In the burgeoning Vicla scene in Southern California, a Chicano cultural mashup that fuses traditional Mexican-American lowrider aesthetics with all-American V-twin muscle, there is agreement on only one point: “Vicla” is a Spanish slang word for “bicycle,” and it probably was born a century ago somewhere in South Texas. The scene itself is very clear, and very vibrant. On a drizzly January morning in Los Angeles’ Elysian Park, more than 200 Vicleros and Vicleras gathered to celebrate and show off their highly decorated machines. Astride Harley-Davidsons baggers and cruisers, almost exclusively, they roared into the shadows of Dodger Stadium to pose for photos, listen to live ranchero music, eat tacos, drink beer and swap stories.

A Vicla gathering at Elysian Park in LA; Cisco with his heavily customized Harley-Davidson. [Charles Fleming]
A man named Cisco rides a classic: Harley Softail, painted tip to toe in lush reds and blues featuring traditional Aztec imagery of “La Mujer Dormida,” bedecked with ape hangers, 46-inch fishtail exhaust pipes and chrome parts meticulously tooled and engraved. Nearby, Cynthia Martinez shows off “La Reina,” a custom Softail featuring deep blue imagery of an Aztec warrior princess. Across the street, Big Lou, who rides with a group known as Familia Viclera, has rolled up on “La Dona,” a Street Glide that has been meticulously hand-painted in a Dodger-blue lace pattern. Like the lowrider cars on which the look is based, it’s hydraulically lifted. All around them are plaid-shrouded men and tightly-trousered women in dark sunglasses and skid-lid helmets, burning rubber, busting eardrums and celebrating Vicla culture.

Viclera Cynthia Martinez with her customized Harley-Davidson featuring Aztec imagery. [Charles Fleming]
The bikes are marvelously varied in color and theme, but they share some common traits. Most feature ape hanger handlebars and long fishtail pipes. The saddles are custom, hand-tooled leather. The chrome parts are often engraved – like, right down to the cylinder fins. The rear fender is often extended, almost to the ground. The paint job usually features Chicano, Mexican, Aztec or Mayan motifs. A serape-style bedroll often rides the handlebars, above the headlight. A braided rope whip dangles from a bar end.

A viclera hangout in Elysian Park, LA. [Charles Fleming]
At the center of this day, and at the center of a lot of the local vicla activity, is Los Angeles-born Art Ordaz. Known in the vicla world as Malo, he is the organizer of this meet-up and others like it, and the prime engine behind the SoCal vicla scene. He seems at first an unlikely candidate for the job. Raised in West Los Angeles, son of a construction worker father and stay-at-home mother who’d come illegally from Durango, Mexico, to the U.S., he was a University High School baseball star with hopes of playing for UCLA and prospects for the big leagues until a shoulder injury sidelined him and destroyed his future sports career.

Malo (Art Ordaz) with one of his Harley-Davidsons, featuring Martin Luther King Jr on the tank. [Tod Mesirow]
An art teacher who saw promise in him submitted some of his drawings to a Los Angeles art school. Ordaz was invited to attend, and excelled, and was accepted into an internship that brought him into contact with filmmakers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Financial hardship forced him to withdraw from art school, though. The loss of a child took him down emotionally. Being broke drove him eventually, he said, into dealing drugs and stealing cars. He specialized for a while in secret compartments to cars that needed to smuggle things across the border from Mexico. He became a hang-around, then a prospect, then for the next ten years was a member of a one-percenter outlaw motorcycle club.

Those activities ultimately sent him to jail where, he said, he had a chance to rest up, relax and reconsider. When he emerged, he began focusing entirely on custom car and motorcycle work. Then, when he found that his affiliation with the outlaw club was hampering his career as a designer and builder – a National Geographic TV show and an exhibition at the Autry Museum of the American West, he said, both got spiked because of his membership – he left the club and set out on his own.

Art Ortiz at work in his shop, with examples of his artwork, in the process of applying imagery to a fender. [Tod Mesirow]
Ordaz is 44 now, married and father of a 2-year-old son. He seems almost too mellow for his gangster past. Calm, genial and soft-spoken, heavily inked, he smokes cigarettes and smiles a lot. At his Inglewood shop, not far from his home, a dozen vicla bikes are in various stages of disrepair. One Harley awaits pin-striping, its tank poised next to the air brush station. Another, getting a ground-up rebuild, has spit its guts onto the floor, barrels and clutch basket resting on the concrete.

