Under the Hood

Lynell George is a senior writer for West. Her work has appeared in Ms., Essence, Vibe and other magazines, as well as in the essay collection "Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology."

Like they have most every Saturday morning for the last 40 years and more, the Ruelas brothers are just getting down to work, bent over one primer-gray ghost of a car or another. The cluttered, grease-stained yard is filled with them--relics that are sensuous arrangements of curves, spheres and dovetailing angles; a scatter of grilles from Buicks and Bentleys and late-'30s and -'40s Chevys; carriages and front ends all rusted out in tones of aging sepia photographs. This yard isn't where cars come to die, but to be reborn. Re-imagined."We build them from scraps," says Fernando, "and put them in arenas and see if they'll win a prize. A 6- or 7-foot-tall trophy."

They've built cars for the film "Zoot Suit" ("and the premiere," Fernando italicizes) and appeared on the cover of Life magazine. They're still supplying cars for parades and television shows and movies and cultural celebrations such as Cinco de Mayo, as well as taking on a succession of commissions. Their most recent work in progress is an elaborate reconstruction of an old-fashioned ice cream truck--its body the canvas for a dramatic wraparound mural by San Antonio-based artist Vincent Valdez chronicling the story of a vanished neighborhood--for Ry Cooder and his Chavez Ravine project. "It's a business, sure," says Fernando, "but it's an obsession."

In all this time at their South L.A. custom shop, they've also built something more head-turning and remarkable: Duke's, the oldest lowrider car club in continuous existence in the world. It's something Fernando doesn't let you forget--because he's proud and president of the Southern California chapter. The shop in turn has become more than a pit stop; it has become a social nexus, sparking lifelong alliances.

The Ruelases--Julio, Ernesto, Fernando and Oscar--have been here not quite as long as some of these ghost cars, but long enough. They've sat tight as the streets have transformed around them. They've been here since the neighborhood was predominantly African American and have watched as it has become predominantly Latino. They've watched as many of the little houses and their shade trees and succulent gardens have been razed to make way for cinderblock warehouses and empty lots, watched as scores that were once settled with fists and blades have been settled quick and dirty with guns. Mostly they've been here long enough to remember when black and brown men could be found under the same car, swapping stories, pulling on beers, grooving to a steady stream of R&B; culled from brother Julio's prized and priceless collection. Because, as Fernando knows, who doesn't love cars?

Fernando and his son Alex hover over the husk of a car, a mirrored expression of absorption etched on their faces. Another man, Fernando's right hand (and Duke's sergeant-at-arms), Richard Ceniceros, nicknamed "Chivo," is at the moment just a muffled voice and pair of faded dungarees and work shoes spilling out from beneath the chassis of his 1939 Chevy Master Deluxe 4-door.

Of all the cars that have rolled out of this shop, of all the 100 or so the brothers own personally (and have secreted away in garages and warehouses all over town), they have particularly soft spots for a few. Julio's 1954 Chevrolet was made famous on the cover of Tierra's 1980 album "City Nights." Oscar cruised L.A. in a 1956 Chevy known as "Mr. Know It All." And with great ceremony, Fernando recently bequeathed his prized 1937 Buick, "The Black Crow," to his eldest son, Jay. "I was the only oddball with those Cadillacs and Buicks," he says. "I just loved them because they were loooooong, and when you put the hydraulics on them and lay 'em down they look beautiful."

Fernando's head vanishes beneath Chivo's Chevy. Resurfacing, he barks out his assessment in what is left of a rasp of a voice: "We need to get the right pinion angle on that rear end so we can weld the spring seats." They've already taken out the six-cylinder engine and put in a V-8 350, but there's much more to do before they can fire it up and get it to the muffler shop.

Before long, though, someone has snapped open a beer, and someone else has switched on the radio. It's just a murmur, quiet enough to sound ethereal, doo-wop harmonies rising into the sky. They recall a different time, a more spacious Los Angeles, where grand avenues served as a proper stage for grand old cars, big imaginations and big dreams.

