Dream Ranch Forsaken

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.

"You have to use everyone, use their brains," he said. "It's not just physical work. You had to give them a reason to do it and do it perfectly so that everyone who saw it would admire it as a work of art."

He would tell his workers that a part of themselves would be imprinted in the village. He urged them to show Americans what Mexicans were capable of. Not even in Mexico, he told them, was there such a place.

He spoke of the stones as living things. "I'd tell them that each stone had eyes, had a face, had an expression formed over millions of years. That every time they'd place a stone, it would thank each one of them," he said. "The stone would never forget the person who would put it in its place."

His workers had come for a job, but found a crusade instead.

One believer was an ironworker named Carlos Munoz, who had left Tlaquepaque, near Guadalajara, for what he thought would be a year in the United States. He never returned home. Instead, for 17 years he dedicated his life to giving shape to his boss' imagination.

Many afternoons, Munoz and the other workers would watch Bonilla walk the property, lost in thought, conjuring ideas. Bonilla would call Munoz over. They'd sit on the benches under the plum trees. Bonilla explained the images in his head and Munoz would draw them.

"I never told him something couldn't be done," says Munoz. "Sometimes he'd say, 'Carlos, that looks pretty hard.' I'd say, 'No, boss, just give me a chance.' "

Munoz said his clients in Mexico had wanted only what was fast and cheap. But Bonilla wanted quality, and bought the best welding and metal-cutting machines. While building Asi Es Mi Tierra, Munoz experimented with new ways of shaping, welding and combining metals.

"Never in my life did I imagine I would do something like this," Munoz said. "In Mexico, I had a more limited vision of what was possible in life. Here I broadened my vision ... It lasted for 17 years. I'm still here. How time passes, no?"

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An Obsession

Deep in the Cuyama Valley, where for years neighboring ranches had no fences, Bonilla was unfettered by the America of restrictions and laws.

"As he went along, the ideas got bigger," Munoz said. "It was partly craziness and obsession."

Then the real world intruded.

For 20 years, Bonilla hadn't paid workers overtime on Saturdays. An attorney corralled the men and told them they were due back wages. The workers sued and Bonilla agreed in 2000 to pay $120,000 in back wages.

Santa Barbara County building inspectors, meanwhile, had been pestering him. "Have to have permit for this, permit for that," Bonilla said. "There always was a problem."

Bonilla acknowledged that he had begun Asi Es Mi Tierra without explaining his plans or seeking permission from county officials.

"If I said I'm going to do this and that, they'd think, 'This guy is crazy,' " he said. "I thought if I do it and if those guys see it, they'll probably give me the permits."

As Bonilla began running short of cash, he held rodeos and concerts. Mexican singer Juan Gabriel performed to 7,000 people in the rodeo arena. The county insisted Bonilla hire six California Highway Patrol officers, eight county sheriff's deputies and 32 security guards. They also limited beer sales, which cut into profits.

"I was thinking this place was going to make money," Bonilla said. "It didn't."

Finally in 2001, his finances depleted, Bonilla returned to Zacatecas with the bitterness of a jilted lover.

"In Santa Barbara, they demand Hispanic architecture," he said. "The most beautiful Hispanic place in Santa Barbara County is [Asi Es Mi Tierra], which sadly is half-finished."

Steve DeCamp, spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Building and Development Department, said the county is working on a conditional-use permit to allow the property's improvements.

"It kind of emerged out of the wilderness and it looked pretty fantastic when you looked at it," DeCamp said. "Now we're just trying to find a way to make the whole thing legitimate."

The ranch is for sale at $12 million. But Bonilla said none of the prospective buyers fully appreciates it.

Bonilla's son and daughter-in-law tend the place, with the help of some cowhands. A few construction workers also remain, including Munoz.

"As long as he doesn't sell it, I'll be here," said Munoz, who has a house and studio nearby, where he makes fine saddles and tack. "I don't think he'll sell it. He left a piece of his life here."

Bonilla's Italian poplars have grown to form an arboreal corridor 50 feet high. His lake has water, but the fountain is dry. His Mexican rodeo arena, considered one of the finest in the world, has no one in the stands. The benches and walkways around the plaza are empty.

Bonilla said Asi Es Mi Tierra is far from completed. Mounds of earth stand where he plans shops and outdoor vendors. He also hopes to build a hotel. And, he said, "If a village doesn't have a church, it isn't a village."

In a field of carrots, Bonilla wants to dig canals for boating. He envisions a small railroad to ferry visitors, and a colonial-style house for himself and his family.

"The worst thing is to stop," he said. "It's like cutting off your arms."

He said he'd return in a moment if the county invited him back. He's fit, 65, and can build more.

"Just let them give me a hand and not so many obstacles," he said. "Let me finish the project, so that people can admire it and know that a Mexican who came to wash dishes was the one who did it."

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