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A dream deferred
An entrepreneur and artist returned to his homeland without realizing his vision

Date: 08/10/2006

Documentary filmmaker Kevin Bender recently made his second trip from Sweden to northern Santa Barbara County. He's working on a film about former resident, builder, and visionary artist Jose Luis Bonilla.

The hub of the village:
With copper, stainless steel, brass, and other found metals, Jose Luis Bonilla crafted a replica of a gazebo he remembered from his boyhood. Its ornate detailing far surpasses the original that is still standing in the town of Fresnillo, Mexico.
The young Bonilla came to this country from Mexico to earn a living washing dishes. He ultimately worked his way up to become a successful restaurateur.

One day in the late 1970s,Rolex Replica Watches Bonilla happened to follow a detoured flow of traffic that turned east on Highway 166 from Highway 101. Just past Cuyama, he spotted a piece of land for sale that reminded him of his home in Fresnillo, Mexico. He purchased the 500 acres in 1979 and proceeded to paint a village scene on a mural-sized canvas.

Bonilla sketched the location of an arena, a marketplace, a huge fountain, an elaborately ornate gazebo, a bandstand, and a church.

The dream he developed was to build a replica of a Mexican village, a town that would inspire tourists and locals, leading to an appreciation of Mexican culture, crafts, and handiwork.

Bonilla trained a few unskilled laborers to be craftsmen. They cut and shaped stone, forged decorative metalwork out of stainless steel and copper, bent and shaped wrought iron, and excelled at masonry. One worker took 10 years to meticulously cut and lay the cobblestones throughout the village.

Bonilla started working on Asi Es Mi Tierra which means "my homeland is like this" in 1983 with materials found on the property. He amassed a mountain of stone that had been strewn across the landscape and collected scrap metal that had been left behind from the old oil days.

Designed to host concerts and Mexican rodeos, the arena has a capacity of 3,000 in the stands.
But in 2003, after 20 years of working tirelessly, Bonilla returned to Mexico, leaving his vision unfinished. Bender said that there was a cultural clash between Bonilla and the county over permits. After working so hard and for so long, Bender said, Bonilla expected support instead of resistance. His struggle, inspiration, passion, success, and frustration are the filmmaker's focus.

"For me, it's a story about loss, coming so close, working so hard, and then just deciding to leave and not realizing this vision and going back defeated," Bender said in July, while standing in the shade of one of Bonilla's larger-than-life structures.

"I went down to Fresnillo in Mexico, his hometown. He took me to the plaza where the gazebo was," Bender said. "He said that as a kid he saw this gazebo and thought, 'One day I want to build my own.' But everything he's built here is much better and is so nice compared to the places in Mexico and they're nice too."

Bonilla's vision came to limited fruition in the form of a fountain, gazebo, bandstand, and arena. He never got around to constructing the village church. He also had planned for an eventual hotel, restaurants, and even a lake for boating.

"I think he'd like to [finish it] if he could find some help and support, and not so many roadblocks that he felt he got from the county. He feels he was thwarted by red tape and bureaucracy with Santa Barbara County planners," Bender said.

A plan interrupted:
Rancho Bonilla was intended to be a replica of a Mexican village, complete with an arena, marketplace, gazebo, bandstand, and church. The county says it needs to approve a conditional use permit before any more concerts or public activity can proceed on the property. Frustrated with the red tape, Bonilla left his unfinished village and returned to Mexico.
Harrell Fletcher, a former county supervisor who helps developers to navigate the county planning process, hopes that the county will issue a conditional use permit that will allow the facility to open to the public. But it may already be too late to lure Bonilla back to finish his dream, because the property is up for sale and isn't being maintained.

Fletcher believes that Rancho Bonilla along with the courthouse in Santa Barbara is the most attractive architecture in the county. And he noted that Bonilla built the structures at the rancho to higher standards than any building codes, and he situated buildings and planted trees in such a way as to keep the often brutal temperatures of the Cuyama Valley at bay, sometimes cooling the area by as much as 20 degrees.

