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.