Several hours before three rival gangs confronted each other last July during a concert and lowrider car show at the La Plaza strip mall in Kent -- trading punches and gunshots and wounding a dozen people -- two women whose husbands are members of the Rollerz Only car club were canvassing the parking lot and handing out fliers advertising their own lowrider gathering a few weeks later. The promotion, however, backfired like a bad exhaust system. Rollerz Only members say they were questioned in connection with the shootout and forced to cancel two of their events, both of which would have been fund-raisers for local charities.
photo by Keegan Hamilton
At first glance, Vargas still looks every bit the OG. He's got a thick horseshoe 'stache that makes him resemble the actor Cheech Marin and a script tattoo on his shoulder that reads "Northside Locos," a reference to his old crew from his youth in gang-infested Toppenish, Washington. Then there's his ride: a Chevy Monte Carlo with a blue and white airbrushed Aztec-warrior paint job. Tricked out from bumper to bumper with chrome and mirrors, it also has a hydraulic suspension that could inspire an entire gangster-rap album.
But Vargas is no gangster. He works full-time as a substance-abuse counselor in Renton helping former gang members keep their noses clean. Like others in Rollerz Only, he complains that the shootout in Kent reinforced many of the negative stereotypes about lowrider car culture. He blames the gangster rappers who performed that day for inciting violence--an assertion supported in court documents, which describe how one of the musicians urged the crowd to flash gang signs. That allegedly sparked a melee between rivals from the Playboy Sureños, Varrio Locos, and Little Valley Lokotes gangs.
Armando Vargas poses with his custom Chevy.
"The detectives got a hold of those flyers that were being handed out and said they were related to the shooting," Vargas says. "We don't know what's going on and we're not involved, but the media hears about it and assumes that all car clubs are like that."
Andy Valdes, president of the Northwest Chapter of Rollerz Only, says the club has been hosting car shows for years with no trouble. He says previous funds raised by their shows benefited an anti-domestic violence organization, and the Victory Outreach church. The cash from a canceled show in Arlington was slated to go to a local animal shelter.
"There are a lot of ex-bangers out there that want to get their lives together," Valdes says. "They got children, they got lives now. You get young gangbangers that want out, they see us as a family. They see us as big brothers."
Andy Valdes, president of the Northwest Rollerz Only chapter, preps his Caddy for a car show.
Valdes describes how he too matured out of the gang life and found solace in lowriders. Raised in southwest Detroit, he was a member of the Latin Kings gang until he fled to Seattle in 1990. He says he left so abruptly that many of his old friends simply assumed that he'd been killed. Now pushing 50, Valdes is an electrician who pours most of his money into his outrageously outfitted 1994 Cadillac Coup de Ville, which features 12 TV screens on the interior and doors that open upward like those on a Lamborghini.
"For me this isn't a hobby," Valdes says. "It's my life."