Founded in 1992 by Kita S. Lealao Jr., UCE Car Club has grown from an LA group to a movement that encompasses over thirty chapters around the world. Who better to talk lowriding and car culture with Kita S. Lealao Jr. than Frank Book Chapter 29 guest curator and SA Studios co-founder Mister Cartoon.
Mister Cartoon: One thing with this interview, I wanna let these guys know, is the feeling of growing up in the Harbor Area and lowriding and gang culture and family, and maybe the misunderstandings. A lot of people think that lowriding is strictly for gang members. We look at it a lot of times like, well, some of the homies are gang members, or we were gang members when we were younger, but we’re older now and we’re doing this lowrider thing. It seems to me that lowriding is one of the things that brings everybody together. So you see Samoans, you see Black people, you see Latinos, you see White people and Asians all in the center, kicking it. But you go into a county jail and everyone separates. But rarely do they ever do any TV commercials or shows on the unity of lowriding. They love to do Fox News segments on gangbanging, race riots in schools…
Kita S. Lealao Junior: They glorify it. We look at it as something simple, but they dramatize it, even when it’s not severe. You feel me, uce? And that’s the part that hurts us. I just think that, man, we got a long hill, ‘cause that shit started back in the ‘50s. You can’t help it if lowriding is the choice of a dope dealer, or a gangster…a negative element. That’s the kind of cars they want to drive. We can’t help that. You feel me, uso? They grew up looking at them kind of cars and wanting to be a part of that. It makes us look bad because when they get caught up and they pull them over in the lolo… that’s our stereotype right there, you know, pullin’ pistols out the back seat, that’s what it is.
Because in Sacramento right now, ‘Toon, I got together with Kevin Johnson. You know KJ? He’s going to be the next mayor of Sacramento. So I’m having a meeting with him and I said, “Hey man, I’ll give you the support of the lowriding community in Sacramento, but you gotta give us something in return, like a spot where we can go kick it, a park where we can go hit our switches and not be harassed and everything. And now I got another meeting with the councilmen of Sacramento. So it looks good that we’re gonna get a spot, maybe, where we can hit our switches and they don’t fuck with us. But the OG niggas, we have to set the guidelines and give out the garbage bags, give out the rules and regulations when they come inside. I said, “Hey folks, this is what you gotta do. If you don’t wanna comply, I suggest you turn around right now, ‘cause we ain’t gonna go through that shit. You’re not gonna get us chased out for your bullshit.”
MC: Leave the beer bottles and…
KSLJ: Yeah exactly. We have the plastic bags and each club is responsible to tie their shit up and then the city just comes back and picks up the bags and throws them away and we cool. That’s the little things that we need to do to help out the community.
Plus you know there’s a lot of positive things that are helping our movement right now. Ever since I started my car club, that’s what I wanted. I wanted my car club to be able to go anywhere. Go into Black neighborhoods, Mexican neighborhoods, White neighborhoods…they can go anywhere, without no funk, uso. That’s why I taught my club nothing but love. That might be a sissy way, but that shit work for me, you feel me.
MC: It’s the right way. It’s the adult way. But, you know, a lot of people reading this, they from the East Coast. I’m gonna ask you something like, let everyone know what “uso” means and why you chose that for a car club name.
KSLJ: Well I could have chose all kinds of names, but me and [my brother] Daniel sat down and said, “Man, that’s a good fuckin’ name ‘cause it’s also the card that they have in the pen’, the usos, you know what I mean? That’s not why we chose that name. We just thought it was a good name, because an uso can mean anything. Just like, “Ey, wassup nigga,” or, “Wassup, hamo.”
KSLJ: Exactly. That’s what it is. That’s all it is. And I just thought it would be a name to have instead of like…nothin’ against all the other names, but, I mean, I just thought it had a little heart.
MC: And it actually evolved into “UCE.”
KSLJ: Yeah. Well, what happened is a couple guys in the club kind of went behind my back and tried to trademark the name over some stupid shit, which is a long story. And when I went to trademark it, that’s when I got caught up, ‘Toons, because the United States Organization already had established that. So what it did, is like–you know nobody in the United States Organization would ever check us in depth, not unless you’ve been a lowrider and you worked for the government, you wouldn’t know what lowriding is all about. They wrote me a real mean-ass letter from Washington telling me that, “Hey, if you don’t stop using that name, we’re going to sue you for everything you have.” So I stopped and changed it, you know what I mean? And I lost a lot of members over that, too. ‘Cause they were down with the USO thing, even though I kind of tried to explain to them, “You know, UCE, same thing.”
MC: They had it tattooed on ‘em…
KSLJ: Some niggas is just stubborn, bro.
MC: So some heads still have that on their cars?
KSLJ: Yeah, I love that. Because it shows what status they have with the club. They’re one of the originals. You know what I mean, uso? That’s who I look at, ‘cause… we did USO ten years. We did that name proud. Now we’re working on UCE, and we’re doing that name proud. I think in a couple more years we’re gonna go back to USO. We’re gonna bring it back because now, everything’s died down. There won’t be everything hanging over our heads no more, you know.