Fletcher, who also helped Bonilla apply for county daily-use permits so the visionary could hold concerts for popular Mexican performers, said the three events held in the arena attracted standing-room-only crowds. Some 4,000 fans made the drive to attend.

"The first 1,000 sold at $100 a seat, and the second 1,000 sold at $75 a seat, and the others were $50 even standing room," Fletcher said.

Sweden's Bender spent three days shooting film and interviewing Bonilla in Mexico last spring. He explained that while his initial fascination was with the size and scope of the construction project, the focus naturally turned toward the man who made it happen.

"I just find it amazing that somebody could just do this first of all want to, and then be able to do it," Bender said, "and at this scale.

"It's always the person. Who's this guy and why would he do this and spend 20 years? How could he abandon it? It's like the Watts Towers' Simon Rodia. He just walked away, too. There's a similarity that way, to work so hard, coming so close to a vision, then just deciding to leave and not realizing his vision," Bender said.

Fully realized, Rancho Bonilla could have been a sort of Mexican version of Solvang, serving as a destination for visitors seeking to enjoy authentic food, music, and rodeos. Bender noted that it would also be a home away from home for Mexicans, and more importantly it would be a cultural bridge so that Californians could learn about Mexico.

All this is not to say that the entire vision is dead. There's some talk among interested parties that the grounds could eventually serve as a cultural exchange, where craftsmen could demonstrate metal, leather, and stone work, much like Bonilla himself taught his laborers. Bender said that it's a shame not to open up the rancho, since most of the hard work is already done. It could be a central point for improving intercultural relations by having people share and work on art together, he said.

"I'd like people to see this place," Bender explained. "I'd like them

Filming a visionary:
Kevin Bender, a documentary filmmaker living in Sweden, has taken several trips to the Americas to capture the story of Jose Luis Bonilla. His film, due out next year, is titled "Thinking Grande: Creating Californias Mexican Wonderland."
to know about Luis and what he's done. I'd like them to appreciate this.

"I'm really upset with the climate these days and the perception and attitudes toward Mexicans," Bender continued. "I think the majority of people who are upset with that don't know anything about Mexico, or don't know anything about Mexicans."

He said that perceptions might change if people were to see something as impressive as Bonilla's construction and realize that a Mexican had made it.

"That's why I want them to know about him, and to appreciate him," Bender continued.

He said that Bonilla may never return to Santa Barbara County, but the rancho stands as a reminder of the man's dream. In that light, the realization of that dream now rests with the county. Because the area is in an agricultural preserve, special considerations would have to be addressed before Rancho Bonilla could open to the public.

John Zorovich, the county case planner who first handled Bonilla's permit issues, agrees that Bonilla's creation is worth preserving, and he feels that there's a desire at the government level to find a way to make the project compliant.

"The department's perspective has been: What he has out there is really unique and a pretty wonderful structure. And I think the county would like to work with him," Zorovich said. "What he has built doesn't fit within any of the zoning requirements we have, because they are not clearly allowed under the existing zoning."

Bonilla's first hurdle, if he were to return, is to respond to an Aug. 15, 2005, letter the county sent him, which lists issues that still need to be addressed and specified before the project can ever move forward. Those issues include times of year when events will be held, the number of participants at each event, a clear definition of each event, lighting requirements, and coordinating with Caltrans on traffic issues.

Zorovich said that the county hasn't held up Bonilla's permit process, but added that it's more involved than the average request. He conceded that maybe Bonilla's case hasn't gone forward as quickly as Bonilla might have wanted it to. However, the planner recognizes the significance of the site and expressed a desire to see the structures legally permitted.

"We do want to work with him," Zorovich said. "It's such a neat facility, but it's going to take both sides to come together, I think, and say, 'How can we make this work?' Because no one wants to see it go away."

Arts Editor Craig Shafer can be reached at

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