would build the cars as a team. Even though they were not able to drive these cars legally, the brothers still took pleasure in their work. More importantly though is the fact that the process of building a car became a family effort of love as the brothers worked together. It also is a source of pride to say that they built the car themselves instead of sending the car to different shops in order to get the work done. According to the Dukes, their lowrider club is an extension of their family and that approach is one of the reasons for their longevity. In this manner, the car club is more than just cars; it has really family ties that are integral to the survival of the club. As the oldest brother Julio relates:
A car club is a family orientated thing. We are a whole family. It is a big family and you get them together. You can invite your cousins, your brothers, your daughters, your sons, your wife, your in-laws, grandparents, whoever. We will have barbecue or dances. That is what it is all about…a car club (Julio Ruelas, interview by author, tape recording, Los Angeles, CA, 12 June 1999).
The brothers are also acutely aware that lowriding is tied to Chicano culture and it is something that Chicanos should take pride in. They want the work that they do to have a positive effect on the Chicano community, especially Chicano youth. Fernando mentioned that the sole purpose to start the club was not to get a thousand members, but instead their main objective was to capture the youth and give them a positive alternative to gangs that might change their lives. They also share their own history growing up to also motivate youth to enter into positive activities in their communities. An example of this concern is when a documentary crew asked them to make a film on their car club, they did it only when the crew promised to make the documentary available to the schools, especially schools with young Chicanos. The Dukes are well known among Chicano youth that follow lowriding history and culture. I can only interject my own experience when I was at the Petersen Automotive Museum and a large group of Chicano youth surrounded the Dukes one Saturday afternoon, asking for their autographs and posing for pictures with them. The Dukes are a fine example of role models from the Chicano community and they also promote the positive effects of lowriding, which are often overlooked by the media. When asked if lowriding is a positive activity for Chicano youth to get involved in, Ernie Ruelas responds:
I think that it is real positive because it is bringing awareness and it is bringing Mexican people or Chicano people to work together and to let them know that is it not about doing combat with one another, but loving one another in building something that is in our blood already. Chicano people have a lot of talent but they are starting to work more together with each other and not be jealous of each other, give each other respect, and get respect when it is due and all that…I think that I live to see positive change in a direction where people can love each other, respect each other, and to really let people know that don’t know much about our background and all that. Let them know how talented we are and let them know we also demand respect through our challenge and that kind of stuff. We must love each other more and be more aware of the good things rather than the violence and the fighting…(Ernie Ruelas, interview by author, tape recording, Los Angeles, CA, 12 June 1999).
The Ruelas Brothers readily admit that as youth in the late 1950’s they joined the 38th Street gang out of a need for protection. The 38th Street gang achieved mainstream recognition through the Sleepy Lagoon case of 1942 when 22 of their members where found guilty of crimes ranging from assault to first degree murder through an unfair and racist trial. The Dukes’ roots are tied inextricably to Chicano history in Los Angeles through their association with the 38th Street gang. Ironically, their cars would be featured in the movie premiere of the movie Zoot Suit (1981) that chronicled the Sleepy Lagoon case, again tying them to their own 38th Street past. That aside, in 1962 their passion for cars won out over gang loyalty and they decided to form their own social club with Julio Ruelas as the first club president. The Dukes car club was born and the car club became an alternative to gang life—or la vida loca. This threat to gang control of the neighborhood caused some initial hard feelings between the Duke’s and the 38th Street gang. Yet, this riff vanished as the Dukes car club brought honor and respect to their neighborhood. Car clubs as social clubs provided an alternative option to gangs by providing the brothers with a positive social environment that was “respectable”, even in the eyes of the gang members. Respect and pride is a theme that runs through their family story. As Oscar Ruelas relates:
So that was really the main thing in starting the car club, doing things, doing different things and to show the people that we just weren’t gang members, we did have some kind of pride in us, we did know how to do something else besides just hanging out in the street, running around the neighborhood doing nothing.
(Monica Delgado and Michael Van Wagenen, Low and Slow, 16mm, 27 min., Ritual Films & Publications, 1997)
Cars in many Mexican American barrios throughout the Southwest provided the motivation for many youth to become involved in social car clubs since cars were “status symbols” which a youth could take pride in. The style of car customizing “pachuco cars” which Chicanos brought to the streets was also tied to the Mexican pre-Columbian past and would also impact the broader community as well during the 1960s. Julio Ruelas traces the beginning of low rider cars to the pachucos and the cars they drove as statements of their individuality within the Mexican American community. And this new car aesthetic was definitely Chicano since it had pride in our rich ancestry from Mexico and also had roots in American car culture. According to Julio, “Chicanos have always been low riding. I always saw them in the 1950s. Our colors we get them from our ancestors, the Aztecs. The color of feathers is the color of automobiles you see. We have our own ideas and our own style (Julio Ruelas, interview by author, tape recording, Los Angeles, CA, 12 June 1999).”
