How an Arizona Mining Town Reinvented Itself as an Arts Community
By Stacey McKenna
Faced with a closed mine, collapsed economy and shrinking population, Ajo, Arizona, embraced creativity — and saved itself.
In an alley in southwestern Arizona, less than 40 miles from the border with Mexico, murals tell stories of community pride, nations divided and the humbling beauty of the Sonoran Desert. Tucked into 12 million acres of wilderness, the tiny town of Ajo is the kind of place that locals affectionately refer to as the somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
Home to Arizona’s first open pit copper mine, Ajo built its economy and identity on mineral extraction. Never incorporated as a city, the community depended on the mine for housing and infrastructure as well as employment.
Jose Castillo, 78, grew up in Ajo, the son and grandson of miners. As a kid, the surrounding desert was his second home. He and his friends would walk for miles or hold cookouts among the cholla. Even as a teen, he appreciated the enchanting warmth of his hometown. “I remember being in high school, and people wanted to go to Disneyland. People would say it was magical. I would say, 'I have that every year at Ajo’s Christmas festival.'”
Eventually, Castillo, too, worked in the mine. It’s just what people did.
In 1985, years of labor dispute led to the final closure of Ajo’s copper mine. Castillo, by that time a husband and father of three, was able to find work locally to support his family, but many residents had to leave. The town’s population plummeted from almost 8,000 to roughly 3,000, and its identity dissolved.
For years after the mine closed, Ajo served primarily as a gateway to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Rocky Point, Mexico, but recently something has shifted. Decades after the end of extraction, residents are reimagining the town in a way that celebrates its creativity and honors its small town roots. And unlike so many small towns across the country that are facing extinction, new residents are moving here.
Ajo’s charms — welcoming locals and miles of untouched desert — lure adventurous, creative souls who want to be part of something bigger than themselves. These new residents ogle the Christmas Eve parade and dance Ballet Folklorico alongside multi-generational Ajoites, and they have injected fresh energy into the community.
In 1993, the International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA) launched to preserve the surrounding desert and celebrate the region’s multi-cultural heritage. In 2007, under the guidance of then-Executive Director Tracy Taft, the non-profit restored the historic Curley School and converted it into affordable housing for artists, from potters to paper makers. One of the first resident artists, Morgana Wallace Cooper, taught for ISDA’s art-based GED program, led the town’s first community arts program, and now runs the only movement studio in town.
But, Ajo’s artistic streak isn’t just for residents. Stuart Siegal, who co-manages the Sonoran Desert Inn & Conference Center hopes it will give tourists a window into the community and an excuse to stay for a spell.
“You can come here and feel welcome, and feel part of the town very easily. Especially as a travel destination, it doesn’t feel like you’re a tourist. You feel part of the town,” Siegal says.