Culturally Relevant School Events

Culturally Relevant School Events

Dr. Ignacio Ornelas Rodriguez organizes a lowrider festival at Willow Glen High School in San Jose, California.
people standing in front of a silver car Ignacio Ornelas Rodriguez (Teacher, Willow Glen High School; SPICE Curriculum Consultant; Lecturer, Stanford University), Amy Hanna (Principal, Willow Glen High School), and Gary Mukai next to a 1963 Chevrolet; photo courtesy Ignacio Ornelas Rodriguez.

My immigrant grandparents from Japan and parents were migrant farmworkers and sharecroppers before and after World War II. As a child, I grew up as a farmworker and worked in San Jose, Morgan Hill, and Gilroy. Most of my co-workers were Mexicans who were in California on the Bracero Program, a series of laws that allowed the United States to recruit temporary guest workers (braceros, lit. “individuals who work with their arms”) from Mexico. The Bracero Program was in effect from 1942 until 1964. In the summer of 1970, I worked at a bell pepper packing plant in Gilroy and most of my co-workers were Mexican Americans. Several of them had lowriders and I experienced my first ride in a lowrider that summer. The car was an early 1960s Chevrolet like the one pictured above. Also in 1970, I got my first job off of a farm. It was at a Shell gas station. Many of my co-workers at the gas station had Mustangs, Corvettes, and Camaros, and the cars contrasted greatly with the lowriders. They were fast and some were jacked up, and the lowriders were usually driven slow and close to the ground.

Silver 1948 Chevrolet car with its trunk open

Car culture became a fascination of mine in the early 1970s, though my car was a Datsun 1200 that my co-workers were not interested in. Thus, when Dr. Ignacio Ornelas Rodriguez invited me to the Lowrider Festival that he organized at Willow Glen High School on May 3, 2024, I immediately decided to attend and to help support it. Laura E. Pérez, Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, noted the following about lowriders for this article:

Lowriders have been an important artistic expression of Mexican American or Chicano communities in California and the Southwest since the 1940s. Today, people from all ethnic communities and around the world create lowriders and participate in car clubs. Customized cars display an exacting aesthetic and ingenuity through coordination of interior and exterior decoration, including color and custom artwork and detailing, tire and rim selection, and through the lowering of a car’s height. After anti-lowrider legislation outlawing the lowering of a vehicle’s height was passed in 1958, hydraulic systems were invented to change the height of the car in conformity with legal restrictions. The high style of lowriders can be enjoyed by anyone with an eye for beauty, creativity, and wit and are a unique part of the artistic sensibility of the Chicano community.

At my high school, the major annual cultural event was the Renaissance Faire. Looking back now, I cannot think of one event that was culturally relevant to me. I had never considered what “culturally relevant” meant. The Lowrider Festival was culturally relevant not only to the Mexican American students at Willow Glen but to others like me. When I spoke to Ornelas about the Lowrider Festival, he stated that “It is critical that schools welcome community members and parents to contribute to the body of knowledge in schools. It was important for me to offer a culturally sustaining activity that teaches about the community’s history of Mexican Americans in San Jose, California, and partner with Stanford University to recognize their innovation in car culture and important social networks that lowrider culture provides participants.”

People gathered in front of a building.

While attending the Lowrider Festival, I could feel the incredible energy and excitement not only from the Mexican American students but from most of the students who were not only in awe of the appearance of the historic cars but also fascinated by the technology, e.g., hydraulic systems. They spoke with many of the car owners, and I overhead several saying that they wanted to be automobile engineers in the future. Most of the car owners are in the photo above. Ornelas had the unwavering support of Willow Glen High School Principal Amy Hanna. She commented:

It was an honor to celebrate the heritage of the Latino community in San Jose by hosting this event on campus. Classes had the opportunity to do curricular extensions based on this event provided by Dr. Ornelas. Having culturally relevant events like this allows students to feel seen and heard. We want to continue these campus opportunities that create a vibrant and inclusive atmosphere that honors the diverse background of the students. The lowrider event celebrated San Jose’s heritage and created a more inclusive and welcoming environment.


Yellow 1959 car parked in front of a building

After hearing this, I truly wished that my high school principal had such a vision. Ornelas not only teaches at Willow Glen High School (including ethnic studies) but also at Stanford University. Ornelas works with Professor Jonathan Rosa, Stanford Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. Ornelas drew upon his scholarship as he conceptualized the festival. Ornelas incorporated pedagogical theory and practice to underscore the importance of “culturally sustaining pedagogy.” Rosa noted the following about the Lowrider Festival:

Decades of educational research has demonstrated how everyday cultural practices within marginalized communities are powerful sites of intergenerational learning. However, the wisdom of marginalized students and families is persistently ignored or stigmatized. This Lowrider Festival is a beautiful example of how community knowledges offer opportunities for interdisciplinary learning combining aesthetics, technologies, and relationship building.

I hope that some of the students at Willow Glen High School will someday have the chance to study with scholars like Dr. Ornelas, Professor Rosa, and Professor Pérez. Two Willow Glen students captured the spirit of the Lowrider Festival. Ella Gordon noted:

I loved the Lowrider Festival. I thought that it was a wonderful way for our students to experience a new culture in a learning environment where it is not usually displayed. From what I saw and heard, everyone adored it. Walking around and conversing with the owners of the cars was a wonderful way to see the backstories of these clubs and how different things used to be. I learned that a majority of the lowrider car club members had never been to a function of that sort. Being in a school and being openly welcomed to show kids what they have created was an entirely new and exciting experience for them as well as the kids. I also learned about how much work and love went into each of the cars. After asking a few questions, it was clear how each car was tied to the individual’s background and heritage. I was just so happy to see a community enjoying their time and having the ability to explain their prized possessions to anyone who would listen, which was pretty much everyone. I was just happy to see a day where people enjoyed their school and were proud of what the administration was doing for us. Everyone was very grateful. Most of what I heard was how proud everyone was that a teacher took their time to give the students something to experience. Any Latinos I talked to were just so happy and even dumbfounded to see their culture in a school setting. People felt like they were being represented, while others were learning and happy to do so.

Willow Glen High student Zoe Harradine commented:

I think most people in the school and community thought it was a successful event. Many people were happy to be connected to their culture and have an event that represented one of their hobbies. It was great that many of the people with cars were people from our community sharing their experiences and excited to show their work on their car. Everyone was respectful and genuinely interested in learning about the cars and history.


A man standing in front of silver 1963 Chevrolet

One of my favorite cars was the 1963 Chevrolet (above) as it truly brought back memories of my childhood. Through the Lowrider Festival, Ornelas underscored the importance of recognizing that families and community members are experts in their own right, and that it is important to learn about signficant cultural practices from them. In his teaching of ethnic studies, I know that Ornelas incorporates community members into his classroom practices. As I left the Lowrider Festival, I reflected upon something that Ornelas often states to me, that is, “teachers should partner with—not just involve—families and communities in classroom planning and goal-setting.”

Note: All of the photos are courtesy Ignacio Ornelas Rodriguez. 

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