FERNANDO RUELAS, founder and president of Duke’s So. Cal, the oldest lowrider car club in existence (and the standard-bearer of the art), passed away this morning.
I interviewed Fernando several times while working on a couple of stories for the L.A. Times about car culture and a feature on the Dukes in particular. Sitting in the shop’s yard in South L.A. with Fernando his brothers Ernie and Julio and best friend, Chivo, was like a way-back-machine ride to not just another time, but another sense of L.A. as a place. No one told a story like Fernando. No one. They were long winding tales spiked with iridescent color and blue humor and of course the R&B oldies that drifted over the worn-out boom box in the backspace. Each fender, gear-shift knob, hubcap inspired an anecdote of some memory of a night or afternoon under the hood or gliding down wide boulevards of south and later east Los Angeles.
As serendipity would have it, it turned out my mother taught both Fernando and Ernie when they attended junior high school here in L.A. L.A. is full of intersections and connections, sometimes though, we don’t bother to pay attention to them. Fernando made sure to. Always.
Here’s my favorite moment of the story — a conversation with Chivo, Fernando and elder brother Juilio — at the shop on Long Beach Avenue.
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.
“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 . . . ”
“And my favorite–what’s her name?” Chivo asks.
“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 . . . ”
Ride in peace, Fernando, Earth Brother.
I know there will be quite the line-up.