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From teachers to cowboys: These L.A. Latinos bring 'vaquero' life to the city

Daniel Zepeda, Hector Gomez and Rogelio Diaz are working on their dream to create Compton's first public equestrian center for riding and rodeos.
From left, Daniel Zepeda, 31, Hector Gomez, 28, and Rogelio Diaz, 36, are working to raise funds for an equestrian center in Compton, Calif.
From left, Daniel Zepeda, 31, Hector Gomez, 28, and Rogelio Diaz, 36, are working to raise funds for an equestrian center in Compton, Calif.Connecting Compton

Three Latino men in Southern California are on a mission to bring residents a slice of life that's a far cry from the urban lifestyle that most people associate with nearby Los Angeles — and goes back to the area's more rural, ranchero origins.

Daniel Zepeda, Hector Gomez and Rogelio Diaz, who met as undergraduates while studying kinesiology and physical education at California State University, Dominguez Hills, have garnered a following with their wholesome, family-friendly activities — especially their community "cabalgatas," or horseback rides.

"You have like a state of mind. You're just thinking very positive. You have no negative thoughts in your head. And you're just enjoying the view," Zepeda said about horseback riding. "And I'll tell you this, when you see the view on horses, it's much better than the car or anything else."

The three men are working to raise attention and funds for their ultimate goal: building a large, multicultural equestrian center on the western part of Compton, just 20 minutes south of L.A., that would provide jobs, community connections and safe activities while touting exercise and healthy living.

Approximately 200 vaqueros ride through the streets of Compton on Sept. 20, 2020.
Approximately 200 "vaqueros" ride through the streets of Compton, Calif., on Sept. 20, 2020. Connecting Compton

A rodeo arena would bring families together and provide the city with a safe evening activity, Zepeda said, something he believes Compton lacks.

Through their nonprofit, Connecting Compton, which they started in November 2019, they've been busy holding town halls and community events as they work to gain support from local officials.

Despite L.A.’s urban lifestyle, Compton has a diverse equestrian community, thanks in part to Richland Farms, a protected agricultural zone in the city.

Latinos and African Americans make up a large percentage of the city’s population — which is almost 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 Compton Cowboys and Compton Junior Equestrians, which are led by African Americans, have garnered national attention for encouraging a love of all things equestrian.

Zepeda, Gomez and Diaz see their proposed center as a way to pull this passion for horses together into something more.

“It’s gonna create a lot of pride and make everybody feel like there’s that sense of belonging, and more than anything, just create unity for all our cultures,” Zepeda said.

Drawn to the horses

In interviews with NBC News, the men explained how horses brought them together.

During an adaptive physical education course, Zepeda said he overheard classmate Hector Gomez express an interest in horses. 

“It was the first time I heard him speak inside the class,” Zepeda said. He invited Gomez, a stranger at the time, to come see the horses at his family-owned ranch in Compton.

“Oh, that’s a lie,” Gomez said in response to the invitation. “I’ve never heard of a ranch in Compton.”

But Gomez accepted the invitation, and the two took off for the ranch — about a 5-minute drive from campus — during a break between classes, Zepeda said.

The two young men connected with another 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 a half acre of land in Compton in the late 1980s.

Zepeda, 31, recalls "doing everything" on his father’s ranch from the age of 5. Cleaning, and learning how to milk animals to make cheeses like panela, or queso fresco, taught him vital self-sustaining skills, he said.

Decades later, it was his idea to start a "lienzo charro" (rodeo arena), which has now evolved into the equestrian center the three men hope to build.

Two courageous sisters, Mia, 12, and Andrea, 7, demonstrate the trust and connection they have with their horses.
Two courageous sisters, Mia, 12, and Andrea, 7, demonstrate the trust and connection they have with their horses.Connecting Compton

Gomez, 28, who grew up and still resides in Bell Gardens, about 8 miles from Compton, said he'd always wanted to get involved in ranch life but that "it wasn't really accessible" until he met Zepeda and his family.

Coming from a family rooted in the heritage of the "charro" (Mexican horse riders), he recalled as a kid wearing boots and a sombrero, trying to be a "ranchero" or "vaquero" (cowboy), he said.

With a heritage similar to Gomez's, Diaz, 35, grew up in Lennox, adjacent to Los Angeles International Airport. He first fell in love with the animals by seeing them in the city's parades, and later strengthened this love through firsthand experience in Corona, where a friend's 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 lot in Compton, “looking at it and daydreaming.” A “gentleman” named Robert drove by and asked if they wanted to purchase the lot, according to Diaz.

They took it as a sign that they should begin strategizing, which led to a conversation with an architectural firm.

“She’s asking 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 got. I don’t know if you can help us,” Gomez said, who didn’t expect to receive a call back.

The architectural firm told them the estimated cost was $45 million.

“We just graduated to be teachers,” Diaz said, as he spoke of their realization that it would take far more work and money than they had thought.

If their proposal for the center is approved by city officials, the trio will be granted site control of the landfill, which they said first needs to be remediated. They expect to cover 20 percent of the total cost through various means, including federal and state funding, and hope the remaining funds could be secured through personal loans, private or angel investments, as well as donations. They said several local officials have expressed support for the project.

Vaqueros ride through Greenleaf Park before joining hundreds more for a cabalgata on Sept. 20, 2020.
"Vaqueros" ride through Greenleaf Park before joining hundreds more for a "cabalgata" on Sept. 20, 2020. Connecting Compton

They said they’ll be working with rodeo Compton champion Tre Hosley to build a 10-person youth team that will have the opportunity to learn more about the equestrian/ranchero lifestyle, and potentially represent Compton on a competitive rodeo level.

Taking P.E. 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 to their goal.

Gomez teaches physical education to middle schoolers at South L.A’s KIPP Comienza Community Prep, and Diaz teaches physical education to high schoolers at the Alain LeRoy Locke College Preparatory Academy.

Zepeda, who previously taught adaptive physical education to students with disabilities at Compton elementary schools, maintains his family-owned ranch in the morning and works in maintenance for the Downey Unified School District.

A father and his two daughters ride into a cabalgata on March 28, 2021.
A father and his two daughters ride into a "cabal,gata" on March 28, 2021. Connecting Compton

Apart from horseback riding classes and providing a safe environment where local vendors can sell their wares, they have plans for a horse therapy program for kids with disabilities.

The group has received a lot of support from the community for the project, according to Diaz. "We haven't found a person that doesn't support our plan so far," he said.

While Zepeda owns five horses, Gomez and Diaz bought their first horses a couple of years ago.

Gomez purchased “El Rubio,” (The Blonde), a small, golden 7-year-old horse with white stripes and white mane. Diaz purchased “Yolie,” an 11-year old female horse, for $3,300.

"It's been amazing. I'm learning [to ride] as an adult now," Gomez said, who admits it's taking him a little longer compared with 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 through it. It puts you on your A-game, you learn to manage your own fears."

"We’re gonna be able to do so much good," Diaz said, about their dream of the equestrian center, "that I think I’m gonna cry."

CORRECTION (Jan. 18, 2022, 2:57 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated Rogelio Diaz’s age. He is 35, not 36. It also misidentified the person he knew who trained horses. It was his uncle’s friend, not his uncle. The previous version also misstated the anticipated source of remaining funding for the project. The men expect to fund the project through loans, investments and donations, not through funding from the city of Compton.

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