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Dreams Of Mexican Disneyland In Thinking Grande!

Thinking Grande! airs this Sunday, October 4th at 10:30pm.

Dreams of Mexican Disneyland in Thinking Grande!
The film Thinking Grande! tells the story of Jose Luis Bonilla, a Mexican immigrant dishwasher turned entrepreneur who worked for 20 years to build his dream of a Mexican Disneyland in the heart of California. He built it without permits and once the county demanded permits, he abandoned the massive complex of buildings and moved back to Mexico. We'll talk with documentary filmmaker, Kevin Bender.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. California is the place where people come to bring their dreams to life. It was true for the Hollywood filmmakers, true for William Randolph Hearst as he built his famous castle, and true for Walt Disney and his happiest place on earth. We can now add another name to that list: Jose Luis Bonilla. He had a dream of building a sort of Mexican Disneyland here in California to celebrate Mexico's culture and people. It was a grand ambition and one that was almost realized if it hadn't been for the Santa Barbara Planning Commission. The story of Rancho Bonilla, a collection of beautifully constructed buildings, fountains and plazas, now standing empty and in limbo is told in a new documentary airing this weekend on KPBS Television called: “Thinking Grande!”. I’d like to welcome my guest, Kevin Bender. He produced and directed “Thinking Grande!”. Kevin, good morning.

KEVIN BENDER (Documentary Filmmaker): Good morning. Thank you for having me.


CAVANAUGH: Now how did you meet this visionary man, Jose Luis Bonilla?

BENDER: I was born and raised in Southern California, up the coast in Oceanside and – but I took a detour to Sweden for 16 years. I was living in Sweden in 2005 when I read an article in the LA Times online edition by Sam Quinones about Bonilla and it told the whole story of how he’d worked 20 years to build this Mexican Disneyland and then suddenly the County discovered he had no permits. So I read the story and I was inspired by it and fascinated by it and decided to make a documentary. I had previously made documentaries in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s but I hadn’t done anything since I’d moved to Sweden. I’d got a real job and so – but I felt so inspired to do this that I decided to make a documentary about him and I contacted him and he agreed to do it.

CAVANAUGH: Now tell us a little bit about Bonilla’s history. He came to the United States and was very successful here.

BENDER: Yeah, he came here when he was 11 years old from Zacatecas and his mother was American so he moved up to the United States, lived in Orange County, and began working. He worked in Stader Brothers sweeping the parking lots. He worked at the Disneyland Hotel washing dishes. And I think it was there where he got the idea to perhaps make a Mexican Disneyland, just like Walt Disney did of coming from Kansas. And then he went into business and started a store called El Toro in Santa Ana and it became a wildly successful store, a Mexican market, and then he started making money and then he had the ability to work on his Mexican Disneyland.

CAVANAUGH: Now he did actually build an awful lot. Tell – It’s now called Rancho Bonilla. It’s in Santa Barbara County. So describe it for us, if you can. What do we see when we see Rancho Bonilla?


BENDER: Well, out on the middle of the Cuyama Valley, it’s the middle of nowhere. And in the late ‘70s when he first saw the land, there was nothing at all there. And over the next 20 years, he worked tirelessly to – with teams of Mexican laborers and people, to recreate an idealized Mexican village with all that a typical Mexican village might have. So being inspired by his little hometown of Fresnillos, Zacatecas, he sort of reimagined the Mexican village out of rock and metal, and in a way that really sort of transcends any kind structures that you would see in a village like that. They’re just so beautiful and so audacious. And his idea really was – He’s a businessman first and foremost. And his idea was to make a commercial venture and really have a Mexican Disneyland where people would come for authentic Mexican culture, food, music, hotels, etcetera. And so he has built a huge plaza with thousands and thousands of rose bushes and trees. The whole property is surrounded by Italian poplars, beautiful trees, and there’s a lienzo charro, which is a rodeo arena for Mexican rodeos, probably one of the most beautiful ones in the world. And there is a huge fountain and lake, artificial lake. There is a couple of outdoor stages for music being played. And that’s – it’s about 80 acres, the whole thing, and there’s a huge area for horses, which he breeds Andalusian horses, I believe they’re called.

CAVANAUGH: And, Kevin, tell us a little bit about the craftsmanship that has gone into the creation of these buildings because when you see it, when you see these buildings, they’re really quite extraordinary.

BENDER: Yeah, it’s amazing how one man could have this realized this way. And he worked with teams of Mexicans who a lot of them came up from Mexico to work for him once they realized what was happening up there. And the metal work is particularly amazing. That’s done by a gentleman named Carlos Munoz. And I tell people, you just have to see it to believe it. The film doesn’t do it justice. The stills that you can see at the website don’t do it justice. You really have to see it to believe it. But you can’t imagine what a person can do out of nothing, using rock and metal mostly that was left over from the old oil fields that was collected and repurposed into the environment there.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Kevin Bender who has produced and directed a documentary called “Thinking Grande!” about the now-in-limbo Rancho Bonilla in Santa Barbara County, built by Jose Luis Bonilla as maybe a potential Mexican Disneyland. Now the thing about this is that he built this dream project but he didn’t ask anybody for any permits. I mean, he didn’t consult anyone with any architectural plans. He just built it. So how does that happen in this day and age? Constructing something as large and as intricate as you’re telling us without permits?

