Guest Commentary

In Ajo, the community mourns the tragic loss of a family member

It's exactly 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning as I begin this, and the sun is about to appear behind Whale Mountain. My neighbors' roosters are doing their thing, and the slight breeze jostles the wind chimes on the porch.

It's another day in paradise, as people around here are fond of saying.

"Here" is Ajo, 130 miles southwest of Tucson, the most remote rural area in Pima County. An unincorporated community of approximately 3,700—swelling to maybe 5,000 with winter residents—it's had a hardscrabble existence since 1985, when Phelps-Dodge closed the mine after a bitter strike and copper prices tumbled. And still, Ajo held on.

Growing up in Tucson, my brother and I joked there were two places we'd never live: Yuma and Ajo. We were smart boys back then. He ended up living and working in Yuma early in his career, and I'm living in and loving Ajo at the end of my own.

Today, Ajo is home to retirees and Border Patrol personnel, artists and snowbirds, crusty old-timers and brash newcomers—a ripe mix of personalities. Home-ownership is high; the cultural diversity is deep and rich; the town is growing. There's an active arts community; the Spanish Revival-styled town plaza is being revitalized; businesses are opening.

It's a very good place.

Friday evening, June 19, on my way home, I stopped at the market. In the parking lot, I spent a few minutes talking with our local newspaper editor, then with a former neighbor. In the store, I made a few purchases, but only after engaging with several other friends who were shopping or working. That happens all the time.

That Friday night, though, it was much different. The talk in the parking lot and the aisles wasn't about how we spent our day or about paradise: Our community was beginning to come together to mourn. Friday night, paradise was somewhere else.

The day before, on Thursday, two girls, riding their bikes, found another girl, age 7, dead in a wash near her house. The details are difficult and ugly. An arrest has been made. Families and neighbors are in despair; lives have been shattered; there is collective shellshock.

The news began to ripple through town Thursday night, unbelievable and frightening and painful. Friday, the life maps were being charted—she was this person's sister, daughter, granddaughter; that person's friend, student, neighbor. A friend, a neighbor of the family, brought into the office a ThumbDrive with photos he had taken of her several weeks ago—smiling and toothsome, swinging in an old tire strung from a tree. He wanted to make prints for the family.

Word went around that the city media was calling, hungry for "color" and details. Almost imperceptibly, the ranks began to close, to protect.

I know the news biz and understand that hunger to feed an audience we think needs and wants to be fed. But, living here, I also know there are more important things: closing in, being sensitive, helping to heal. These are not wounds that need to be touched by the world at large. And, I doubt the world at large becomes any better for the tale.

That Saturday's Arizona Daily Star was full of this story, in greater detail than I think probably anyone needed to know. I looked at it with an eye well-trained to the value of the news, and a heart becoming deeply entrenched in this community. I wondered what it served, how it informed, why the details were so important. A child was lost—can there be anything more horrific than that reality?

The next day, Sunday, the Star's front page was filled with another horror in another town in Southern Arizona. I grieve for that loss as well.

This is a resilient place. The Fourth of July will be celebrated with a parade and fireworks about which there is no controversy. The International Day of Peace will come in September, and there will be gallery openings, holiday festivals and more in the year and years ahead. The Elks and the Chu Chu Club, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Rotary will continue to meet and do good works. We will all continue.

But, for now, we mourn. It may be a shake-your-head-and-wonder-about-rural-America, quick-and-hot news event elsewhere, but here, it's hug tightly, chat softly and sigh. We've lost a member of our family.

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