Las Chicas Bravas

In the small, struggling Mexican town of Fronteras, a group of women has big goals

Alice Valenzuela found a renewed purpose when she began working with women in Fronteras, a town just below the cattle ranch she runs with her husband, Roberto Valenzuela.
When driving down the main road of the town of Fronteras in Sonora, Mexico, you may just think that this is a place that God forgot.

Besides an occasional truck driving through, the streets of Fronteras are mostly empty and dusty. The buildings along the main street look like a movie lot for a film set in colonial Mexico. There are no stores, no bustle.

But on this trip, the driver is Alice Valenzuela, and her view of Fronteras is quite different: She says her adopted home is a place where God is definitely present. In fact, divine intervention is at work.

Valenzuela understands why some people think this town of about 7,000 people, 40 miles south of Douglas, looks like time stood still. But the more she describes what she's been up to for the last three years, the more you may start to agree that perhaps someone upstairs is looking over Fronteras.

As Valenzuela drives into town, word spreads that she's returned with the newspaper reporter she picked up in Douglas. A man standing outside a large concrete warehouse waves and runs inside. Slowly, a group of women dressed in their Sunday best poke their heads out the doorway.

"They're waiting for us," she says, of the women at the warehouse. "I hope you like tamales. They've made a lunch in your honor."

She parks the car on the main street and begins to tell the story of how it all happened--how a rancher's wife and a small group of women from Fronteras formed a women's cooperative, took on the local government and proudly became known as Las Chicas Bravas.

The tough women.

Valenzuela says it began with a prayer asking God to help her find a new purpose in life. That purpose became developing resources for the town of Fronteras and the people she's befriended who live in the high desert below the mountain cattle ranch she runs with her husband, Roberto Valenzuela.

Seven years ago, the town's sole industry, a Levolor blinds factory, closed down, leaving farming and ranching as the only means for many people to make a living.

Through the women's cooperative, the group of about 10 women in their 40s and 50s first started a day care for young, working mothers. They also built a restaurant--the town's first--and now, they are developing an electronics-recycling business, with partners in Douglas and Vermont. That business is just starting to result in steady paychecks of $500 a month for about eight of the women--with the potential for more as the business grows.

For Valenzuela, the story begins long before she moved to Fronteras, when she was a UA journalism student. That's when she met her future husband, Roberto Valenzuela, a Mexican national and rancher's son who was raised in Agua Prieta and attended the Douglas public-school system.

After they graduated from the UA and married, they moved to Northern California, where her husband got a job as an analyst for Hewlett-Packard, and Valenzuela began her journalism career.

Valenzuela says that in the 1980s, her husband decided to drop his U.S. citizenship in favor of his Mexican citizenship. Back then, the Mexican government was taking land owned by noncitizens and doling it out to Mexican citizens. He didn't want to take a chance that the ranch his family has owned for several generations might be taken away.

Almost 19 years ago, when their two children were barely grade-school-age, the Valenzuelas decided they were tired of the craziness that came to the San Francisco Bay Area with the computer-industry boom--the high cost of living, the development and the traffic, plus all the problems that accompany growth in schools and neighborhoods.

Valenzuela's husband resigned from Hewlett-Packard; the family sold their house, and they moved to Mexico. Alice Valenzuela says her father-in-law never involved his children in the business--he didn't want them to be ranchers (although the property was eventually split, and her brother-in-law operates his own independent ranch)--so her entire family faced a big learning curve. But the family embraced the life and the work, and they decided to raise grass-fed beef, with no antibiotics and hormones, to increase the meat's marketability.

And in this new green age, the couple realized they could expand their business, offering ecotourism adventures in the mountains that surround the ranch while using the property and its guest casitas as a home base for birdwatchers, naturalists and hunters.

While times were good for the Valenzuelas, the town of Fronteras was struggling. In 2002, the Levolor Blinds factory closed down, taking with it the only industry in the town.