Brother Julio arrives, and shortly thereafter he's talking to an old friend who's just stopped by, who has a friend of a friend who's thinking about selling his '37 Chevy. With all the glad-handing and back-clapping, one might be tempted to call the gathering a reunion, but this is a standing occasion, a routine that gets going, right about noon, every Saturday--weather, schedules or health permitting. (This, on top of day jobs.) You sense right away that if the Ruelases weren't here--the last remnant of the old days, the old ways--many people wouldn't know where to go, what to do with the expanse of a fine weekend afternoon.

For 40 years, people from all over the city have drifted in on business or on the pretense of it: car club members and their friends from Whittier or La Habra or Inglewood; old classmates, black and brown; old, old friends and neighbors; Little Willie G. of Thee Midniters and R&B; singer Tony Allen ("Night Owl"), who, Fernando says, has been scuffling, trying to keep it together of late--without a phone number or address or even a bed to sleep in sometimes.

"I haven't seen Tony in about a month and a half. He usually comes here all the time. He'll come here, cuss me out . . ."

"He'll have a few beers," adds Chivo, who only moments ago has crawled from beneath his car and started in on a Bud Light himself.

"We'll all get caught up on things," says Fernando.

After a while he and Chivo end up on cast-off office chairs that Alex has seemingly plucked out of nowhere. They arrange them on the concrete, Fernando in the shade, Chivo in full sun, leaning back as if they're relaxing on an expanse of lawn. They take in the nearly unobstructed view of Long Beach Avenue. An occasional freight train thunders by, as sobering as an earthquake. "I miss all the little houses, all the humble people," says Fernando, "the way things used to be."

It's always been a sketchy stretch, bound and determined to stay that way, or so it seems. Today the 4100 block of Long Beach Avenue--just north of Vernon, south of the downtown skyline--is a mishmash of light industry that's grown up alongside vintage California bungalows and the old Red Car corridor, now the busy passage for the Metro Blue Line. For the most part it's a sun-faded, mixed-use, mixed-race urban neighborhood, largely invisible, except when it finds itself the subject of media scrutiny and political head-scratching over erupting schoolyards or community protests.

An African American woman with cropped platinum hair pushes an empty baby carriage. Two Latinas carrying what looks to be a week's load of groceries trudge toward the rest of their day. New Japanese cars with fancy rims sail past, leaving trails of heart-thudding low-end reverb. Fernando registers none of it--until a two-tone, grass-green, midcentury "bomb" rolls by, letting out a rumble. "Hey! He gave me the pipes!" Fernando says, more than a little perturbed by the posturing, the challenge of the growling tailpipe.

"You must know him, man," Chivo says reassuringly, in best right-hand-man fashion. "He probably was just saying hello."

Back in the '50s, when Josefina Ruelas moved her family from Tijuana to South Los Angeles, she had a sense of what they would be getting into. Even then, the neighborhood was tough and wound up with tensions, some race-related, some gang-related and some both. But the Ruelases moved in with relatives who hipped them to the particulars. "It was sunup to sundown to raise us," says Fernando. "A lot of thanks has to go to my mother and my Aunt Lucille--who treated us like blood."

It was Aunt Lucille's husband, Uncle Tinker ("Yes, really, Tinker! Frank C. Tinker!"), who tried to steer the boys away from the street gangs that were scattered through the neighborhood like landmines, the most powerful and infamous being the 38th Street Gang. Uncle Tinker owned a mechanic's shop around the corner on 41st Street. He got the brothers started on go-carts and minibikes, prepping them for cars. They'd trek down to Albert & Albert Junkyard and fish out old Schwinn bikes. "For 50 cents, you'd get 20 or 30 because they'd sell it penny a pound," Fernando says. And once they hooked up lawn mower engines, they'd have motorbikes. "My Uncle Tinker was smart." But he could only hold their attention for a little while.

Gang alliances drew a complicated city map, one that the boys committed to memory. "Thirty gangs in 30 blocks," Fernando says. Black gangs: the Businessmen, the Gladiators, the Pueblos, the Slausons. Latino gangs: 38th Street, Mateo Street, 7th Street. Outside the immediate neighborhood: the Aranas, Clanton, Prima Flats (a.k.a. Westside Flats). "Everywhere you turned you had to watch your step."

