Santa Ana residents are pushing to cruise lowriders in town without fear of citation, and for officials to rethink the city’s largely unenforced but controversial ban.

Yet most City Council members don’t seem to be on board with a full-on repeal.

For some Chicano households, a classic car can chart the family tree and tell its story on slow drives, many of which used to happen along downtown Santa Ana’s historic Fourth Street.

It’s more of a tradition than a hobby to those who use cruising to express their cultural identity, becoming less about the car itself and more about familial and social bonds.

And since 1989, an anti-cruising law has been on the books in Santa Ana while, according to Police Chief David Valentin, the ban’s never really been enforced. 

The police department describes it as more of a “symbolic” message that the activity’s unwelcome in town. Critics say it’s discriminatory, and that it doesn’t curb more serious racing issues in the road-heavy city.

Under the ordinance, police can cite people who drive past a given “traffic control point” three or more times within a four-hour period.

But the law might soon be reworked amidst advocacy by car buffs and City Council members alike, most recently at a Nov. 15 City Council meeting, where the law went up for debate but no vote. 

City officials are expected to return to the issue at a later date. 

Though staff didn’t count a majority council consensus to move forward with striking the ordinance.

Still that night, City Manager Kristine Ridge said there at least seemed to be a majority that “wants to change the status quo.” 

Some on the council even voiced support for city-controlled cruising events with funding in the budget. 

Family members gather near the car show on Aug. 28, 2022 at the Chicano Heritage Festival. Credit: FRANKIE FIERRO, Voice of OC

Police in town say cruising leads to street takeovers, racing, vandalism and fights, while critics of the law draw both cultural and technical distinctions.

Street racing, for example, tends to feature newer model cars, imports and drifters, said City Councilmember Johnathan Ryan Hernandez at last month’s meeting.

Cruising, on the other hand, is about the showcase, not horsepower, and involves intensive restoration work, cleaning, and major investments into maintaining the car, Hernandez said.

“The care and love invested into low-riders is an art form,” said Councilmember Jessie Lopez at the meeting.

It’s also become “intergenerational,” said Hernandez, who added “there are three generations of classic cars” in his family, starting with a great grandfather who collected them and passed them down.

And to Hernandez, speaking at the dais in front of a low-rider crowd that turned out to give public comment that night, the 1989 law feeds the notion that Latinos “cannot come together in peace and unity.”

There’s the idea that “to mix alcohol with Latinos” is “a dangerous thing,” said Mayor Vicente Sarmiento during the discussion. 

In a staff report attached to that night’s meeting, the police department wrote that alcohol consumption at cruising events could create problems for residents. 

“And that narrative is what I see surfacing its ugly head here,” Sarmiento said to applause.

Valentin, the police chief, said cruising can “mesh” to more out-of-control scenarios, like “vice crimes,” during a presentation to council members that night. “There’s been shootings.” 

Later, he said the department doesn’t keep data on anti-cruising enforcement. 

“How often do we enforce the anti-cruising ordinance? I don’t have that data. We can research it, but we don’t actually enforce it.”

Valentin, at the podium, denied that the law was racist.

“You can hear disagreement with that,” he said over immediate objections from the audience behind him. “And that’s someone’s perspective. It’s a tool to address public safety concerns, that’s what it is. That’s what it is.”

Valentin said a more recent element of the culture – the organizing of street events on social media – “exacerbates our current environment” and, if the ban is repealed, could lead to more traffic and stretch the department’s resources. 

Cruising supporters on the council, however, wondered whether the police were already dealing with reckless driving in more effective ways. 

For instance, Valentin during his presentation pointed to Santa Ana as “one of the lead agencies to establish” a road safety initiative called the “Strategic Enforcement Against Racing and Reckless Driving Program.”

“It has culminated in over 6,000 citations,” said Lopez, the council member. “Nearly 300 vehicles being impounded, lots of reckless driving and racing-related arrests, some of those arrests include DUI arrests. I applaud the department for what you’re doing … but I do think we are conflating several issues when we’re discussing cruising.”

Councilmember Phil Bacerra agreed on the distinction between street takeovers and cruising, but voiced support for the ban in a more “nuanced” iteration. 

“I can see an ordinance coming back to us (with) certain regulations being in place. I don’t know that I would support a total lift of the ban,” Bacerra said. “I think we’ve evolved as a city and culture to have a more nuanced approach.” 

“We don’t want to get to the point where people who oppose cruising can say, ‘See? we told you so.’ And like any ordinance, if we fall short, we can come back …” he added. 

This much, almost everyone could agree on: City-run cruising events, with controlled street closures to make the road activity more manageable. 

Such events would make the city “proactive about keeping our community safe,” Hernandez said.

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