Looking to steer Latinos into auto design

L.A. Latinos have had big influence on car culture, yet just 5% of Pasadena's Art Center students are Latinos

Los Angeles is a world center for automotive design, and its Latino population has made massive contributions to American car culture — from custom paint and pinstriping to lowrider car design.

It has made less of an impact on Pasadena's Art Center College of Design, the top auto design training institution in the nation, where just 5% of about 2,000 students are of Latino heritage.

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FOR THE RECORD

Latinos at Art Center: In the June 13 Business section, an article about Latino students at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena stated that they represented 5% of the total student body and that this year's auto design program had one Latino graduate. The program had two Latino graduates, and 11% of students are Latino.

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"It's not enough," said Stewart Reed, chair of Art Center's Transportation Systems and Design program. "We're not satisfied with that number."

Bruno Gallardo is the exception to that rule, the only Latino in the program's graduating class of 2015. The 26-year-old from Van Nuys joins an august body of alumni. Graduates have gone on to distinguish themselves as designers and design executives at a long list of U.S. and European carmakers as diverse as Alfa Romeo, Ford, Tesla and Volvo.

Luxury car builder Henrik Fisker was a graduate. So was Willie G. Davidson, grandson of a Harley-Davidson co-founder and later a key designer at the motorcycle company.

There's no easy answer as to why there aren't more Bruno Gallardos on that list, but the school's global reputation means it draws students from everywhere — and not necessarily those matching the demographics of their Southern California home. School officials say the high tuition and a limited supply of Latino professors may be part of the reason.

"We're trying to increase the diversity of our faculty," Reed said. "We know it starts with the faculty."

Local Latino students, meanwhile, don't necessarily see the local school as a home for them.

"There was this perceived reality that this isn't a field for Latinos," said actor, comedian and car enthusiast Cheech Marin. "It's a club for these other guys."

Marin collects Chicano art and has helped judge Art Center competitions. The school, he said, is missing out on a wealth of history and culture that Latino students could bring to automotive design. L.A.'s Latinos represent a car culture that actually predates the automobile, he said.

"The whole Mexican fascination with cars comes out of the fascination with horses," Marin said. "That's the reason lowriders go slow. They parade their cars like they paraded their horses around the square in Mexico — in order to show off for girls."

Latinos from East Los Angeles drove the cultural phenomenon of cruising, which drove lowrider car design, which gave birth to homegrown cruise music — including Richie Valens' "La Bamba" and War's "Low Rider."

"Low-riding culture started here in Los Angeles," said Leslie Kendall, chief curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum, which has hosted two lowrider-themed exhibits.

Gallardo ended up at Art Center through the intervention of a man whose home his mother was cleaning. The Honduran immigrant worked as a housekeeper for television writer John Peaslee, who noticed her son's keen interest in cars.

As a boy, Gallardo thought he might end up a mechanic, like his uncle, who owned his own shop. But Peaslee one day took him to an open house at Art Center, an impression that stuck.

Gallardo, a sharp dresser who has thick, wavy black hair and a piercing in one eyebrow, is the second-youngest in a family of five children, and the only boy.

His mother encouraged his interest in building with an early Lego set. (One of his first constructions was a car.) Later, she helped him buy broken-down motorcycles and beater cars, which he turned into daily drivers and sold to raise money to buy better vehicles.

While attending Birmingham High School, Gallardo crammed in workshops and weekend classes that Art Center offers for younger students who show promise. He continued taking Art Center classes part-time while attending Pasadena City College, hoping to be admitted as a full-time student.

After he was, administrators said, he was able to take advantage of scholarship programs — the school distributes $15 million a year in financial aid — which took some of the sting out of the school's tuition. A typical undergraduate degree costs more than $150,000, and Gallardo estimates his student loan tab at about $100,000.

Art Center representatives said about 90% of graduates are working in their chosen field of study within a year of graduating. A certain percentage are hired before they graduate, for entry-level design jobs that may pay from $55,000 to $80,000 a year.

Within a couple of weeks of graduating, Gallardo said he had already interviewed with Honda, GM, Chrysler and other automotive companies — after having done undergraduate internships with Ford, Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Polaris Industries. The interviewing is very competitive, especially for car company design jobs.

"It's like the NBA draft," said Gallardo, who likened transitioning from star student to job candidate to "going from being the biggest shark in the tank to being in an aquarium full of sharks."

Gallardo's design interests are far-reaching, and his tastes are eclectic. Before entering Art Center, he built his own electric motorcycle, and today confesses great admiration for the form and function of the Tesla electric car.

His school projects in the design program included a Lamborghini — because, he jokes, the company actually makes a 200-mile-per-hour supercar called a "Gallardo." (His "dream car," when he was a boy, was the Lamborghini V12 Countach, he said.)

It's not the outside of the car that excites him, he said, as much as the inside: "Interiors are my pursuit. I see a lot of missed opportunities there."

And his Latino heritage, he thinks, does not define him.

"I really don't consider my race as an influence," he said. "The only time I pay attention to that is when I'm filling out a form."

In late May, Gallardo's family and mentor Peaslee attended the graduation. "We were all sobbing," Peaslee said.

After he took his diploma, Gallardo said, his mother gave him a congratulatory card — with a caveat.

"She said, 'I'm going to give you this card, but first you have to give me back my credit card,'" Gallardo said. "She said, 'You're on your own now.'"

charles.fleming@latimes.com

Twitter: @misterfleming

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