These LA Latinos are bringing the ‘vaquero’ life to town
Three Latino men from Southern California are on a mission to provide residents with a slice of life that’s a far cry from the urban lifestyle most people associate with neighboring Los Angeles – and that goes back to more rural and ranchero of the region.
Daniel Zepeda, Hector Gomez and Rogelio Diaz, who met as undergrads while studying kinesiology and physical education at California State University, Dominguez Hills, drew an audience with their wholesome, family-friendly activities – especially their community “cabalgatas” or horseback rides. .
“You have like a state of mind. You just think very positively. You don’t have negative thoughts in your head. And you just enjoy the view,” Zepeda said of riding. “And I’ll tell you this, when you see the view of the horses, it’s way better than the car or whatever.”
The three men strive to attract attention and raise funds for their ultimate goal: to build a large multicultural riding center in the west part of Compton, just 20 minutes south of LA, which would provide jobs, community ties and safe activities while touting exercise and healthy living.
A rodeo arena would bring families together and provide the town with safe nighttime activity, Zepeda said, something he says Compton lacks.
Through their nonprofit, Connecting Compton, which they launched in November 2019, they have been busy organizing town halls and community events as they strive to gain support from local authorities.
Despite the urban LA lifestyle, Compton has a diverse equestrian community, thanks in part to Richland Farms, a protected agricultural area in the city.
Latinos and African Americans make up a significant percentage of the city’s population, which is nearly 70 percent Latino and about 30 percent African American, according to the latest U.S. Census data.
Along with Connecting Compton, other organizations, such as the African American-led Compton Cowboys and Compton Junior Equestrians, have gained national attention for fostering a love of all things equestrian.
Zepeda, Gomez and Diaz see their proposed center as a way to bring that passion for horses together into something more.
“It’s going to create a lot of pride and make everyone feel like there’s this sense of belonging, and more than anything, just create unity for all of our cultures,” Zepeda said.
Attracted by horses
In interviews with NBC News, the men opened up about how the horses brought them together.
During an adaptive physical education class, Zepeda said he heard classmate Hector Gomez express an interest in horses.
“It was the first time I heard him speak in the classroom,” Zepeda said. He invited Gomez, a foreigner at the time, to come see the horses at his family ranch in Compton.
“Oh, that’s a lie,” Gomez said in response to the invite. “I never heard of a ranch in Compton.”
But Gomez accepted the invitation, and the two left for the ranch — about a 5-minute drive from campus — during a break between classes, Zepeda said.
The two young men bonded with fellow kinesiology student Rogelio Diaz, bonding over their passion for the Mexican cowboy lifestyle.
Zepeda’s father, Sergio Luis, better known as “Don Luis” in the Compton community, had purchased half an acre of land in Compton in the late 1980s.
Zepeda, 31, remembers doing “everything” on her father’s ranch from the age of 5. Cleaning and learning to milk animals to make cheeses like panela or queso fresco taught him vital self-reliance skills, he said.
Decades later, it was his idea to create a “lienzo charro” (rodeo arena), which has now become the equestrian center the three men hope to build.
Gomez, 28, who grew up and still resides in Bell Gardens, about eight miles from Compton, said he always wanted to get involved in ranch life but “it wasn’t really accessible” until he meets Zepeda and his family.
Coming from a family rooted in the heritage of “charro” (Mexican horsemen), he remembers that as a child wearing boots and a sombrero, he tried to be a “ranchero” or “vaquero” (cowboy). , he said.
With a heritage similar to Gomez’s, Diaz, 36, grew up in Lennox, near Los Angeles International Airport. He first fell in love with animals by seeing them in city parades, then solidified that love with first-hand experience in Corona, where his uncle trained horses.
An empty lot – and a dream
The idea to build the equestrian center came as Diaz and Zepeda stood in front of a field in Compton, “watching it and daydreaming”. A “gentleman” named Robert drove by and asked if they wanted to buy the land, according to Diaz.
They took it as a sign that they needed to start strategizing, which led to a conversation with an architectural firm.
“She asks me all these advanced questions, questions you would ask developers, people who know exactly what they’re getting into. And I’m like, I don’t know, it’s just 18 acres. We want to build a lienzo charro…and that’s all I have. I don’t know if you can help us,” said Gomez, who hadn’t expected to get a call back.
The architectural firm told them the estimated cost was $45 million.
“We just graduated as teachers,” Diaz said, as he spoke of their realization that it would take a lot more work and money than they thought.
If their proposal for the center is approved by city officials, the trio will be granted control of the landfill site, which they say needs to be remediated first. They expect to cover 20% of the total cost through various means, including federal and state funding, and hope that the remaining funds can be obtained through an agreement with the city of Compton. They said several officials had expressed support for the project.
They said they will work with Compton Rodeo Champion Tre Hosley to put together a 10-person youth team who will have the opportunity to learn more about the equestrian/ranchero lifestyle and potentially represent Compton at the level of the competitive rodeo.
Taking EP to another level
The three men, with their degrees in kinesiology (the study of anatomy and its connection to human movement) and their teaching experience, are well suited for their purpose.
Gomez teaches middle school PE at KIPP Comienza Community Prep in South LA, and Diaz teaches high school PE at Alain LeRoy Locke College Preparatory Academy.
Zepeda, who previously taught disability-friendly physical education in Compton elementary schools, maintains his family ranch in the mornings and works maintenance for the Downey Unified School District.
In addition to riding lessons and providing a safe environment where local vendors can sell their wares, they have provided a horse therapy program for children with disabilities.
The group received a lot of community support for the project, according to Diaz. “We haven’t found anyone who doesn’t support our plan so far,” he said.
While Zepeda owns five horses, Gomez and Diaz bought their first horses a few years ago.
Gomez bought “El Rubio” (The Blonde), a 7-year-old little golden horse with white stripes and a white mane. Diaz bought “Yolie,” an 11-year-old female mare, for $3,300.
“It was amazing. I’m learning [to ride] as an adult now,” said Gomez, who admits it takes him a bit longer compared to younger generations. “Riding is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
“I think the best part is the connection with the horse,” Diaz said. “You learn a lot about yourself from this. It puts you on your A-game, you learn to deal with your own fears.”
“We’re going to be able to do so much good,” Diaz said of their dream riding center, “that I think I’m going to cry.”
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