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Rockabilly Riot brings ‘50s culture to Ascarate Park

Eric Vasquez
Two festival goers swing to The Paladin. The band plays a country swing that allows dancers to triple step.

The Great American Rockabilly Riot held its fifth-annual show this weekend. Festival goers were able to check out more than 50 custom cars, motorcycles and vintage hot rods while bands played country swing, honky-tonk and rockabilly, all genres that can be described with two words: upright bass. The mix of music, cars and people transformed Ascarate Park into a hub for El Paso’s rockabilly culture.

Although the idea of slicking your hair up into a Travolta-esque pompadour may occur only around Halloween, for some, the look is a lifestyle. Ria Von Strudel is a pin-up girl. She fixes her hair up in sweeping curls and loves to wear high-waisted jean shorts and heels. For Von Strudel, a contestant in Rockabilly Riot’s pin-up girl pageant, her style makes her feel power. “Being a pin-up is like being sexy and classy at the same time,” Von Strudel said. “I like the feeling of being tough too.”

Armando Burciaga grew up in El Paso and has been around cars all his life. He said that rockabilly is closely connected to the car culture associated with it, if not dependent on it. 

“Your car was your pride,” Burciaga said, gesturing to the lot of shining automobiles around him. “But you had to know how it worked too. Too many kids roll up with these flashy cars but can’t even work the radio.”

Burciaga is not far from the mark. Almost every car in the lot was supervised by its owner in a lawn chair a few feet away. Anyone wanting to talk about their car was not met with begrudging conversation and a wax rag, but a genuine dialogue about the car. Conversations went on about finding the shell of it in an abandoned lot in Juárez, or haggling with a specialized dealer in Colorado over a certain part he needed, and still others about how long they’ve kept their car running since the ‘50s.

“El Paso has a deep car culture, believe it or not,” said Michael John, one of the festival’s organizers and owner of Dominic’s Italian Restaurant. “There was this car called the Orbitron, this super futuristic car designed by Big Daddy Roth with a glass bubble as a hood that got lost and was found in Juárez of all places.” 

Next to some of the cleanest cars, several rusted up vehicles, looking like they belonged in the post-apocalypse, demanded attention. These were rat rods, a rebellion against the shining hot rods that only people with money could afford to keep up.  For Burciaga, having a rat rod is a matter of pride. “It says ‘Look, I can build a car by myself,’” he said.

The Great American Rockabilly Riot is the closest gathering of car culture and rockabilly until you reach Phoenix, Ariz, and has people coming from as far away as California and Colorado to partake in the festivities. Although the night was cut short by Saturday’s rainstorm in the last hour, El Pasoans and visitors alike were able to spend an entire day with people who share a common love of cars, tattoos and rockabilly music..

Eric Vasquez may be reached at [email protected].

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Rockabilly Riot brings ‘50s culture to Ascarate Park