Eventually the Ruelas brothers fell in, for protection's sake, they say. Fernando rolls up his left pant leg to reveal a faded tattoo just above his anklebone--a spider, the mark of the Aranas. "Take in mind, I knew a lot of them from school. So I joined. Now, I'm from 38 [turf]--that's a no-no." But it helped to circulate, he says. "You could move around and meet their women . . . you know what I'm talking about?"

The friction back then, Fernando says, was mostly territorial, not like the black-brown blowups he's been keeping tabs on at his alma mater, Jefferson High. "There were a lot of African Americans that were across the tracks, and they would not dare cross into 38 territory, except for the ones who grew up in the neighborhood. They knew Spanish and everything. Remember Eunice and the whole clan?" Fernando glances at Chivo.

"Yeah."

"I forgot their last name--but them. Bobby Pratt. All those guys, they'd come by . . . "

Of those brave enough to cross, the Ruelases found that some, just like them, were into tricking out their bikes. They were into custom cars too. That was the glue. And, Chivo adds, "let's not forget the music, our African American musical artists. . . . We had the pleasure of meeting Don Julian and going to his dances."

"There was Cleve Duncan and the Penguins. Vernon Green and the Medallions. Brenton Wood."

"Yeah, Bren Wood . . . "

"Barry White. He was in the Businessmen, you know. He lived around here."

"Barry White got caught stealing tires," says Julio. "That's when he got into music . . . "

"Johnny Flamingo."

"Richard Berry."

"And my favorite--what's her name?" Chivo asks.

"Etta James."

"Etta James! Tony says she lost a lot of weight."

"She did. She had a bypass. She's as skinny as that pole over there."

"She can really sing."

"It was our way of life," Fernando says with much more than simple wistfulness in his voice. "The car, the girl, the music . . . "

The Ruelas brothers' heads were forever turned by the lowriders--piloted by drivers both black and brown--that floated through their neighborhood like dreams. There were big cruising scenes throughout the city: Whittier Boulevard, Atlantic Boulevard, Elysian Park. And that home-grown R&B; was not just incidental music, but the essential soundtrack.

Dolphin's of Hollywood, a black-owned record store, wasn't located in Hollywood at all, but right in the neighborhood, on East Vernon at Central. Early on, in the '50s, radio DJ Dick "Huggy Boy" Hugg hosted a live R&B; program from the front window. And it was Mexican American listeners who made up much of Huggy Boy's audience, pining for lost love, making dedications and always representing their neighborhoods.

The cars and the music went hand in hand, says Willie Garcia, a.k.a. Little Willie G., an original Duke himself. "A party was the opportunity to see each other's handiwork. Before you'd go into the dance you'd see the lineup of these beautiful cars. You'd get ideas. The afterglow was the dance." The love songs, their declarations, the twined voices, sometimes a cappella, always in harmony--"they interpreted our hearts," he says.

As long as there have been cars there have been car clubs, and just about as long as there have been car clubs there have been enthusiasts dedicated to customizing their rides. In Los Angeles, legions of car clubs fanned out across the basin: white clubs such as the Igniters and the Drifters; Mexican American clubs such as the Clique and the In Crowd; black clubs such as the Professionals and the Imperials. Like car clubs everywhere, some were largely social, some were dressed-up street gangs, and others were strict-by-the-book about cars. But lowriding, the ritual of "low and slow," started in the West, in California, and so too did the culture around it.

The Ruelases wanted a big part of that lowrider scene, from end to end. They had the skills--they knew how to build them. In 1962 they made their sideline hobby central and official: They got together with some friends, voted on a club name, Duke's, and installed brother Julio as the first president, Oscar as veep. Chivo, who had been making a name for himself around the neighborhood "busting"--breaking up--gangs, signed on in '63, bringing about 40 new members with him.

It wasn't a smooth segue from 38th Street affiliation to Duke's, Fernando recalls. "The guys from 38 were very, very, very teed off, because they looked at us as another gang . . . and here we were bringing in outsiders to join."

