There’s something very distinct about the Border culture that is unlike anything in the rest of United States or Mexico, and I’ve been fortunate to grow up in—and return to—this dynamic area.
Writer Cathy Camper and illustrator Raul the Third have done a fabuloso job capturing that culture in their young readers graphic novel series for Chronicle Books, Lowriders in Space, and Lowriders to the Center of the Earth.
These books follow the adventures of the mechanically minded Lupe Impala (an impala), pin-stripping expert Elirio Malaria (a mosquito), and the car-washing octopus El Chavo Flapjack, based on the popular Mexican television character, El Chavo del Ocho. Flapjack even carries a little “El Chavo” doll with him. This ambitious trio’s shared goal is owning their own car and body shop, but they have to get the cash to do so first. Luckily, there’s a Universal Car Show on the horizon with big-money stakes. How they get their ride ready is out of this world.
With National Hispanic Heritage Month starting up this week, it’s a perfect time to for readers of all ages pick up this pair of books, and learn a little about this eclectic mix of Hispanic, Anglo, and Native American cultures.
Language: One of the most obvious ways to get a little flavor any culture is through its language, and both Lowriders volumes are woven with little bite-size Spanish lessons and bursts of bilingual commentary, all with handy foot-noted translations. These not only include beginning phrases or words in Spanish (gracias, barrio, biblioteca), but also frontera-style colloquialisms that might not be familiar in other regions:
Órale… Que suave… Que chido!
I’ve often found the best way to learn a language or subject is through starting out in small doses, and this is book does just that.
Folklore: Many famous border and Hispanic legends make appearances in these tales including La Llorona (the Weeping Woman), who personally terrified me as a kid but now seems kinda sweet. There’s also the Mexican boogie man, El Cucuy, the Aztec (and American Southwest) trickster, Coyote, and the now infamous legendary goatsucker himself, Chupacabra. Readers can also see how the Calavera and Catrina imagery of Mexican holiday Dia de Los Muertos has had an impact on the culture and design of the border region.
There’s also a couple of pop culture references thrown in for fun, from the popularity of Lucha Libre wrestling to a nice nod to the late Mexican comic actor Mario “Cantinflas” Moreno.
Geography: First and foremost, any book, movie, or comic that gets the Chihuahuan Desert region right gets my approval. Not every desert has Saguaro cacti (a fact I’m sure annoys Arizonans as much as Texans), nor is it a lifeless wasteland. Instead, you see barrel and prickly pear cactus, agave and yucca. Rattlesnakes, quail, and turtles roam the roadsides, along with a few other little beasties created just for the story.
Also, Raúl the Third was raised in El Paso, Texas, and he still shows his affection for the region. Anyone who lives in, or has spent any time in the area, will recognize quite a bit Easter Eggs of El Chuco landmarks, from the “Thunderbird” on the mountainside to the “Los Lagartos” alligator fountain and the giant Bronco Swap Meet head.
Food: Rather than a look at what many people know as “Mexican food,” there’s a peek at some of the casual eating habits of us border dwellers… regardless of ethnic backgrounds. Eagle-eyed readers will get to see a prominence of food trucks, as well as references to tortas (Mexican style sandwiches), elotes en una taza (corn in a cup, often with lime and chile), aquas frescas, and more. I don’t know about you guys, but tengo hambre.
Urban Style: Finally what would a Lowriders in Space series be without a good look at the lowriders? It’s no coincidence Lupe Impala’s dream car ends up being… an actual circa 1967 Chevy Impala, a common model used for lowriders (which I hear is also popular with demon hunters). Readers also get a good look at the hydraulics, chrome work, and interior detailing that goes into the lowrider stylings.
The pinstripping paint job, Elirio Malaria’s specialty, is indicative of the mid-century origin of the Von Dutch style and hot rod era that helped influence lowriders and other custom car designs.
The car show itself is something very “frontera.” Where I live on the border, I can guarantee every single weekend, year round, there will be some car show going on somewhere in West Texas and New Mexico, be it a school or car-club organized fundraiser, a large-scale traveling show, or an impromptu set-up of like-minded drivers gathering in a random parking lot.
As far as Raúl’s own artwork, he talked about being influenced by the drawings and sketches he saw in Lowrider Magazine as a kid. It’s also worth noting his use of materials, primarily ballpoint pens. This gives Lowriders in Space a great, old school look, and serves as a visual example to young artists everywhere they don’t need “professional” expensive materials to create something amazing.
Of course, you don’t even have to be interested in the border culture to enjoy, or learn from, these books, as young readers can also discover:
Astroscience: True to its name, Lowriders in Space breaks away from the Earth and gives readers a quick peek at some heavenly bodies like the Milky Way, Jupiter’s moon, Ios, black holes, the Pleiades, and constellations.
Geology: Lowriders to the Center of the Earth takes the trio in the opposite direction, underground, and lets readers learn about the different types of rocks, including igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic.
Engineering: Want to know how a swamp cooler works? How about seeing how magnets work in speakers? What is “drag,” “shift,” or “drift”? These questions are either explained in simple terms or shown as part of the story.
To make thing easier for all readers, Camper and Raúl include extensive histories and a much-appreciated glossary of terms at the end of both books.
So, curl up with a cup of hot tea or champurrado (Mexican hot chocolate), and go on a humor-infused adventure with this car-loving menagerie.
You’ll want to take it bajito y suavecito.