BENDER: Well, he just went and did it. He had a painting made which was sort of the blueprint for the whole thing. It was a big, huge painting that was done, and I think it was the blueprint. And he did not bother or was not interested to go through the usual channels. I think that he’s in the traditions of a lot of California dreamers and doers and builders that do those kind of things out of a vision, and it also helped that the whole structure, the whole village is behind the huge Italian poplar trees, sort of hidden from view. And the other thing that helps, I think, it’s out in the middle of nowhere. Hardly anybody ever goes by there. And so in doing the film, the – He built the place over 20 years, it took him, and had concerts there with Vicente Fernández, Juan Gabriel, huge concerts, huge rodeos, but I think that the – if I put it this way, the white power structure just missed it up in the county. And if he had gone in with blueprints and plans to the County and said here’s what I’m going to build, I just don’t think it would’ve happened probably. Who knows what would’ve happened. He just decided to do it himself and he thought when he was done with it and showed it to them that they would be fine with it and approve it. But it just didn’t work out that way. And I don’t want to make the Planning and Development people the villains because they’re just doing their jobs and they – they’re actually admire the place and like it and have subsequently approved it and found out that it’s perfectly seismically okay and everything’s okay to permit.

CAVANAUGH: Well, according to your film, the people in the Santa Barbara Planning Commission are rather surprised that they’ve overlooked it for as long as they did, too. Let’s hear a scene from the film when it gets to that point. We hear from John Zorovich at the Santa Barbara County Planning Department, and then we hear Jose Bonilla. Let’s take a listen.

(audio of clip from the documentary “Thinking Grande!”)

CAVANAUGH: So what happened once the County realized what Bonilla had actually created out there?

BENDER: Well, what I know is that they asked him for permits. He didn’t have the permits. He had never applied for permits. He went – used a land use consultant, a gentleman up there in the area, to sort of go back and take care of things. And when we made the film, it was sort of in limbo. They – Bonilla had not responded to the County’s letters and he just sort of pulled back from the whole process. And part of our plan in making the film was to help sort of reconnect the family with the powers that be in the county up there in the hopes that something further would happen to this place and it wouldn’t just be abandoned and left by Bonilla and that – But it didn’t work out that way. It’s still pretty much in limbo, as you say, and I think that the County is okay with the place, it’s just a matter of getting Jose Luis back up from Zacatecas and putting his amazing energy and creativity back to work. But I’m not sure if he’s really interested in doing that now.

CAVANAUGH: But in your documentary, he says he does miss the U.S.

BENDER: Yeah, he does. I think that he’s left a big part of his heart and his soul up there and I think that deep down inside he would love to see it achieved and come to fruition. He pretty much says it’s in the hands of his kids, his sons, which are putting their energies in other areas, into music, into their family business. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I would love to see something happen and that it be turned into a center for Mexican art and culture but I really can’t say what’s going to happen.

CAVANAUGH: How old is Jose Luis Bonilla?

BENDER: He’s about 70.

CAVANAUGH: And what is he doing now in Mexico?

BENDER: He has a huge ranch in Zacatecas, Mexico, and he raises fighting bulls.

CAVANAUGH: I see. And that’s what he did when he was younger, he worked with the bulls.

BENDER: Yeah, his family’s worked with bulls for a long, long time. And he has other business interests down there in radio and TV, and he has his stores up here in the United States.

CAVANAUGH: And tell us a little bit more because it is included in your documentary, “Thinking Grande!”, the idea of some people would like to see this whole complex turned into, I don’t know, something like an arts community and there’s at least one gentleman in the film who’s very much involved in the – in that idea.

BENDER: Yeah, well Patrick Davis is a former Executive Commissioner of the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission, the executive director, and is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my life. And he bonded with Bonilla instantly when he went out there, and helped make the film actually, was the executive producer of the film along with Jorge Fons of Mexico. And he just very simply, the idea would be to perhaps form a nonprofit organization to take over the running of the place to build it into a facility where there would be education about Mexican heritage and culture, there would be arts taking place. There could be artists exchanges, artists living there, craftsmen working there, all producing things up to the standard of Bonilla, who is an incredible perfectionist and interested in the highest quality. It would take a lot of work to legitimize and legalize the place as it stands now but I think it would be a huge asset to California if we had something like that. And I would really, really like to see a place that could – where genuine, authentic Mexican culture could be appreciated and explored.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you for talking to us about this today. And I want to let everyone know that if they want to see what we’ve been talking about, Rancho Bonilla, the documentary, “Thinking Grande!” airs this Sunday, October 4th at 10:30 p.m. on KPBS Television. Kevin Bender, thanks so much.

BENDER: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS, and These Days is produced by Angela Carone, Hank Crook, Pat Finn, Josette Herdell, Sharon Heilbrunn, and senior producer Natalie Walsh. Production manager is Kurt Kohnen with technical assistance from Tim Felton. Our production assistants are Jordan Wicht and Rachel Ferguson. The executive producer of These Days is John Decker. I’m Maureen Cavanaugh, hoping you’ll enjoy the rest of the week. You’ve been listening to These Days right here on KPBS.