MC: Would you say that the majority of the Samoan-American population is in Southern California?
KSLJ: No, no. We got a lot up North, too.
MC: So, California?
KSLJ: California is the main base for Samoans. Now there’s a big movement in Seattle. There’s a big movement in Portland. It’s just like any other race, uso. Now, we’re starting to concentrate down in Texas, lot of ‘em are moving there, and it’s not just the Samoan race, it’s the Tongans and Samoans. We’re migrating now, you know. We’re starting to do our part. I represented the lowrider part and now we got a lot of the athletes coming in, a lot of Samoan athletes making their move. When we all get together, they respect our car club and they respect the USO name. But when they were young, they didn’t understand it, because all their forefathers were hatin’ on me ‘cause they thought it should have been an all-Samoan club. But I was tellin’ them, “If it was an all-Samoan club, it would be just me and Daniel in this old club,” you know what I mean? So that’s why we opened it up to all the races. We just thought that, man, we should give everybody an opportunity to do this. Teach them and show them that this is the diversity of a whole multi-racial club. If we can all get along and show the world like, “Man these niggas is different races and they all get along perfect,” you know what I mean?
That’s the only thing I try to establish. Like when I go to the Midwest, all my Midwest chapters, they all White boys. But when I go over there, even though they’ve been around White folks all those years, man, they treat me like a king. I swear. It’s like how we do and my homies do. You know you always give the OGs the respect. Bro, I go to a fucking country-ass town where they got fucking 300 carriage cars and they only got like 6,000 people in that city. They got candy paint and everything, uso! I’ve been to some places, where they killed a chicken right in front of me and we ate it. It was just there like, blaugh!
It’s been a good experience, ‘Toon. I check out all the chapters I started. Go to Miami, the whole Hispanic thing down there is crazy. Go to Texas, the Tejanos, that whole movement. You go to the Southwest, there’s a lot of Indian, Mexican brothers livin’ there. So man there’s all different kinds of peoples that are doing the movement.
My thing, ‘Toon, when I started USO, was to show California-style riding in different parts, where, you saw one of my cars in Kentucky, or one of my cars in Texas, you thought it was in LA. That was my concept, to do that. And the way I did was when I was a young club I would bring all my members, I’d say, “The only way you’re gonna know what kind of car you want to build is you have to go to the Supershow,” and when I took them to the Supershow, I showed them the turntable cars, “Is this what you want?” I go to my own custom cars, “…or is this what you want?” and I told them, “Ay, you take it from there.” So every year the guys from the Midwest would come out here and that’s how we would educate them. They would take them ideas back to the Midwest and just do it. That’s why everybody looks at us and they’re like, “Wow, you guys have been a good example.” California has always been top notch. Now, in others places in the United States, that lifestyle’s gettin’ deep, bro. The undercarriage car is just a minor now. It’s not a major anymore, like back in the day. When you rolled up in an undercarriage, you was the shit, uce. Now every Tom, Dick, and Harry’s got one.
MC: It’s almost standard issue.
KSLJ: Exactly. It was like, “Wow.” When you saw that car come in, your jaw dropped, like, “I wanna be like that.”
MC: How many chapters do you guys have?
KSLJ: I got 33 right now. We got a couple international. We got Stockholm, Sweden, we got Italy. My Stockholm chapter, they got three drops out there.
MC: Is that right?
KSLJ: And they ride on them cobblestone roads out there.
MC: That’s crazy.
KSLJ: That just shows you what LA has done. LA put some major damage in people’s heads all over the world. You feel me? That’s what I love. Even though I’m not from LA, this is my home. When I was young I used to come visit my cousins at Park Village. And man that’s the first experience I ever seen, riding up and down Compton Boulevard with they lolos. I was a young kid. I’m 50 years old, ‘Toon. I was looking at this shit when I was 14.
MC: How would you say that having a relationship and lowriding go together? Like wifey. How does your wife handle you being so busy with the club?
KSLJ: My wife, when I first met her, she didn’t know a fucking thing about lowriding. She was straight fresh off the boat. But she knew that I loved it so much. She had my back, even though she didn’t understand it. People don’t know that, when I started this club, I missed a lot of my kid’s football games, traveling, trying to get it together, because if I didn’t do that, the club would be shit right now. That’s why I put my heart and soul into trying to make it right. But my wife, when I first met her she just came from Samoa, in ‘74. And for her to see this culture now, she’s part of it, uce. That’s my girl. Now, she just says, “Damn honey, you finally gonna get it now, you finally made it.” So she’s been my backbone, bro. ‘Cause if I didn’t have her by my side, I don’t know, ‘Toons. I don’t think I’d be riding. ‘Cause I love her so much, I would’ve gave it up.