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Documentary tells story of wonderland ranch

OCEANSIDE — Emmy award-winning producer and director Kevin Bender brought his short film “Thinking Grande” back to Oceanside for a public screening at the Civic Center Library on June 2. 

The film was produced in 2008 and previously shown at the 2009 Oceanside Film Festival.

“Thinking Grande” is a documentary about business visionary Jose Luis Bonilla, who built a 15-acre wonderland ranch in New Cuyama, Calif., population 562.

The documentary film begins after the ranch was completed. It includes a few details on the building process (years of planning and building estimated to be in the 1960s to 1980s), but focuses chiefly on Bonilla’s vision for the ranch.

The idea to make the documentary came to Bender when he was living in Sweden. He read a newspaper article about Bonilla’s 20-year drive to hand-build a tourism ranch in New Cuyama and was compelled to return to the United States to document Bonilla’s story.

“He was a very smart businessman,” Bender said. “He made lot of money running grocery stores. He took the chance to fulfill his vision and ambition and create a place that was genuine and authentic to Mexican traditions and cultural experiences. A real authentic chunk of Mexico.”

The story is bittersweet. Bonilla worked for two decades to create a magnificent ranch of horse arenas, ornate gazebos, walkways and stables, only to see short-lived success.

Bender said the film does not come close to capturing the beauty of the ranch. The structures were built out of area rock and decorated with handmade ironwork and woodcarvings.

Artisans interviewed in the film comment on the high quality of craftsmanship put into the construction and Bonilla’s vision that held the project together.

“He is incredibly focused, energetic and smart,” Bender said. “Everything was done with a purpose and intensity.”

In the film Bonilla shares his memories of the plazas and architecture in Mexico, which he emulated in the ranch.

Bonilla’s son said in the film that his father had further plans to improve the site and believed his father would never stop building, simply because he loved the ranch so much.

In its brief heyday, live concerts and rodeos were held on the grounds and brought in sizeable crowds.

Trouble arose in about 2007 when the county of Santa Barbara discovered Bonilla had never applied for building permits.

Area officials were surprised that the massive building project had been completed without anyone noticing.

In the time between closing down the ranch and waiting through the permit process, from about 2007 to 2009, Bonilla lost interest and moved back to Mexico.

His sons did not pursue securing permits for the buildings, which were determined to be structurally sound.

The ranch never reopened to the public.

Bonilla said that the ranch missed him when he left. Others said that they believed it was Bonilla’s strong determination that kept the ranch going.

Although the story is bittersweet it still delivers a message of hope and dreaming big.

“It’s not the ending you would want, but it still feels hopeful,” Monica Chapa Domercq, principal librarian, said.

The property was recently sold. Bender said he does not know who the buyer is or what the plans are for the property.


1 comment

Ernesto Gonzalez Castro February 20, 2013 at 7:48 pm

I made custom boots for Mr. Bonilla all through the 80’s. Visiting the ranch on a weekly basis as he would order a pair of boots once a week. Not only for him but for his ranch hands as well. I moved to my home state of Arizona in 1988. I continued to make boots for Luis, but lost contact after a while. I would like to see the documentary as I would spend many evenings with Luis talking about his vision, seeing the building progress and riding with him to see his horses and his Spanish bulls. I would like any information.
Thanks, Ernesto

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