Lowrider bikes: Latino street life on wheels

The "Godfather" of lowrider bikes

Lowrider bicycles are all but the official vehicle of one California community. We get the lowdown from Mireya Villarreal:

Compton, California, is one of the roughest cities in America. This South L.A. city has a history of gang violence, crime, and the music that was born from that lifestyle: rap.

But there is another art form that grew from these streets, one with a decidedly Latino flavor.

Manny's Bike Shop is rusted and needs a good coat of paint, but what the outside lacks in presentation, the inside more than makes up for in style. For 44 years Manny Silva has been creating by hand a very distinctive style of bike – lowrider bicycles, the offspring of lowrider cars.

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Lowrider Bicycle artist Manny Silva outside his shop in Compton, Calif. CBS News

They're a gateway ride for kids too young to drive, but also for adults who still want to act like kids.

William Holloway described Manny as "the Godfather of lowrider bikes."

When Villarreal asked Silva what it meant to him to be called "Godfather," he replied, "Well, I feel like it's a lot of responsibility."

"You take it to heart?"

"Oh, yes. yes, yes, yes."

Each lowrider bike is a two-wheeled feast for the eyes – carefully twisted metal coated in candy-colored paint and embellished with chrome. And then more chrome. Some of the most elaborate creations cost upwards of $15,000.

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Lowrider bikes at Manny's Bike Shop. CBS News

At 71 years old, Silva sees each bike as a blank canvas. Even used bikes are given a second life.

His obsession started when he was 10, fixing bikes in Mexico for money to support his family. By 16 he was married and looking for ways to build a better life.

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CBS News

"My American dream was to come to the United States and make money to go back to Mexico," he said.

Instead, Silva fell in love with the City of Angels, and his community of lowriders. From there, his art became a reflection of what he saw on the streets from lowrider cars.

"Cruising" was a rite of passage going back to the '50s. Latinos added their own artistic flare, turning the American muscle car into rolling works of art.

"Lowriding represents, to me, pride, respect, family, brotherhood, corazón, passion," said Denise Sandoval, curator for "The High Art of Riding Low," an exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

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The exhibition "The High Art of Riding Low: Ranflas, Corazón e Inspiración" at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. CBS News

She said lowrider cars and bikes are the Mexican expression of the American dream.

Villarreal asked, "It's more than just airbrushing, isn't it?"

"Well, I mean, you're creating your fantasy or your vision of how you see the world, creating your mark and being distinct and unique," Sandoval said. "And I think these are all wonderful sort of qualities to begin to teach youth, right? To begin to find your voice through art."

Lowrider bikes have become so popular there are now competitions like one held in a parking lot in Riverside, California.

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A Wonder Woman-inspired bike is among the specimens on display at a lowrider bike competition in Riverside, Ca.if.  CBS News

Generations of Latinos take old Stingrays and Schwinns, and add hydraulics, engraved bumpers, and airbrushed art.

Every bit of this 13-foot-long cruiser – from hand-tooled saddle to side piece – was created by Jose Aguilar and his sons in their garage.

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Jose Aguilar and his sons created this 13-foot-long lowrider cruiser. CBS News

"I can't afford a Harley, so, this is what I call my poor man's Harley," Aguilar said.

Growing up, Aguilar admits, he didn't have the best home life. Now, as a father of four, he's using his own labor of love to keep connected.

"It's our family thing; it's what we do together," he said. "A family that rides together stays together!"

And after 44 years in business, not once has the idea of leaving Compton crossed Manny Silva's mind. Customers have become family … and his pedal-powered art is a part of the lowrider legacy.

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Lowrider bicycle artist Manny Silva and correspondent Mireya Villarreal takes tot he streets of Compton. CBS News

        
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Story produced by Diane Ronnau.