In the late 1960s a cultural renaissance was hitting Chicano barrios and low riders were part of that activity. Chicano Pride became the motto of the Chicano Movement and nowhere was that more evident than in the streets of East Los Angles. Whittier Boulevard was alive every weekend as the top cruising spot in Los Angeles, and the Dukes were an important part of that scene. Each lowrider club had their own spot on the Boulevard and the Dukes had the prime spot in the Huggie Boy (a popular radio deejay) car lot, which was a prestigious place on the boulevard. As Fernando recalls, “Nobody parked in our lot, they knew it was ours. We filled it with ‘39s.” Yet, the late 1960s also brought the Vietnam War to many Chicano barrios as many of these same young men who cruised the boulevard were drafted in the army. Several members of the Duke’s were drafted into the U.S. army, including the Ruelas Brothers. Oscar was drafted in 1966, followed by Ernie in 1968 and finally Fernando in 1969. Many of the lowrider clubs also lost members in that war and Fernando Ruelas thought it would be the end of lowriding. If they lost a member to the war, they would always honor these fallen heroes a “lowrider funeral” which consisted of a large caravan of lowriders. The Chicano Movement was also occurring during this time period, and anti-Vietnam War protests were also a part of the various social movements, which sought equity for Mexican Americans. Many activists argued that Chicanos were dying in disproportionate numbers in Vietnam (see Rodolfo Acuna, Occupied America, 377) , a sentiment that is echoed by the Dukes who lost many friends to the war. The Dukes survived this time period even though the car club was reduced to a handful of people in the early 1970s, and the war could not stop the passion for lowriding. Ernie declares how he felt in those early years, “And it made me say it doesn’t matter if you have only two people, three people, we are the Dukes (Ernie Ruelas, interview by author, tape recording, Los Angeles, CA, 12 June 1999).”
Therefore in1974 Fernando Ruelas became President of the club, a title he holds till this day, and he is also responsible for the changes to come on the lowriding scene in the late 1970s. The Dukes were key in the formation of the West Coast Association of Low riders in 1978 with the Imperials and Groupe car clubs. The purpose of the association was to get car clubs to unite and do something positive within the Chicano community. Together these clubs put on a “Christmas Toys for Kids” car show with all proceeds going to purchase toys and Christmas stockings for underprivileged children. This annual tradition continues to this day. It is their commitment to community activism that separates the Dukes from other car clubs. The Dukes have organized car shows to benefit the broader Chicano community from Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers to Mecha and other Chicano organizations to local prisons. They even had a “Dukes Bus” that they would take to prisons, along with lowriders, to put on lowrider shows for the inmates. All of this activity reveals the importance of la familia and the community to low riders who do more than just cruise la calle/the street. The Dukes represent the statement “giving back to the community” and they are also a testament to the power of la familia which sustains Chicanismo in the barrios of Los Angeles. As Fernando states:
We were raised poor and we know what it feels like to hungry and poor. At seven years of age I sold newspapers and shined shoes to help support my family. So, our car club stated donating time for fundraising to help the community…the community needs help and we are there to help any way we can (Fernando Ruelas, interview by author, tape recording, La Habra, CA, 10 June 1999).
The Dukes were also pioneers in the low rider car show circuit. Between the years of 1966 and 1977, the Dukes were featured at the Trident Car shows (which later became the R.G. Canning Productions) and were the only low rider club invited during the initial years because of the tensions between hot rodders and low riders within the car customizing scene. Unfortunately, low riders were given little respect if at all within the mainstream car customizing scene. But that would change. In 1979, the Dukes helped to produce the first Super Show at the Los Angeles convention Center along with Sonny Madrid, the editor of Low Rider Magazine. They also participated in the very first LA Street Scene along with Tower of Power, War and Tierra. The Dukes also broke through many cultural barriers by being accepted by mainstream car magazines, such as Car Craft and Hot Rod Magazine. The Ruelas Brothers are able to promote their products—their cars—and they also take great pride in having made a name for themselves within the lowrider scene as car customizers who produce top quality work, again as a family unit. Ernie describes the legacy of the Dukes car club to the lowrider scene as follows:
I think that someone out there who is versed in old custom cars can work at one of our customs that we built and say right away, the Ruelas brothers built this. Because they know we were first in doing that style of car. I think that even now that is what it is all about. To me, I get off on being able to have the energy and the charisma and everything else and the knowledge of being able to build my stuff the way I want it right now…Here with this family that I am involved with is so talented, is so rich in talent. I am really blessed…I wish that we can be able to do more things together, like we used to when we were young though (Ernie Ruelas, interview by author, tape recording, Los Angeles, CA, 12 June 1999).
