High Road, Low Ride

When Ricardo Cortez ’07 started college, he thought he’d be an engineer. But his heart called him to express himself and his culture in art instead.

The line from young child to old human is not a straight one. It’s a path that weaves and zags. It intersects with others and sometimes switches back on itself. Ricardo Cortez ’07 thought he knew his way. As a kid, he’d been on the Mission campus for math and engineering camps. When he arrived as a first-year undergrad, that’s what Cortez thought he wanted to study—math and engineering.

But for all that we think we know, there’s often something extraordinary we don’t. Cortez struggled that first year at SCU. “It was the first time in my life I was getting D’s and F’s,” Cortez says. He was trying, “but I was completely lost. You feel bad telling your parents. They wonder what’s going on. They ask, ‘What are you doing?’”

It was an academic advisor who saw the thing Cortez didn’t. They asked a few questions and realized that Cortez had a different passion. “They told me, ‘Why don’t you take this design class and just see how you feel about it.’” Cortez found his thing: art.

In one class, student artists made paper statutes using materials from Spain. It sparked in Cortez the ability to see art in more places, made out of more things, imagining what could be. Out of class, he took his work home, where his friends dug into the pieces and saw their own Chicano culture reflected in art. It became a thriving feedback loop.

An interactive paleta cart, part of Cortez’s show at the San Jose MACLA arts space.

After graduation, Cortez continued to pursue art, receiving a master’s degree from San Jose State University and earning slots in local art shows. He is now the director of marketing for Santa Clara’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship and an artist. His work often reflected his engineer-to-artist path, and almost always incorporated aspects of his Latino identity. In one show at the San Jose MACLA arts space, Cortez made a paleta cart interactive. He replaced the pictures of ice creams with interactive videos and audio stories of the lives of people who push such carts for a living.


Much of his current work explores lowrider culture, which his father, a San Jose police officer, shared with him. During the pandemic, he digitized old copies of Low Rider Magazine and put them online. His efforts reconnected communities that previously met at car shows or while cruising.

In his newest gig—creative ambassador for San Jose’s Office of Arts and Culture—Cortez will take on a role similar to the academic counselor who first directed him toward art. He will document lowrider culture with teens, who will use the images they capture to create sound-activated lightboxes. It is a mash-up of all his worlds—industrial design, art, and San Jose’s unique expression of Chicano culture.

Getting low on the road. Photo courtesy of Ricardo Cortez.

“Normally lowrider art is painting; it’s murals; it’s on fabric. This is a whole new genre of art—digital, technological—that hasn’t been seen in this space before,” Cortez says. He hopes he can show the young people he works with that life may take some unexpected turns but they can still enjoy the ride.

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