"Most people see poverty and despair," Alice Valenzuela says about Fronteras. "But we've only seen possibilities."

Fronteras was the birth place of Juan Bautista de Anza, who forged the land route to California and established a settlement where San Francisco now exists. Further down the road, Valenzuela says, is the cave of Presidio de Fronteras, which once held Apache leader Geronimo after he was caught in the Torres Mountains southeast of Fronteras in the late 1800s. Much of this history is cataloged in the little museum off the town's main street.

All of the history means little, however, while most of the people in Fronteras are financially struggling, and local government is not investing much in the town's infrastructure. But before Fronteras' challenges were on Valenzuela's radar, she was thinking about her own life: Her children were grown and leaving home, and she wanted a renewed purpose.

One day, Valenzuela says, she stood in the middle of her home and said a prayer, asking God to point her in the right direction. That week, she was approached by a social worker who worked in the mayor's welfare office. The social worker asked Valenzuela if she was interested in speaking regularly to a group of women from the town, and leading discussions on education, jobs and improving their lives. Valenzuela agreed, but with one caveat: They had to expect her talks to include a little religion here and there. No problem.

Every week for several months, Valenzuela showed up, and around Christmas in 2005, the women thanked her with a little party. She was overwhelmed at the significance: They were now friends. At the party, the women asked Valenzuela to get more involved and to help the community find a way to sustain itself.

This was her new purpose.

There has been a lot of progress since that Christmas party. A Sonoran state-government grant and assistance from a service group in Arizona helped them start a day-care center for working mothers. Many women--widowed or left behind by husbands working across the border--have had to find service-industry jobs in other cities and towns like Hermosillo, an hour away.

"The women told me about a little boy wandering the streets alone, unsupervised. The local authorities were thinking about taking him away from his mother. She was cleaning homes and didn't have anyone to help care for him. She didn't have a choice," Valenzuela says.

The women who came to Valenzuela understood where this young mother was coming from, though most of them are in their 40s and 50s, with grown children. Most of those children left Fronteras because of the lack of work. Some came to the U.S. illegally, leaving their parents all alone.

Valenzuela restarts the car and drives toward the former Levolor blinds factory warehouse, near the town's middle school. She notes that the students there are taught through a satellite video feed that comes from Hermosillo. The few teachers in Fronteras simultaneously teach students from several grade levels, in something resembling a one-room schoolhouse.

At the warehouse, the women stand in what was once the workers' break room. On a kitchen counter, there is a pot full of beef and red chilé tamales (which, Valenzuela's husband is happy to declare, are made with local grain-fed beef), a pot of ranch beans, a large bowl of cabbage and carrot salad, some brownies and a pitcher of iced tea.

During the lunch, a couple of the husbands joke that they are members of Las Chicas Bravas, too. In a way, they are; at first, they admit, they weren't always supportive, but then they realized the work their wives were doing with Valenzuela could bring jobs. As one husband says in Spanish, "Maybe our children will come back home."

The food at the table is similar to what the women cook during the spring and summer at the restaurant off the main street that was paid for by a tourism grant that Valenzuela received from the Sonoran state government. After all, if she and her husband bring more tourists to the area, those visitors will want to eat. Several of the men married to Las Chicas Bravas are master bricklayers and helped build the structure.

Then there is the warehouse itself, where almost every man and woman at the table once earned a paycheck. Valenzuela says that despite their skills and experience, they wouldn't be able to get jobs even if there were jobs to be had in the region, because the women are over the age of 30.

"According to many government studies, older women in Mexico, regardless of their qualifications, are pushed aside in the competition," she says.

Valenzuela says the former factory warehouse is also an example of what is wrong with Fronteras' town government: Each mayor can serve only one three-year term, and at the end of each term, a new mayor brings in a new staff, often hired because they know the mayor, not because they have specific skills.

"There's no continuity in the bureaucracy," Valenzuela laments.