Today, the Ruelas family still owns the shop and house that Uncle Tinker left them on the corner of Long Beach Ave and 41st. Their shop is a family business that Fernando wants to keep in the family and he is grooming his sons and nephews to take over one day. They have had many offers to sell the property for big money since it is located right along the Alameda Corridor, but Fernando always refuses. He believes that is important that it stays in the family, even though some of the other brothers believe the money would be nice. Today, all the Ruelas brothers moved their families East of Los Angeles to the suburbs of Whittier and La Habra, yet the oldest brother Julio still lives in the house he grew up in, and right on the porch is a street sign that reads “Lowrider Blvd.” Even though the brothers moved out of the area, they still get together on the weekends to work on their cars. And Jay and Ernie Jr., the oldest sons of Fernando and Ernie respectively, work in the shop during the week and they are also dedicated to the Dukes’ lowrider legacy. Ernie Jr. describes what it means to be a part of this legacy:
It feels pretty good to work with my dad and my family because I’d rather work with them than work with anybody else…. And also people think lowriding is a negative image like gang members and stuff. Its not necessarily like that, there’s a lot of family orientated people that are involved in it. They make look strange at sometimes, but it’s particularly family working people who are earning an honest living and just want to have fun and build their cars and take them out to shows and have a good time. It’s really a family thing (Monica Delgado and Michael Van Wagenen, Low and Slow, 16mm, 27 min., Ritual Films & Publications, 1997).
Just as the Ruelas brothers learned their customizing skills by working on bikes and go-carts, the younger generation of the Dukes received their schooling on customizing through also working on bikes. In 1977, The Dukes started a bike chapter in order to get the youth involved. Just as the Ruelas brothers had to work for their money to customize as boys, the next generation of Dukes also had to work hard in order to buy the bikes and also to maintain their bikes. In the process, a love and passion for customizing was born later continued as they graduated to working on cars. The bike chapter is also a way in which the fathers could build relationships with their sons by working together to create a lowrider bike and also teach them to have respect and pride in the work they do. As Oscar Jr. a member of the Dukes bike club chapter states:
I save my cans for I could make money so I could buy parts. I buy the parts for my bike and I’m barely working on it. I worked on it for one year and I’m also finished. I really like working with him [my dad] on my car. I really like watching my dad. I like cleaning it [the car] for him and everything (Monica Delgado and Michael Van Wagenen, Low and Slow, 16mm, 27 min., Ritual Films & Publications, 1997).
The women in the Ruelas family also play a central role in the workings of the car club, although their roles may not be visible, their presence is still felt. And many of the men mention that they could not participate in the car club if not for the support and patience of their wives. Gloria Ruelas is Fernando’s wife and she is the coordinator of all the Duke’s chapters throughout the United States. Gloria remarks that the car club has been a positive influence for her sons in the documentary Low and Slow:
I think it’s great that the boys are involved in the old cars and the old bikes. It kind of keeps their mind off drugs, being in the street, drinking and basically stirring up a ruckus…This takes up so much of their time and they’re so intense about it that they really don’t have time for anything else. And also, it costs a lot of money. They have to work to get their cars done. And the bikes, it’s a very expensive hobby and I want them to know that if they want something they have to work for it. No one is going to give it to them (Monica Delgado and Michael Van Wagenen, Low and Slow, 16mm, 27 min., Ritual Films & Publications, 1997).
Since the car club is family orientated, the participation of the women is also important, and they too are at all the car shows. The most important female presence is that of Josefina Ruelas who is always at every car show and exhibit to show support for her sons as she says “ I am always with them, all the time. In spite of my age and all, I love to be with them” (Monica Delgado and Michael Van Wagenen, Low and Slow, 16 mm, 27 min., Ritual Films & Publications, 1999).
Over the years, the Dukes have built a solid reputation and have set the standards for other car clubs. The Ruelas Brothers developed the necessary skills in car customizing that would establish them as one of the top low rider car clubs for nearly forty years with thirty chapters nationally and even internationally. The Ruelas family is truly passionate about lowriding as a sport and as a way of life. As Fernando says, “If God gives me another fifty or forty years, we still be doing the same thing. It is something that we will carry on”(Fernando Ruelas, interview by author, tape recording, La Habra, CA, 10 June 1999). But, it is their commitment to their East-side roots over the years, which speaks to the strength of the low riding tradition within Chicano communities. The Ruelas brothers exemplify the roots of lowriding which is anchored respect and family. It is also a source of pride that stems from el corazon/the heart as Julio beautifully states:
A true low rider comes from one’s heart, a true working person that has his own steady job or his own business and he loves automobiles and goes by low riding. Low riding is more than a name. It is really a customized car, whether you change the interior, change the painting, the engine, put chrome here or there…And your sounds…your oldies music…”
(Julio Ruelas, interview by author, tape recording, Los Angeles, CA, 12 June 1999).
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