Honor Thy Culture

Honor Thy Culture

Ruben Gonzalez’s never-say-die activism started alongside Cesar Chavez and continues with Coachella’s artistic set.

David Lansing Arts & Entertainment, Current PSL, Watch & Listen - Attractions

Honor Thy Culture
PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER YANG

Initially, Ruben Gonzalez asked me to meet him at his place out in the boonies, better known as Ruben’s Ranch, for our interview. But I was hoping for someplace more iconic, some symbolic desert backdrop better suited to the man known as Coachella’s El Hombre Grande.

Maybe, I suggested, we could share a beer at the North Shore Yacht Club, a 1960s relic from the Salton Sea’s recreational glory days (this was even before I learned that Ruben, who collects desert artifacts in hopes of one day setting up a museum at his ranch, owns the yacht club’s old phone booth). Or maybe we could perch atop Salvation Mountain, chatting while busloads of Japanese tourists take selfies in front of the colorful but profoundly disturbing murals and sculptures that look like they came from the warped mind of Charlie Manson.

But although Ruben’s Ranch, a sort of spiritual retreat and fundraising clubhouse for artistic types on the fringes of Coachella, has much in common, stylistically and architecturally, with both Albert Frey’s ersatz desert yacht club and wild-haired prophet Leonard Knight’s crazed mound of recycled art, Ruben Gonzalez is a blue-collar working man. He may be the desert’s most respected Hispanic visionary when he dons his civic lucha libre costume but, by day, he’s a busy contractor and, even in the Death Valley–like temps of mid-August, he told me he was busy framing and putting up drywall until 6 p.m. So if I wanted to hear Gonzalez tell me the story of his own little Salvation Mountain, I’d have to meet him at his spread in the desert at dusk. If I could find it. Don’t worry, he said when we talked. I’ll meet you at Jalisco Restaurant and you can follow me to the ranch.

VIDEO: Ruben Gonzalez talks about his upbringing and artistic influences.

Jalisco is a birrieria in Coachella’s historic Pueblo Viejo District known for two things: big bowls of spicy goat stew and frosty mugs of chavelas (Mexican beer, Clamato, Worcestershire sauce, and Tapatío). Since I am way early for our meeting, I decide to take a stroll around the district, which is basically three short blocks, shaded by palms and juvenile Chinese elms, running up Sixth Street from Grapefruit Boulevard to Palm Avenue. It’s a cool little town. Young kids spill out of a paleteria licking watermelon paletas across from the Super Ranchero, where you can get pig trotters as well as barbacoa. I swing in to Las Tres Conchitas Panaderia, which has trays loaded with classic concha sweet breads as well as abuela’s pork or chicken tamales. While I’m munching my sweet bread, I notice that across the street, on the exterior wall of Lopes Plumbing & Hardware at Sixth Street and Vine Avenue, is a startling mural of two young Mestizo girls, locked hip-to-hip, like Siamese twins, holding deep-red hearts in their upturned hands from which pink flowers have bloomed. Part of the Coachella Walls mural project, it’s mesmerizingly beautiful, and I can’t take my eyes off the faces of the two serene chicas and their offerings. Painted in 2016 by street artists from Oaxaca, the mural is titled Sembremos Sueños y Cosechemos Esperanza (or, Sow Dreams and Reap Hope). Remember this mural; we’ll return to it later.

The sun has dropped over the mountains, but it’s still damn hot out, and Ruben is now late for our appointment. I take refuge in Jalisco thinking I’ll have a soft drink and let the air conditioning cool me down. But, honestly, the chavelas I see at almost every table look awfully inviting. So I order one. Just to pass the time. When I finish my beer and Ruben still hasn’t shown up, I call his cell. There’s been a change in plans, he tells me. It’s too hot to meet out at the ranch. He’s having dinner with his wife, Yaya, at a Salvadoran restaurant called C’los on Cesar Chavez Street. Can I meet them there?

“For decades, Ruben has shared
his life experiences and wisdom
with all the youth of our community.
He’s Coachella’s OG, in the best sense
possible — someone older and wiser
helping kids succeed in life.” Eduardo Gracia, Assemblyman
Ruben Gonzalez

Gonzalez is the hippest-looking contractor you’ll ever meet. Looking at him you think that instead of pounding nails he should be hammering the drums for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He sports Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses above a bushy Yosemite Sam moustache and rocks a starched black guayabera that strains to contain his muscled refrigerator-like chest. His black hair is slicked back behind a sunburnt cherub face that seems to be perpetually smiling, even when he’s talking about things that piss him off. Particularly when he’s talking about things that piss him off. Like some car club that asked to use his ranch to host a low-rider car show last year and then pretty much cut him out of the profits, which Ruben had planned to use to set up a college scholarship fund for kids in the neighborhood. Ruben takes a long swallow of his iced tea and then, grinning, waves away his anger with a beefy hand the size and color of a catcher’s mitt. “We’re going to do our own low-rider show at the ranch this year,” he says. “Those guys can go somewhere else.”

