Curb Appeal

Macho car guys just want to do a good thing. Got a problem with that?

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MIIB: Men in Black II
Brothers in chrome: Warren DeJesus (second from left) and his fellow Traditionals.
Brothers in chrome: Warren DeJesus (second from left) and his fellow Traditionals.
When they were younger, the 12 members of the Traditionals Lowrider Car Club tried to talk tough and look bad. Perhaps they lifted weights or walked with an outlaw swagger. But they were teenagers then.

Now that they're at least in their early 20s, they want to improve the world for the next generation, not just do donuts on hot asphalt. They've got responsibilities other than burning rubber and hopping their hydraulics down West Side streets. Their whitewalled, purple-plush-interior cars are still their babies, but they've since acquired the diaper-wearing kind, too.

The world, however, is not interested in their quest for virtue. The world once had tire treads seared in its lawn, and it has a memory longer than the grass that's already grown back.

Maybe that's why the Traditionals get an especially unfriendly reception from the organizers of Cleveland's annual Puerto Rican Friendly Day. Although everybody in the car club is Puerto Rican, every year the club is deemed too dangerous for the parade. Those crazy lowriders might peel their tires right into a crowd of bystanders.

"They're an accident waiting to happen," says festival coordinator Samira Schofield, noting past transgressions by faceless villains on four wheels. "We want to make it a safe event."

But the Traditionals say their vintage lowriders have been unfairly lumped with "Euros." Euros are modified late-model foreign cars that are all about power, while lowriders are restored and souped-up grandpa cars that are all about personality. The most coveted lowrider is probably a '76 Chevy Caprice, nicknamed the "Glass House" because its upper half is almost all window.

Lowriders guzzle a lot of gas and generate a lot of excitement in their dual-exhaust wake. With their exaggerated fenders and crush-velvet ceilings, they're like the zoot suits of the vehicle world.

Matthew Zone, councilman for the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, is on the lowriders' side. "For the past three years, I've been in the Puerto Rican parade, and the lowriders aren't the ones who cause problems," he says. "It's the people who drive the Euros who peel out and burn rubber. Not the Chevy Impalas with the $10,000 hydraulic system."

Since they're banned from Puerto Rican Day, the lowriders make their own parade by driving behind the legit one's somber stream of war veterans and judicial candidates. Some of their cars have electrical boxes with four or five rows of switches. Depending on which switch is flipped, the car might bounce on two wheels or careen like an amusement park ride. "Pull the switch, pull the switch!" kids yell at a stoplight, squealing gleefully at the result.

"We're about family first," says 26-year-old Roberto Peña, '71 Buick Riviera owner and charter member of the Traditionals. "[We] don't drive around causing trouble." By lowrider standards, Peña keeps his restored sedan relatively low-key. It has wire wheels, a cognac-colored paint job, and demure little gold skulls for lock buttons. "I like just a little bit of hot sauce," he confides.

A second-shift mechanic at Midwest Forge in Euclid, Peña has two kids, a mortgage, and a Jesus tattoo on his left triceps. His wife, Angie, a home-health nurse, is well regarded in the lowrider community as smart and articulate.

It was Angie who figured out a way for the Traditionals to finally get the respect they deserved. If the Puerto Rican parade didn't want them, heck, they'd organize their own charity event. They'd have a benefit lowrider show, with the money going to AIDS organizations. The Peñas have a cousin with HIV.

Before she could pitch the idea, Angie asked her husband's permission to attend a dudes-only Traditionals meeting. Having to get the OK from him "didn't bother me, because it's his space. It's a guy thing."

Veronica DeJesus, who's in charge of keeping the white carpet spotless on husband Warren's lowrider, went with her. They were a little nervous talking about AIDS before a bunch of manly men, but they were warmly received. Even Traditionals treasurer Julio Rivas, a fundamentalist deacon who preaches premarital abstinence and until recently drove a 1987 Chevy Monte Carlo, approved of the idea.

Warren DeJesus, an affable 30-year-old who owns a marshmallow-white '63 Bel Air, was especially enthusiastic. To get things rolling, he immediately called all the important people he could think of. If they didn't respond, he kept calling until they did.

He longs for recognition from the larger Puerto Rican community. "Once we show them what we're really about, we can participate in more events," he says dreamily. "They'll be like 'Okay, we'll do something with you guys, 'cause you earned our respect.'"

The club quickly settled on an ideal site for the show: the parking lot of the Michael J. Zone Recreation Center at 6301 Lorain, which is a spot easily visible from the interstate. DeJesus made some calls, got nowhere, then called Councilman Zone, because the center is named after his father.

Zone spoke on the phone with Traditionals members six times before agreeing to help them win the city's approval. "I was impressed by their commitment and persistence," says Zone, who lost a brother to AIDS in 1994. "It touched my heart." The AIDS Taskforce offered its support, too, eager to reach out to Cleveland's Latino community.

Picnics and trips to out-of-town car shows were put on hold to plan for the September 8 event. "We've all grown up a lot," Roberto Peña says. "I know I have. The Traditionals are a lot different in 2002 than they were in '99."

Instead of meeting each month at a "secret Batcave location," the men have recently decided to meet at each other's homes instead. That way, the women can take turns eavesdropping on them without having to request a guest pass.

"We want to get the wives and girlfriends involved," says DeJesus. Now if they could only get a break from carpet-shampooing duty.

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