By 1965 Duke's claimed "associates" from Watts and Compton, South and East L.A., "all of it negotiated up under a cold one," says Fernando. "You know things work out easier that way."

As their name and reputation grew, the Duke's did what no social club or well-meaning Teen Post had been able to do before them, and that was unify people despite their turf and their affiliation.

"We wanted to know all areas and be known," says Fernando. "Even today we have ex-gang members, old guys who were from a lot of neighborhoods. We get along like brothers. . . . We took our frustration out on cars. Which is the baddest one? Who can fix it up the baddest? And it's called competition: We fight in the show with the cars."

For a time, the city bloomed with fetes and dances and concerts at the Big Union Hall and another known as the "little one." At the Roger Young on Washington and the Old Dixie on 43rd and Western. There were parties at the Elks Hall, the Montebello Ballroom, the El Monte Legion Stadium. "We integrated white establishments in Downey," says Fernando, and mixed with blacks at parties and casuals throughout South L.A. "One of the hardest things was convincing the police that we were no longer [from] gang neighborhoods, that we had some clean machines and we were getting respected."

Duke's wasn't--and isn't--integrated. But that didn't mean that life in the shop or at home wasn't. It's just the way things worked--even in a city as diverse as Los Angeles there was segregation within the integration, integration within the segregation. The Ruelas brothers were products of the streets they grew up on. They acquired a cross-cultural fluency--in slang, style and point of view--that can't be taught but can be intuited.

Their neighborhood was a snapshot of ethnic coexistence in greater Los Angeles; it was a symbol of hope. "It was really, really diverse. A lot of Mexican Americans, African Americans, Japanese, German, Irish, Filipinos and, of course, Italian," says Willie G. "I thought it was a very healthy blend. We didn't know we were poor, either. Our parents made us grateful."

L.A. was never a paradise, as good as it might look from the blind curve of memory. There were clashes over race, over culture, over custom. But proximity always offered the unexpected, comfort as well as crisis.

"We grew up together, and so close," says Willie G. "We used the 'n' word a lot amongst ourselves, 'beaners,' but we were never offended--unless an outsider used it against us." At Carver Junior High, where there were only a handful of Chicano students on the rolls, Ernie Ruelas says with pride, "we were known as the 'black Mexicans.' Our black brothers respected us for having courage." Back then, he explains, "we were all in the same boat. So what we got out of it is a lot of friends."

Terry Anderson, who is African American, has known the Ruelases since the '70s and still lives not too far from their shop. "These guys had me at their home for quinceaneras, funerals of car club members who had died, holidays," he says. "It was kind of like they took me into their family. Their mother didn't speak English, but she tried to always make me feel at home. They introduced me to the Latin culture with an American style. I'd never been to a quinceanera. I'd never been to a Latin picnic. I grew up over there on barbecue and red soda water. I enjoyed the cultural shift."

Their paths may not have crossed if not for their car obsession, Anderson is the first to admit. But the Duke's were hard to miss. "Everyone knew who the Duke's were. Didn't matter where you were from," he says. "There were many black car clubs on the Westside--I'd heard about the Imperials and the Professionals--but I'm strictly a lone wolf. I didn't like the car club scene, people telling you what kind of wheels you have to put on. But later, when I started going to car shows, I saw Julio first. And I knew who he was when he walked in. I started talking to him, and we became friends. Still are. Then I met the rest and started running with these guys to car shows. . . . They took me with them not as a Duke, but as a protege. It was always funny, here were all the Duke's cars, and my car, and they'd make sure to tell everyone, 'He's our friend.'"

The subject of race never came up, he says. And the way he could tell it was all for real was that when they looked at women, "they looked at women of all color."

In those days, everyone bought their hydraulic tanks at Palley, then headed over to the Ruelases' shop to have them installed. That's how Ted Wells met the brothers. "This was about '72," he says. "I've known them ever since."

A cofounder of the black car club the Professionals, Wells lived on the Westside, went to L.A. High, but still he'd heard about the Duke's. "Everyone knew them. Right up off the top, you knew: These guys were the shit, just helluva nice guys. The minute they walked in, they definitely set the standard. Like you used to be able to say about Bill Cosby, 'never been a scandal,' that's what you can still say about Duke's. There's never been a scandal with that club."