Sometimes, agreements with one mayor disappear with the next--as was the case regarding the former Levolor factory.

That takes Valenzuela to another story.

Mike Rohrbach is a former IBM executive who retired to Bisbee, where he is now the president of the Cochise County Learning Advisory Council.

Rohrbach's friend Robin Ingenthron left a government job in Boston to start American Retroworks, an electronics-recycling company based in Vermont. In 2002, they had a passing conversation about Ingenthron's work, and how he might help out with one of Rohrbach's interests: collecting computers for needy families in Southern Arizona. They also talked about the growing amount of electronic appliances ending up in landfills across the country, and Ingenthron's interest in keeping those appliances out of the landfills by recycling the glass screens, copper wiring, plastic and salvageable computer components.

They talked about the border problems, too, and Ingenthron mentioned how great it would be to set up a factory in Mexico as a collection and distribution point for old computers, TVs and stereos. It seemed like a good way to provide jobs, Rohrbach says.

In early 2006, Rohrbach got an e-mail out of the blue from Valenzuela. She was sending out e-mails to different organizations asking if they were interested in working on economic-development issues with her women's cooperative.

"It was random. She wanted 50 computers to put into schools and a day-care center," he recalls. "I responded to her."

Rohrbach was able to provide several computers, and he realized that Valenzuela might be just the person Ingenthron was looking for: She was close to the border, spoke English and Spanish, and was interested in workforce development.

Ingenthron visited Valenzuela in Fronteras, and a partnership was formed between Las Chicas Bravas, Rohrbach's organization and the Valenzuelas: Retroworks de Mexico.

Ingenthron flew several of the women--and a few of the husbands, too--from Mexico to Vermont during the winter (most had never seen snow before) to teach them how to dismantle TVs and computers, and how to put aside parts that can be resold.

Valenzuela says the company is trying to negotiate the sale of computer and TV-screen glass to a company in Mexico, while the other parts are sent to factories in Hong Kong and Malaysia.

The partnership now includes recycling-collection efforts in Southern Arizona, led by Rohrbach in Pima and Cochise counties. Last year, Rohrbach worked with community and municipal organizations in Green Valley and Tucson to host weekend collections of old TVs and computers.

The company bid to become the main collection company for old computers and other electronics in Tucson/Pima County. At first, the company was awarded the contract, after using Las Chicas as a selling point and explaining how the program could provide jobs on the other side of the border.

The award, however, was rescinded. Rohrbach says officials may have been scared off by news accounts regarding other countries, including China, being used as overseas electronics-dumping grounds.

The loss didn't keep Rohrbach and Ingenthron from trying again. They recently rebid on the contract and opened a joint TV-recycling location at the World Care headquarters in Tucson.

Ingenthron defends his business practices, saying that his efforts have been held up as examples of responsible recycling, while following federal and state guidelines to prevent mercury and lead-leaching exposure. He also says he continues to sell what he collects despite changes in the marketplace, and does not dump items due to falling prices for steel and plastic, like some other companies do.

The items collected by Rohrbach go to a warehouse in Douglas, where the electronics are sorted and documented for export to Fronteras. There, they are taken to the warehouse--an obvious choice to Valenzuela and the other Chicas for the venture. After all, the building was empty, except for hundreds of nesting pigeons. The women negotiated a lease with the mayor of Fronteras, which owned the building.

"It was given to us as an eternal lease. We were told it was ours 'as long as you create jobs,'" Valenzuela says.

Ah, but then the election came. A new mayor was elected, and he told the cooperative that the lease no longer existed, because the cooperative hadn't created jobs. He demanded that they vacate the building, claiming that he had another entrepreneur lined up to use the factory and bring up to 200 jobs to Fronteras.

Valenzuela says they provided the new mayor with the lease agreement, showing that a specific number of jobs was never required. They even told the mayor they'd share the building with the new entrepreneur, rent-free--but nothing happened.

