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Dream Ranch Forsaken

A Mexican grocer spent decades building a folk art masterpiece on a neglected California ranch. He abandoned it amid permit disputes.

February 12, 2005|Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writer

One day in 1979 a Mexican grocer drove past a ranch for sale in a lonesome valley north of Santa Barbara.

Oil pipe lay strewn about like abandoned skeletons. The house was collapsing, and piles of stone littered the barren property.

Although he was a practical, self-made man, the land seemed to speak to him.

Jose Luis Bonilla had never built anything. But he bought the ranch and on a long canvas he began painting the layout of a Mexican village. He drew Italian poplars marching in columns along its main entrance. A village plaza was next, with lamps, benches and walkways under the shade of weeping willows and plum trees.

To one side of the plaza, he painted a stage and a hexagonal bandstand under a roof of elaborate metalwork.

Across the plaza he drew an arched corridor fronting a large marketplace. There was a lake for boaters, with a giant fountain. Then, overlooking stables for 70 horses, he painted a Mexican rodeo arena with seating for 3,000 spectators.

Twenty years later, the Mexican wonderland he'd painted on canvas had risen from the land where the dilapidated ranch once stood. He called his village Asi Es Mi Tierra -- My Homeland Is Like This.

In its audacity and out-of-placeness, it echoes a time when California gave free rein to the fevered imaginations that spawned such monuments as the Watts Towers or Hearst Castle.

"In life, you have to think big," Bonilla said.

Simon Rodia erected the Watts Towers with shards of crockery, colored glass and tile. Bonilla also used what was at hand: stones and old oil pipe.

Like Rodia -- who, after 33 years of labor, gave the keys to the Watts Towers to a neighbor and disappeared -- Bonilla too abandoned his dream. In a dispute with Santa Barbara County planners, he stalked back to Mexico three years ago.

Bonilla's folk masterpiece covers 100 middle-of-nowhere acres along California 166 in the Cuyama River Valley, the silence disturbed only by the wind and the clip-clop of the prized Andalusian horses still stabled at Asi Es Mi Terra.

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Started as Dishwasher

Bonilla had grown up with horses in Fresnillo in the Mexican state of Zacatecas, where his father owned a lumber mill. At 11, Bonilla decided he wanted to see the United States, so he came on his own to Los Angeles in 1950, planning to stay a few weeks. Then he got a dishwashing job in a Glendale restaurant, and 10 years later he was still here.

Later, a job as a chef at the Disneyland Hotel "gave me the chance to work 16 hours a day, and to save," he said. He bought a horse, and after work Bonilla would ride it along the Santa Ana River.

He became a grocer in 1972, opening the El Toro Market in Santa Ana. As the immigrant community expanded, so did the market, adding a Mexican delicatessen and liquor store.

Seven years later, Bonilla was traveling south on U.S. 101 from Santa Maria when an oil tanker crash triggered a detour that took him past the ranch. Shortly after, he bought it for $400,000 and went to work, using profits from his market.

Bonilla started with two experienced construction workers and two helpers. They began by planting rows of Italian poplar saplings. As time passed, Mexican immigrants began showing up, hearing about jobs. They usually knew little about building, so Bonilla would teach them.

His crew grew to some two dozen men. Bonilla bought mobile homes for them and his family, leaving his market in the hands of relatives. The crew, along with Bonilla and his children, foraged the 500-acre property for stones and brought them by the truckload to the village site. They split them in half and used them for cobblestones.

Bonilla combed junkyards for more scrap oil pipe to cut into railing, or melt into the wrought iron that girded the bandstand and stages.

The rodeo arena took eight years to build; the lake took three. The bandstand needed more than two years to build. Its roof, an amalgam of copper, tin and stainless steel, took two more years.

Below the bandstand, Bonilla built a room for musicians to store their instruments. To fill his time at night, Bonilla began making saddles there. He bought leather-sewing machines from Germany and turned the space into a saddle workshop. He imported Andalusian horses from Spain to raise and sell.

Bonilla's wife never shared his dream and eventually left him. "She said, 'I feel like in jail here,' " Bonilla said.

But he believed the village was what he was put on Earth to do. To steel himself for the job, Bonilla became a vegetarian. He didn't drink, smoke or gamble. He also became driven, cantankerous. Social graces deserted him.

"A lot of people stayed away from him because as he's thinking, he's talking," said his daughter, Idoya. "He's very restless. Building is his way of calming down."

Bonilla's workers fought often, sometimes with the rocks they were using to build. Bonilla thought them barely civilized, like wild horses. He would ride them hard, let up, praise them, coddle them, and then urge them on.

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