Miss 505, Justa “Justice” Lovato’s 1985 Cadillac Eldorado lowrider, is a glittering work of folk art. It’s also a veritable automotive tribute to New Mexico. “She’s Miss 505 for our area code and our capital city,” Lovato said. “Everything’s custom: the logo, the license plates, the 505 design on the trunk, and the words ‘Tierra Sagrada.’ That’s actually from the bridge coming into Santa Fe. It means sacred land. And ‘New Mexico True,’ because she’s totally dedicated to New Mexico.”
You can see the car at the New Mexico History Museum, where it was wheeled in on Jan. 3 as the final full-size automobile entry of the exhibition Lowriders, Hoppers, and Hot Rods: Car Culture of Northern New Mexico. The trunk lid is wide open, revealing a visual feast of bling and glitter and objects: game money, playing cards, champagne glasses etched with Zia symbols, U.S. and New Mexico flags, dice, plastic chiles, pictures of road runners and of the cathedral, and a New Mexico map and magazine.
Little painted yucca plants break up the pinstriping along the tops of the fenders. The phrase “Enchanted Expressions” is emblazoned several times on the car’s sides — this is the name of the Santa Fe car club Lovato founded in 2010 — and “Capital 505 Classic” is stenciled across the top of the windshield. At the ends of the “Enchanted Expressions” logos on the bottoms of the doors and fender panels is a Zia symbol with a “13” in the center — this denotes the 13-inch rims on her 100-spoke Dayton wire wheels.
“I’ve always been fascinated with cars. My dad’s a mechanic,” she said. “I decided to build this car after I got out of the Navy.” The Santa Fe woman (of Spanish, Native American, and French descent) served five years in the U.S. Navy, where she learned aviation mechanics. That recalls one of the origin stories of lowriders: People who worked on wing-flap hydraulics in California airplane factories after World War II then adapted similar hydraulics technology for cars in New Mexico. “The term ‘lowrider’ refers to either a car whose suspension has been lowered to inches from the ground or the person who drives it,” according to Lowriders, Hoppers, and Hot Rods curator Daniel Kosharek. The motto of the Hispanic people who fashion and love lowriders is bajito y suavecito — “low and slow,” a methodology that was conceived as an alternative to speed-demon Anglo hot rodders.
Lovato’s parents gave her the Eldorado in 2002 as a graduation gift. “She saw the Caddy in Casino with Robert De Niro and she decided she had to have one, then a friend sold one to us,” said Julia Barela Armijo, Lovato’s mother and a seventh-generation Santa Fean. “At least I got a high-school diploma for it. I parked the car outside and teased her with it to keep her motivated. My husband, Rick Armijo, inspired her with cars. He’s one of the top technicians in Santa Fe, and he has a 1949 International and a 1967 Mustang.”
Justice married Julian Lion Lovato in 2006, and they decided to work on the lowrider as a couple. “I help her, she helps me, we do it all,” he said. “She likes to get her hands dirty.” Julian Lovato did all the paint, the interior, and the engine work, his wife said, standing outside the museum on a cold Tuesday morning. After several attempts, Julian and museum staff got the car to roll in the front door. Then the couple spent 10 minutes waxing the alligator- pattern mat and rolled the vehicle onto it. Finally, she carefully sprinkled glitter on Miss 505 and added a garland of colorful plastic flowers at the front. Sitting on the mat with it is a little pedal car of a similar style, which was Justice’s mother’s as a child.
Some of the lowriders that have been featured in the museum exhibition have been “enhanced” with parts from other cars. One standout was the late prizefighter Johnny Tapia’s blue 1950 Mercury, which sports a 1961 Thunderbird interior and a DeSoto grill and now belongs to Chuck Montoya. Miss 505 is not one of those. Nor is it (actually, Lovato always calls the car “she”) a hopper. These are cars equipped with hydraulic lifters that facilitate their jumping and bouncing behaviors at shows. “No, Miss 505 has air-shock suspension, so it’s all air in the back and you can drop it or lift it,” Justice Lovato said. “There’s no hydros, because the back trunk is all velvet and I don’t want oil back there.” The only practical items you see in the trunk are the spare tire and a big subwoofer. She described her sound system as “a Type 4 Alpine speaker and a Sony Xplod amp, and then I have two kickers in the back seat.”
“Since I’ve been showing her, she’s gotten 67 awards and tons of best in show, best paint, best interior, best display. My best in shows include the super national shows in Española, where I’ve also gotten first place luxury lowrider. Luxury lowrider is one of the hardest categories you can compete in and I’ve pulled that three times, so I’m pretty proud of that.” Lovato herself is definitely the showcase of the couple. “I have been professionally modeling since 2009. I’ve been in nine magazines and not only for cars. I’ve been in Enchantment Desert Pin-Ups, Street Low, and Lowrider magazines; also four calendars and two commercials — Cover Girl and Coca-Cola — and I’m a spokesmodel for Cricket Wireless.”
When asked if Miss 505 is finished, Lovato said, “Oh, man, I don’t think she’ll ever be finished. I always want to do something else. Like the paint job: At night she turns pink. She’s a purple pearl in a pink hue so she’s a pink Cadillac at night, and pink’s my favorite color.”
At first glance, Lovato’s car can seem more about theater than mechanics. “But the vehicle for her expression is a cherried-out ’85 Eldorado and she did the work on that,” said Kosharek, who is also photo curator at the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives. “Justice takes a great deal of pride in the fact that she’s done the work herself, she and her husband.”
He recalled the day he met Lovato. “I was sitting in my office, and I had a call that there was somebody here to see me. I went up to the front and it was her. She looks like Amy Winehouse with this scraper hairdo, a really tight low-cut dress, and she says, ‘Hi. My name is Justice Lovato and I’m a lowrider.’ She pulls out her cellphone and shows me all these pictures of her car — I’d seen photos of it before — and says, ‘I want to put it in the museum.’ I had a full schedule but I thought we could do it after the first of the year. I wanted to showcase the fact that [lowriders are] not just men.”
Justice Lovato is a pioneering woman lowrider exhibitor, and although it’s probably doubtful that she’s the first anywhere, she could easily make a claim about the number of tiny rhinestones she has glued in depressions along the moldings around the windows, on the taillights, and in dozens of other places inside and outside the vehicle. If you crouch down and look in the red-painted wheel wells, you’ll see elegant diamante scrollwork, and even the little door-lock buttons glitter with rhinestones.
“Of course! Diamond Diva,” Lovato said. When asked, “Is that your nickname?” she replied, “Yes, sir.” And how many rhinestones does she think are on the car? “She’s decked out. I love my diamonds.”
This particular lowrider artist takes flamboyance and just runs with it. “I don’t want to use the word ‘girly,’ but the way she tricks out the car with little flower bouquets and gluing little crowns on the doorjambs is pretty outrageous,” Kosharek said. “It’s over the top. She’s so eccentric, with all the glitter on the floor and the high-heel shoes on the red-velvet front seat and the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. This is really a personal expression. She’s a Santa Fe icon. Everyone knows her because of her car.”
“I’m a bird of many colors,” Lovato averred. “I choose to stand out. And Enchanted Expressions, the name of my car club, represents the Land of Enchantment and freedom of expression.” ◀