Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Mexican American bicycle ‘lowriders’ celebrate festive Memorial Day weekend on two (and sometimes three) wheels

"It’s not about gangs and drugs. It’s about family coming together,” said Tomas Flores, founder of Champions Lowriders Club.

Victor Mauricio Jovel, of Philadelphia, preps his bike at the Champions Lowriders Club event at FDR Park in Philadelphia on Sunday.
Victor Mauricio Jovel, of Philadelphia, preps his bike at the Champions Lowriders Club event at FDR Park in Philadelphia on Sunday.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

When Tomas Flores has time off from his busy pizzamaker job at Collegeville Italian Bakery, he devotes himself to his other passion: lowrider bicycles.

He founded Champions Lowriders, a year-old lowrider bike club that hosted its first post-pandemic event at FDR Park on Sunday, surrounded by La Liga Pattison, soccer players from many nations, food and T-shirt vendors, family cookouts and lots and lots of parked cars.

“We’re trying to change the perspective of what lowriders are all about. It’s not about gangs and drugs. It’s about family coming together,” said Flores, 35, a Norristown resident and longtime hobbyist of lowrider bikes. His first from-scratch bike he built himself, a green banana seat Schwinn-style that he then sold for $300.

A design form that spread from Mexico to California, lowrider style began with Mexican American auto owners in the 1940s. Lowrider now encompasses not just cars but bicycles, tricycles and motorcycles, Flores said.

“Some Mexicans who came to America couldn’t afford cars, so they built bikes,” he said, adding that there are lowrider clubs “around the world, even as far away as Russia.”

Champions Lowriders meets roughly once a month and has about 30 members. The club’s owners will ride in the Collegeville Memorial Day parade on Monday.

Lowrider fans combine a love for bicycles, family, Hispanic culture and a little engineering. Most bikes are handmade and include a shout-out to the maker’s country of origin.

“It’s really about getting all our families together,” said Flores’ son Andy, 16, who set up under I-95, manning a raffle table and selling bubble gum and candies.

While organizing the event, Flores had no luck reaching anyone at the city’s Parks and Recreation Department for a permit. In typical Philly fashion, he relied on a personal network.

Flores called Edgar Ramirez, the well-known Spanish-language radio host at Philatinos Radio, who put him in touch with Alvaro Drake-Cortes, the new community liaison for immigrant groups in Philadelphia with the Welcoming Center. They worked together to secure the necessary permits for an event at FDR Park.

A secondary goal

“I really want to work with both the Latino and immigrant populations in Philly,” said Drake-Cortes, and he’s helping Latinos build relationships with city permitting departments, Widener University’s small-business resource center and the Fairmount Park Conservancy, which oversees the 348-acre FDR Park.

He’s also advocating for the Conservancy’s five-year master revamp plan to include underrepresented populations in the city.

“The new recreation fields, for instance, may all have to be rented out and paid for under the new plan. But the board wants there to be inclusion in this revamp,” he said, which is estimated to cost $200 million.

The Welcoming Center also has set up a new-business incubator program for entrepreneurs such as FDR Park food vendors. It’s open for admission until September. For information, contact Lina Duffy at the Welcoming Center at 215-557-2626.

Drake-Cortes’ other goal is to promote interaction between new immigrant communities and the rest of Philadelphia.

“I want to help these immigrant groups to integrate into this American life,” said the émigré from Colombia and 14-year U.S. Army veteran.

“I didn’t integrate as I should have when I came here at 9 years old, because I only engaged with my own community.”

Food is an excellent way to promote that integration, he said. So he’s already gotten one Latino food vendor licensed through the city.

He’s also setting up events with groups like Champions Lowriders, the Mural Arts Program, Peco and others. “Anyone who’s interested in doing an event for the community, I want to talk to them,” he said.

Family Values

Flores, for his part, fell in love with his first lowrider bike when he came to the United States from Puebla, Mexico, at age 15.

“I came to live in Norristown, and it was my dream to have a bike like that,” he recalled.

Later, Flores discovered the bike’s owner was “a gangster, part of gang drinking and smoking. But I had just left Mexico, where gangs were fighting and killing each other. I didn’t want that for myself.”

Instead, Flores’ wife, Ana, and his three children all participate in the tricked-out bicycle club. He invited friends through Latinos Together on social media, including some Harley-Davidson enthusiasts, and some Spanish-language singers to belt out numbers from a stage fashioned on the back of a pickup truck.

“It’s my culture,” Flores said. “And it’s spreading across the world.”