One custom paint job depicts the late narcocorrido superstar Chalino Sanchez, whom Ordaz identifies as “like a Mexican Tupac.” Another pays tribute to the 1970s Mexican TV series “Chespirito.” Another, for a Black client, features images of African-American icons Martin Luther King Jr, Malcom X, Frederick Douglass, Huey Newton and Barack Obama. The four unfamiliar faces on the gas tank? “Those are family members who were killed by the police,” Ordaz said. In a loft high overhead are two or three vicla bicycles, the stretched and lowered Schwinns that may have been the progenitors of the current  motorcycle versions.

The process: comparing an image on an iPhone with hand-applied airbrush work on a motorcycle fender. [Tod Mesirow]
Life in Inglewood hasn’t been easy. Ordaz says he is routinely stopped by the LA County Sheriffs, who share jurisdiction with the Inglewood Police Department, though he’s lived in the area for decades. Last year he was stopped four times in a single month. “They never say ‘license and registration’ down here,” Ordaz says. “It’s just, ‘Out of the car.’” Despite that, he says, Inglewood is home, and it’s where he feels comfortable. “There’s people here who look like me.”

A new menace is gentrification. Outsiders have come to Inglewood for the central location and lower real estate prices. Every week, Ordaz says, another house changes hands. “All of a sudden, the old family is gone and there’s some white people walking a dog.” On that Sunday morning in Elysian Park, a dozen bikes bearing Malo’s handiwork were scattered along Stadium Boulevard. Though he’d only started organizing the event a week before, turnout was strong. He was greeted with back slaps, handshakes and bro-hugs by the very mixed crowd. Over here were couples arriving two-up, single females riding alone, alongside OGs on blacked-out hogs, parked next to a group of about 25 members of a three-patch motorcycle club.

Malo’s shop has a mix of bicycle, motorcycle, and car customs, all done with traditional Chicano style and influence. [Tod Mesirow]
Everyone seemed to be getting along, including members of sets who usually can’t hang out together without violence breaking out. “It’s amazing,” Ordaz said. “No one has ever done this before – bringing together all these people from all these sets. And everyone’s cool, and they all identify with the vicla movement.” Ordaz said it was in 2006, at a low rider show, that he saw his first proper vicla – a Harley custom painted with low rider motifs and patterns. He built his own vicla in 2008, and slowly watched the form mature. It’s not just a matter of motorcycles. For Malo, the machines and the aesthetic represent a cornerstone of a true Chicano culture that he fears is being assimilated out of existence. “I use the word ‘Chicano’ because I want it to come back again,” he says. “Latino. LatinX. That’s not me. Chicano is a way to remember where we came from, why we had a need to identify ourselves. That’s going to be lost if we don’t continue to pass it on.”

Malo in his shop with the tools of his trade. [Tod Mesirow]
The vicla scene has already moved beyond California. There’s a nascent vicla movement in Denver, Ordaz says. Denise M. Sandoval, a professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at California State University, Northridge, along with automotive historian Ken Gross, mounted a “Viva Viclas!” show in 2019 at North Carolina’s CAM Raleigh. Vicla shows were held last year in New Braunfels and El Paso, Texas, It’s even international. Australia has an annual Vicla Nationals, held in December. For all the current vibrancy, it’s unclear where vicla actually started. Sandoval believes the aesthetic traveled from low rider cars to bicycles to motorcycles – though when and where, exactly, is mysterious. Ordaz has his own theories. On the day we met at his shop, he was excited to have heard about an 81-year-old man from Texas, now living in the San Fernando Valley, who had his own vicla as a younger man. When we parted, Ordaz was making plans to meet the man and pay his respects. “This is what I’m doing now,” he said. “My whole life was bringing me up to this, to a chance to unite everyone. We’re all brothers.”



Charles Fleming is a Vintagent Contributor and formerly a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He is also author of “High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess,” “My Lobotomy,” “Secret Stairs, A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles” and its sequel, “Secret Walks: A Walking Guide to the Hidden Trails of Los Angeles.” Follow him on Instagram and Facebook.
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