Back in the day it was simpler. "Back then when you [messed] with somebody, you'd have a knock-down drag-out fight and 24 hours later you'd be hugged up together. And it was very seldom black on brown. Instead it was black on black, brown on brown. It's not like that anymore. Now they get in a fight and someone gets killed. Back then, a black eye, a bloody nose--but hugged up together in the end."

Wells started a new club, Old School, in the '90s, mainly because "I didn't want to ride with a Professionals plaque. I didn't want to get shot at because of what some knucklehead did in Compton." The fact that he had to retire his plaque--a car club's insignia placed in the back window--was a testament to how different the city had become. "Really, I think half the car clubs running around now are nothing but gangs, that's all they are," he says. "But Julio and Fernando aren't putting up with that."

Just up the street there are still 38 tags streaked across fences, not so far from blocky Florencia graffiti splashed across a sidewalk. That's part of the reason the brothers have decided to stay right here.

"At night the neighborhood talks to you," Ernie says. "You hear the guns. You feel the volatility of gang activity. But they know not to start . . . here. This is neutral ground."

Duke's almost didn't make it this far. By the early '70s, the lowriding scene was losing members to the draft, incarceration, and marriage and family duties. And when Fernando, like his brothers before him, returned from Vietnam, it was to a very changed place.

It wasn't simply this street, this block, this neighborhood, this city. The country itself had changed. It was as much a shift in politics as it was a shift in mood. Hope had been trumped by tragedy, a steady barrage of it: body counts, assassinations, the splintering of optimistic ethnic coalitions, white flight, black flight, gangs and drugs and a deteriorating urban core. In L.A., what had been easy intersections became nasty collisions. Longtime black residents complained of cars parked on front lawns, chickens in the backyard and newly arrived neighbors gossiping in Spanish. Latinos complained of being roughed up or hassled by blacks.

When he comes to the shop today, Fernando says, "it's like I felt when I went into the military and I came back. Like I left and came back 50 years later. Everything was different. The same people, the same format, wasn't there no more."

But business was still booming, with lines around the block for hydraulics and custom paint jobs. And Fernando still had hope for Duke's. "I'd put half of my life into this club," he says. He knew that if it was going to have a second chance in a very changed city, it was going to have to be run "by the book," with dues and rules and bylaws.

So he picked up the pieces, gathered some old friends and new, and floated the idea of a reconstituted Duke's. He wanted an alternative to what these new streets offered. "Twenty-one or older. No drugs. I wanted to be able to legally say, 'Hey, you're not suitable.'" An associate had to have a car, "something to represent, from '54 on down, and it had to be fixed up."

He got the logo trademarked--top hat, cane and two cars--and changed the name from Duke's L.A. to the more far-reaching Duke's So. Cal. Why? "I want all of it. All of it," Fernando says. Today there are Duke's chapters in Ventura and Lubbock, Texas, and even Osaka, Japan. And it's not just a car thing. "It's family-oriented. It's not just for the men. I want to get that straight."

The car shows, the cultural events, the parades, the week-in, week-out work here--"we do all these things to bring awareness to this neighborhood," says Ernie. "You see art being built here. You see something different. A family working together. Friends working together. People working together."

It sets an old example. "In the mid-'60s I thought in school we'd built a bridge," he says.

Lucky for the neighborhood, the Ruelas brothers are backed up--works in progress filling the yard.

"How many cars would you say, Alex? How many?" Fernando asks.

"Too much! Too many! See," he gestures, arms waving wildly, "all around us?"

Right now, Fernando says with a "never mind" gesture, "we're just trying to finish up everything. I'm going to finish Chivo up because we promised him."

Chivo simply shakes his head.

"I tell people we have a three-year wait and they say, 'I'll wait.' Then they come back in three years, and I say, 'No, not yet.' Right, Chivo?"

"Yeah, three years is just a saying. I've been waiting for mine, what--six years?

What's the hurry, really? They still have the balance of a fine afternoon ahead of them. And there is always next Saturday too.

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