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the surreal arts and event venue in rural Coachella

A carnival of neon lights flickers on as the sun sets over the Coachella Valley.

Ruben Gonzales, a stocky, mustached 64-year-old artist and construction contractor, gestures toward the giant turtle head protruding from the pavilion in front of him. He built the structure based on a visiting Mexican university professor’s reading of the Aztec calendar.

“His interpretation was that (in) the calendar, the turtle represented Mother Earth,” Gonzales said. “So that’s the way I designed the stage. These are the front legs, this is the cabeza (head) and then this says, ‘La Tortuga of Mother Earth, Aztec Codices.’”

Like many things at Ruben’s Ranch in the City of Coachella, the structure is part art installation, part functional space. The stone-clad, thatched-roofed platform serves as the venue’s main stage, complete with a full sound setup and glowing red, yellow and blue neon lighting.

Somewhere between an indie concert venue and a Slab City sculpture garden, Ruben’s Ranch is one of the Coachella Valley’s hidden gems. It has flown under the radar in tourism-soaked greater Palm Springs for decades despite playing host to celebrities and music icons like RZA of Wu-Tang Clan (as the set of two of his singles released in 2022), Chief Keef, Paris Hilton and more.

In addition to its original use as a gathering place for family and friends, Gonzales regularly rents the venue out for private events ranging from parties (Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival afterparties are a popular use) and small concerts to corporate events and philanthropic fundraisers.

The ranch, still growing and evolving with new areas limited only by Gonzales’ imagination, is the product of one man’s passion for art, culture and having a good time. It serves as a sort of living museum, embodying a unique and often underappreciated art and music scene in the eastern Coachella Valley — quietly thriving just outside the limelight.

‘Most have canvas. I had a piece of land’

Gonzales was born in Indio and raised in Coachella, part of a large family immersed in art and creative endeavors nearly from birth.

“I think everybody has a little artistic ability in them,” he said of his 11 siblings. “My mom was a music composer. She wrote probably over 1,000 songs in Spanish.”

After dabbling in ceramics in high school and college, Gonzales acquired the future site of his “masterpiece” — Ruben’s Ranch — in the early 1980s. He said the general idea for an artistic compound was always “in the back of my mind,” but that the space “just kind of evolved into this madness here” organically over decades.

“Most (artists) have canvas,” he said. “I had a piece of land that I had to create my art piece (on).”

The project meshed well with Gonzales’ trade in construction, from the beginning mixing functional design with creative experimentation.So where did he start? Arguably the most important space: the bathrooms.

“Because we used to come out and hang out and have big bonfires and barbeques and just, you know, kick back,” Gonzales explained. The builder then moved on to the ranch’s cantina, a large stone and thatched-roofed outdoor bar lit with red and green neon lights and packed with an eclectic assortment of memorabilia nailed to and hung from every surface, including license plates, tribal masks, vintage toys and a Blues Brothers statuette.

Gonzales collected the odds and ends that populate the ranch from a network of friends across the desert who would tip him off whenever an interesting object was available following a property remodel, demolition, sale, etc.

Those items range from expensive European lamps and a bell from the estate of former billionaire Tim Blixseth at Porcupine Creek in Rancho Mirage, to a carnival-esque swing set and slide from the former Indio Drive-In Theater (now the site of Martha’s Village & Kitchen).

“Sometimes it gets a little crazy, man, when we have parties here; we have to tie them up,” Gonzales said of the swing set.

One pride and joy among these found objects is the “Rancho Grande Cafe” sign mounted above the entrance to the ranch’s cantina area. The rustic metal and neon sign once, according to Gonzales, marked the entrance to the most popular bar in downtown Coachella.

“I think everyone’s parents got drunk at that bar,” Gonzales said of the former Rancho Grande Cafe (which, despite the name, was primarily a bar). When the owners of the neighboring Jalisco restaurant bought the location in the ’90s with other plans for the space, Gonzales said they gave him the iconic sign.

“They shot a bunch of movies in that cafe. The last one they shot was Bugsy (with) Warren Beatty,” Gonzales said. “If you look at it when he’s going to the airport — Warren Beatty — that sign will come out. They shot a lot of (that movie) in downtown Coachella.”

A never-ending project

In addition to the museums-worth of found objects, Ruben’s Ranch is chock-full of original art by Gonzales and others. At one end of the compound sits a giant cement and fiberglass disk depicting the dismembered body of the Aztec mood goddess Coyolxauhqui — a replica of an artifact unearthed under Mexico City in the late 1970s.

“We collaborated on this,” Gonzales said of the disk. “My brother (Octavio Gonzales) designed it and I had another guy named Martin Escobar (work on it) — he passed away unfortunately due to COVID, but (he was) an awesome artist.”

Just beyond the disk, a walkway features a winding mosaic of the Aztec serpent god Quetzalcoatl — a collaboration between Gonzales and Jon Otterson, another local artist.

“I kind of taught that guy how to do mosaic and then he took off on me,” Gonzales said. “Now he’s teaching me!”

The serpent walkway leads to a series of colorful wall relief sculptures depicting Mayan and Aztec scenes and figures, molded and designed by Gonzales and painted by Otterson.

“It’s really just fascinating because everybody comes here and wants to be part of it or leave something,” said Oscar Guevara, another local artist and Gonzales’ childhood friend. Guevara also has art featured at the compound such as a billboard-sized sign made of vintage California license plates with the words “Coachella Califas” (the latter a slang term for California).