Ruben is either 60 or 65 or 67, depending on whom you ask (he says 60). He grew up in Coachella. Like a lot of the city’s 45,000 inhabitants, his parents were farmworkers who came from Mexico under the bracero program in the ’50s (according to the most recent U.S. Census, Coachella is 97.5 percent Hispanic). “The farm work was brutal,” he says. “Eventually my pops ended up doing landscape maintenance.” His mom went from picking crops to working in the Covalda Date Co. packing plant in town owned by the Anderson family, early Coachella pioneers whom Ruben calls “nice, nice people.” Dates used to be a big thing in the town of Coachella, Ruben says. Now most of the date operations, including those of the Anderson family, have moved down to Thermal.

“The young kids don’t know anything about the hard work in the packing plants or even about Cesar Chavez,” says Gonzalez, who proudly recalls that his family worked with the famed civil rights activist who did much to help Coachella Valley farmworkers. “That sort of activism works its way into your heart. You start to realize that you need to do whatever you can to help your community, to make it stronger, more beautiful, to honor your culture.”

Which is how the whole Shady Lane mural came about. If you don’t know, Coachella’s Shady Lane mural is a 6-foot-high wall that runs longer than 1,000 feet with about 20 or so panels painted by some 100 artists, most in their teens or early 20s, that chronicles Latino history from the pre-Columbian era to the Zoot Suit riots to, yes, Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers movement. It’s a two-minute drive from the mesmerizing mural outside Las Tres Conchitas.

The first Shady Lane mural began in 1979 by Artistas del Barrio, a group of neighborhood artists that included Ruben’s older brother. But, Ruben says, it was never completed. And eventually the wall, because of the alkaline soil, began to crumble and fall. The city tore it down and rebuilt it, which is when Ruben, along with his wife, Yaya Ortiz (who founded Culturas Music & Arts), and other neighborhood leaders, pushed to fulfill the earlier dream of a block-long mural.

“In 2008 we had an event out at the ranch where our local artists could showcase their work,” Yaya says, “because there were really very few venues for young but talented Coachella artists, and the whole community really embraced it. That was the start.”

“Every once in a while
you run into someone
who really thinks outside the box,
but Ruben destroys the box.Steven Hernandez, Mayor of Coachella
Ruben's Art

Ruben Gonzalez comes from a large, artistic family, including his composer mother and  11 talented siblings.

From that, Yaya and Ruben conceived of the Shady Lane mural project. “The whole thing took about two years,” Ruben explains. “We’d give the artists a theme — like Latino rock ’n’ roll artists or the Zoot Suit riots, but you know, these young kids didn’t know anything about this stuff so they had to do their research, which was one of our goals: to educate the community about its culture and history.” Ruben chuckles thinking about how these young artists inadvertently got a civic lesson when all they thought they were doing was painting a mural of ’50s heartthrob Ritchie Valens or Dolores del Rio, the first Latin American crossover star in Hollywood in the ’20s and ’30s.   

“Ruben is such a creative genius,” says Coachella Mayor Steven Hernandez. “Every once in a while you run into someone who really thinks outside the box, but Ruben destroys the box. That’s what he did with the Shady Lane mural. It’s more than a bunch of paintings on a wall. It has become a point of great pride to the community. And you can see that when you realize that in the 10 years of its existence, the wall has never been vandalized. That’s because Ruben involved so many different parts of the community in creating it, and everyone is vested in it. But it also shows the great respect the community has for Ruben and Yaya.”

The focus of all of the community projects Ruben and Yaya have been involved with over the years — whether it’s a new low-rider car show at Ruben’s Ranch to fund scholarships for underprivileged youth, a Latino short film festival at the recently opened Spanish Colonial library in Coachella’s historic Pueblo Viejo, or tackling another long mural project to bridge the gap between Shady Lane and the downtown murals surrounding Coachella’s Veterans Memorial Park — is, Ruben says, “to give the kids in this community an opportunity and an outlet for their creative endeavors and to mentor them and get them thinking about going to college and then coming back here and being productive members of the community. That’s what we’re about.”

Does that mentoring approach work? Do the kids come back and lead productive lives? Well, ask Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, who was a confused 17-year-old, as he tells it, who wasn’t thinking at all about college when he met Ruben Gonzalez. “He wasn’t just some old guy saying, ‘Hey, kid, you can do better, you can go to college and be someone.’ He kept in contact with me, mentored me, helped me to stay focused and reach my goals. It’s extraordinary the effect he has had on my life. And this isn’t something he just did with me. For decades, Ruben has shared his life experiences and his wisdom with all the youth of our community. He’s Coachella’s OG, in the best sense possible — someone older and wiser helping kids succeed in life. He’s passing the torch. I know that’s certainly the way he made me feel when I was a teenager. He gave me that rare thing, the thing all of us are looking for: hope in the future.”

Which takes us back to that startling mural of two young girls painted on the side of the hardware store on Vine Avenue that Ruben admits is beautiful even if it kind of pisses him off that it was painted by some street artists from Oaxaca instead of local Coachella artists. No matter. Ruben Gonzalez may have had nothing to do with the dozen city-commissioned Coachella Walls installations in Pueblo Viejo, but that mural, perhaps more than any of the 21 vignettes painted along Shady Lane, gets at the heart and soul of what, exactly, Ruben Gonzalez is all about: Sow dreams and reap hope.

“It’s more than a bunch of paintings
on a wall. 
It has become a point
of great pride in the community,
and you can see that when you realize
that in the 10 years of its existence,
the wall has never been vandalized. Steven Hernandez, Mayor of Coachella
Shady Lane Mural

Coachella’s  Shady Lane mural was designed to beautify and educate.