Sonny Madrid: Lowrider Legend and More

Originally written by Estella Inda.

Many people know Sonny Madrid as the founder of Lowrider magazine, but that’s just a small part of the story.

Sonny was born on January 19, 1945 in Yuma, Arizona, to Manuel and Dolores Madrid. Originally named Manuel Mario Madrid, he would later adopt the nickname Sonny. In the 1960s, the Madrids moved to San Jose, where Sonny attended James Lick High School, San Jose City College (SJCC), San Jose State University (SJSU), and UC Santa Cruz. While attending SJSU, Sonny was involved with promoting dances and events on and off of campus, leading him to form the event promotion group Lowrider Associates.

In the late 1960s, Sonny became active in the Chicano Civil Rights movement in San Jose, along with two of his sisters, Lydia and Irene, and his brother, Rudy. Among the many causes in which Sonny was involved were United Farm Workers of America (UFW), United People Arriba, the Community Alert Patrol, the SJSU Walkout, Fiesta de la Rosas Protest and Tierra Nuestra. He helped recruit Chicano students for college with the College Education Opportunity Program, and protested the Vietnam War, the Chicano draft, and the construction of the 280 Freeway through the west side.

Sonny enjoyed bringing people together, and he wanted to keep Chicanos informed about the injustices that faced their community. While working at other Latin publications such as El Machete, Bronze, La Palabra, Trucha, and San Jo Community News, Sonny conceived the idea of a Chicano magazine combining his love of custom cars with art, satire, fashion, and politics. The first issue of this new magazine, Lowrider, hit the stands in January 1977, and San Jose became northern California’s cruising capital, fulfilling Sonny’s wish of uniting his community through activism, art and friendship.

In 1984 Sonny released ownership of Lowrider magazine due to financial issues, and it ceased operations at the end 1985. In 1986, Sonny moved to Visalia, California, where he promoted car shows and worked with community agencies to continue his Chicano activism. He also worked on his art, published a Chicano art magazine, and occasionally wrote for another lowrider publication, Streetlow Magazine.

In 2014 Sonny was diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer, and returned to San Jose to be near loved ones. After a year and a half battle, he passed away on June 22, 2015. He is survived by two sons, Lenny and Mario.

Sonny will forever be remembered by Chicanos and Lowriders for his activism and creativity. 

Background information provided by Mario Madrid.

On Tuesday January 15, 2019, the library is hosting the first of three panel events on lowrider culture: Out of the Past: San José's Lowrider History. Join us as we hear the stories of the cruisers, artists, and activists who were part of the scene that Sonny Madrid helped create. This event occurs in conjunction with the exhibit: Story and King: San José's Lowrider Culture, on display December 15, 2018 through March 31, 2019.