Guevara said that piece is eventually destined to become part of a marquee near the ranch’s stage. Gonzales also said he plans to add neon lighting to the words and overlay them on a scene of the galaxy so that “when you’re sitting underneath it, it looks like you’re looking at the heavenly skies of the Milky Way.”

Next to the temporary home for Guevara’s sign, a yellow pavilion with classical columns, Mesoamerican floor reliefs and orange neon lighting dubbed “Canton de los Olmecas” pays homage to the earliest known Mesoamerican civilization. It is one of three colorful, pyramid-topped structures arranged in a row in imitation of the pyramids in Giza, Egypt (the first is the bathrooms).

“I always tell everyone we’re connected to the world energy grid,” Gonzales said with a throaty laugh.

The proliferation of art and objects at the ranch is almost overwhelming, and it’s easy to miss many unique pieces on a casual walk through.

“I think the most common thing everybody asks is, “Hey, when did you get that?” Gonzales said. “‘Well, it was here last time you came.’ It’s way too much to consume over one visit. You’ve gotta be here.”

The ranch is continuously growing, and Gonzales has almost as many plans for new additions as he has existing art pieces. One area dubbed the “Courtyard of the Gachupín,” — referencing a somewhat derogatory slang term for a Spanish settler in the Americas — already features a host of Spanish-themed artifacts and art pieces like portraits of nobility, statues of the Virgin Mary, ornate crosses and a metalwork conquistador statue.

“We’re going to do 3D art all the way across here with a bullfighter and stuff that pertains to Spain,” Gonzales said. “This area’s going to be some arches, I’ve got a bell that’s going to be incorporated,” he added as he gestured to another end of the courtyard.

In another section, a car-sized triceratops head sits atop a giant metal frame, the future site of a massive dinosaur looming over a company of Toltec warrior statues.

“I have a guy working on a mold right now,” Gonzales said of the statues. “They’re gonna be like seven and a half feet tall by 30 inches wide by 24 (inches). And they’ll be poured in place. I’m gonna do a ground beam with rebar and they’re gonna come up like every four or five feet.”

That scene looks out over the “Chicano Surfer Shack,” a nautical-themed area with elements such as a surfboard-lined walkway, a grove of palm trees, a boat, a life preserver and a cadre of plastic flamingos. Gonzales said the area will eventually feature a pump-driven waterfall and border a second cantina — this one slated for a Day of the Dead theme.

Walking past a large empty cage, the ranch owner noted he soon planned to add parrots to the existing group of peacocks and parakeets scattered about the compound.

Concerts, Coachella afterparties and farmworker poetry

What exactly Ruben’s Ranch is used for runs the gamut from family barbeques to rap concerts.

The compound’s earliest uses centered on personal gatherings of Gonzales’ family and friends, quinceañeras and weddings. That list expanded to include larger parties, fundraisers, photo shoots and shows over the years as demand grew.

The ranch began appearing in music videos in the early 2000s when a group of Chicano rappers shot a video for the group Fifth Sun there. After the Coachella music festival took off, it became a popular spot for afterparties, resulting, according to Gonzales, in some of the Ranch’s wildest nights and a few celebrity encounters.

“At one of the Coachella fest parties there was a girl butt naked in there,” Gonzales said gesturing at a large bird cage. “I go, ‘Man, what the hell?!’ It was a free for all.”

Gonzales recounted another Coachella afterparty in the mid-2010s where Paris Hilton was walking around the ranch “like a normal citizen” — with the exception of her security detail.

“She really liked it,” he said of the ranch and the party. “(She) came over here and got some popcorn with cheese on it, (just) eating tacos and hanging out.”

In 2019, the ranch hosted a concert headlined by rapper Chief Keef dubbed “Desert Drip.” That event drew “a couple thousand people,” according to Gonzales. The venue served as the backdrop for music videos by several local indie artists around that time including Koyote The Konnection, Kimica-X and Ocho Ojos.

Large events, along with many of the parties, photo shoots and fundraisers that kept Ruben’s Ranch busy, were derailed by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. By 2021, however, events began trickling back. In November of last year, the Courtyard of the Gachupín served as the backdrop for the filmed reading of a farmworker poem written by local author David Damian Figueroa and read by local actor Pepe Serna.

Earlier this year, the ranch was the setting of two music videos by the rapper RZA of Wu Tang Clan. Most recently, it hosted a Halloween pre-party and a Dec. 12 afterparty for the Synergy Music and Arts Festival in Coachella.

Gonzales said the venue is open for booking for most types of events — especially those relating to arts or music. He declined to specify pricing, saying that costs varied widely depending on factors such as the date and length of the event and how much preparation and alteration of the space was required. He said he planned to possibly offer guided tours of the ranch in the future, but that he would need to balance any such work with his day job and the plethora of other side projects he’s involved in (Gonzales holds a seat on the Coachella Planning Commission, is president of the Coachella Car Club and is deeply involved with a push to build a new “Culturas Music & Art Center” in Coachella, among other endeavors).

He said interested parties could direct message the ranch at its Facebook or Instagram pages, or simply reach out to him directly at (760) 275-7958.

“It’s always good people, good energy,” Gonzales said, smiling at the menagerie of art and objects surrounding him. “We have a mixture of everyone; it’s not just one ethnic group. It’s everybody across the board. Everybody just comes here and has fun.”

James B. Cutchin covers business in the Coachella Valley. Reach him at james.cutchin@desertsun.com.




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