Tucson lowrider bike film 'Low y Cool' will show on big screen again 25 years later
The 1996 documentary “Low y Cool,” about a group of Chicanos who rode their lowrider bicyclists through Tucson’s South Side streets, will have a 25th anniversary screening on Jan. 8. Marianne Dissard, the director, said the showing will be a chance to talk about what has and hasn’t changed in Tucson over two and a half decades since its release, especially on the topic of identity.
The Screening Room will host two evening screenings at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m on Saturday. The full-length film is also available for free on YouTube.
The film follows the Camaradas, a South Side bicycle club who rode novelty bicycles and cars up to Downtown and spent time hanging out at the Ronstadt Transit Center on Saturday nights. Dissard said club members were mostly Mexican-American youth, and membership was an alternative to gang affiliation at the time.
One of the participants in the film, Joseph Arenas, who was working with Latino youth at the time, remained in touch with Dissard over the years and said that the film came out at an important time historically for Chicanos, a term used to refer to Mexican-Americans but that also carries a historical background connected to social movements from the 1960s.
“(The film is a) documentation of everything that was going on at the time in the Chicano power movement,” he said. “The forgotten part of the Chicano movement is in the '90s. Everybody references the Chicano power movement in the '60s, and they forget a lot went on during the '90s.”
The film introduces the Camaradas as part of a new group of first-generation immigrants from Mexico, Dissard said, and the lowrider bicycles function as a tool for them to represent their own distinct identity. For the Camaradas, the bicycles worked for them as a “political and social means to a voice, to having voice,” she said.
“There’s a back and forth in the film about the culture and what it means, what Chicano culture means, to second-, third-generation, fourth-generation Mexican Americans or the first-generation,” Dissard said. “It was a time where Chicano activism was really getting more and more vocal. It was a time for part of the community to look for their power.”
Arenas notes that the movie was filmed in 1996, four years after the presidential race in which Pat Buchanan spoke against Mexican immigration similarly to Donald Trump's rhetoric later, and four years after Tucson Border Patrol Agent Michael Andrew Elmer shot and killed a migrant running back into Nogales, Mexico, then dragged and hid the body. Elmer was later acquitted of any crime.
Chicanos gave a lot of effort in the 1990s to reversing the violent Hollywood image of Chicanos crafted in films like “Blood in, Blood out,” “American Me” and “Mi Vida Loca,” Arenas said, but he thinks Low y Cool “accurately captures the essence of Chicanismo.”
The film also came out a few years before the Mexican-American Studies program at the Tucson Unified High School District began, which Arenas and Dissard said was connected to the same development of the Chicano identity in Tucson that the film tries to capture.
It includes talk about “calpulli,” a term derived from Nahuatl, the Aztec language, that’s used by Mexican-Americans to refer to their groups or barrio. Arenas said the documentary has early examples of how Chicanos used the term, which he said is now commonly heard. Arenas is in the film briefly while he’s with his poetry group, Calpulli Toltecatl.
“The film is very important for Chicano history. It’s very important for local Tucson history,” Arenas said. “I think it’s a pretty important movie. I think she did a great job, and I wish I could have been more help.”
While Dissard and her TV crew were filming, Arenas said that he had thought that they were there to exploit the South Side Tucson youth for profit in France and said he had been too hostile to them at the time.
It wasn’t until later that Arenas realized how much history and culture the film accurately preserves, including an image of his younger brother, Frankie Monarez, who was stabbed to death in Puerto Peñasco shortly after its release. Arenas now watches the film every Christmas.
Quand j'ride la ville avec mon bike, J’ai plus les pieds sur terre
Dissard made the film with rented equipment from Access Tucson, a local public access station, and money from the French TV channel Planête, which had been hoping for a “cool film about bikes” for kids, Dissard said.
In France, she said, the film was “a blink on the radar. It didn’t mean very much.” In Tucson, however, the film touched on questions that “are really present,” she said, like questions of representation and who gets to speak for a group.
She thought about the film during the George Floyd protests in June 2020. At the time, she said, she wanted to demonstrate or hold a vigil but realized, as a French white woman, she should probably stand back and just listen to groups like Black Lives Matter.
This reminded her of “Low y Cool,” she said, and made her realize that the film asked questions that are still relevant about identity.
“That really struck me because it was exactly what the film ‘Low y Cool’ was about,” she said. “Who gets to speak in whose name?”
Dissard was motivated to do an anniversary screening after hearing stories like Arenas’ and his Christmas tradition. She said it made her realize how much of Tucson the film preserves and how it brings people back to a notable time. She said she wants the anniversary screening to show how much the film has become part of people’s lives in Tucson.
“(Its impact) was worth celebrating and marking,” she said. “It was also a way to ask the questions of ‘what has changed’ and ‘what has not changed in Tucson?’”
Dissard moved to Tucson in 1994 to make the documentary “Drunken Bees” about Giant Sand, a local rock band with fans around the world. She ended up staying because she had friends from France who wanted to stay after she introduced them to the “desert rock” music scene and because she was attracted to it too.
She had studied documentary film making in school and knew that Tucson held more film-worthy stories, she said. She looked to the South Side because in it she saw that “there was another world very near but also very segregated.”
“I just got curious, just got curious about what lay beyond Downtown,” she said. “I saw those bicycles, the lowrider bicycles, and thought ‘Wow! What is this? I’ve never seen anything like that.’”
She started hanging out with the lowrider cyclists that she met and went to meet more at a bicycle shop on South Sixth Avenue, where the Camaradas would hang out. She went back to France shortly after to raise money to make a documentary for French TV.
The film wasn’t made for French audiences, she said, but France was where she knew she could get funding. What helped get funding, she said, was the fame of the person working the camera for the film, Robert Kramer, who is well-regarded because he helped pioneer the politically oriented style of filmmaking known as New Left Cinema.
“It’s a freaking awesome movie,” Arenas said, though he regrets thinking that Dissard and her TV crew were in South Tucson to “parade their culture around France.” It's what he had been told about the outsiders, he said, but now that he’s seen how much the film preserved, including his brother’s image, he wishes he had urged more youth to read their poetry for the film.
The film is still regularly broadcast in France on Planête Cable, Dissard said, and in Tucson by CreativeTucson. It’s also been archived by the University of California Berkeley’s Chicano and Latino Studies department, the Pima County Public Library, the University of Arizona, Western Connecticut State University and in the AZ 100 Indie Films media archive of Arizona independent films.
Dissard is also a singer who has recorded multiple albums and toured her music worldwide, and a writer whose memoir “Not Me” is available at Antigone Books and the Pima County Public Library. Her most recent feature-length film is “Lonesome Cowgirls,” released in 2011 and shot in Cowtown Keeylocko; it's a remake of an Andy Warhol film.
The anniversary screening of “Low y Cool” will be shown at the Screening Room, 127 E. Congress Street, in part because it’s where the original film was screened, Dissard said. The two screenings on Saturday will be free though cash donations will be accepted.
Tickets can be reserved online, and the event is open to all ages. Proof of vaccination is required, and masking is strongly encouraged.
The event will also show new footage and have introductions by Dissard and some of the film's participants. The original Camaradas Bicycle Club banner and bikes will be on display in the theater lobby, which has excited some of the film's participants, Dissard said. They’re also planning to bring out some of the cars featured in the film to line up along Congress Street.
A special part of the film, Dissard said, is that it shows Downtown streets like Fourth Avenue blocked off by the Camaradas with their lowrider bicycles and novelty cars, including the opening scenes. She said that she hopes they’ll be able to recreate that a bit on the night of the screening.
Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.