Valenzuela says she called the entrepreneur and was told that the mayor had begged him to take over the building--although he wasn't interested. That's when she and the Chicas went before the Fronteras City Council.

"When we went before them to defend ourselves, the mayor and vice-mayor were visibly shaken when we told them we had followed up with this entrepreneur who told us the mayor's claim was false. In other words, we exposed the mayor as a liar," Valenzuela says.

In response, the mayor organized a group of more than 100 protestors in front of the factory in an effort to intimidate the women. In a newspaper article covering the dispute, the mayor declared these women las chicas bravas.

"Who do they think they are?" he told the paper. "Tough women?"

In the warehouse kitchen while enjoying their tamale lunch, the women smile broadly while the words Las Chicas Bravas roll out of their mouths. They stick out their chests, pointing to themselves.

"Si, las chicas bravas," they declare, laughing.

The mayor continued his campaign by asking officials to deny business permits, but his calls were largely ignored. The only one that worked went to the electric company. Therefore, the resourceful group has used gas-powered generators to operate the factory.

Eventually, Valenzuela found attorney Marco Antonio Armendariz Vega in Agua Prieta, a self-taught lawyer who hasn't charged Las Chicas a dime. The mayor hired an attorney to sue the cooperative for breach of contract, but Armendariz Vega defeated the suit and continues to represent the cooperative.

After the tamale lunch, the women insist on giving a tour, along with their husbands. They point out that they fixed up most of the building, patching up walls, repairing the bathrooms and the kitchen, and slowly getting rid of the pigeons.

In a patio outside, they sit in the sunshine, surrounded by tiny crickets that Valenzuela blames on the region's ongoing drought. In a semi-circle, the cheery mood turns serious. The last two years have offered numerous lessons. Beyond the legal problems with the mayor, the women discovered their own strength and resiliency.

Even their husbands, they say, first told them, "You can't do that," but as the women made progress, the husbands changed their minds.

"We want to have the same things other towns have--parks and schools--and we want this to be a place where our children want to stay and live," one Chica says.

Another says she wants a high school in Fronteras. Right now, high school students have to take an hour-long bus ride to the town of Esqueda.

Valenzuela nods in agreement as each woman talks about the future of Fronteras. When asked if she's ever thought of giving up on Fronteras, Valenzuela says no.

"We wouldn't be here if (the Chicas) didn't work hard for this, too," she says, placing her hand on her husband's arm. "We've come a long way, and everyone here is starting to recognize that--not just the mayor, but the townspeople. It's unbelievable that a group of citizens could do what they've done."

Cooperative secretary Lydia Barreda Suarez says she remembers last year encountering the mayor on the street.

"He said he was going to put me in jail. I remember being scared; now, I would just laugh. I learned that if I don't value myself, no one else is going to value me. It's up to us," she says, looking at her fellow Chicas.

"I just can't help but see God in all of this," Valenzuela adds. From that day when she prayed, everything seemed to fall in place.

"We found the perfect investors in Robin's company, the perfect partnership with Mike's nonprofit, and the perfect lawyers, the perfect judge and the perfect industry. This randomness just doesn't happen this easily. Sure, when there were problems, I had fears, but I didn't confess them to anyone."

Others say they had fears, too, especially when people remarked that they were just a bunch of old ladies who had no value.

"Some people and the mayor said our age was a disability, but I saw it as an asset. We've known about perseverance. We haven't thrown in the towel. Being older ended up not being an obstacle for us," says Menta Alicia Armenta Gomez, the 67-year-old president of the cooperative.

This experience and stubbornness may come in handy for future projects, Valenzuela says. As compliments for the meal go around the table, and someone shares the secret ingredient in the tamales--mesquite ash is the leavening agent used in the masa--Valenzuela says she wants to continue reaching across the border to help create jobs and opportunities in Fronteras.

Perhaps, she says, there is an organization interested in helping them bring these delicious tamales to Tucson or Phoenix, and perhaps there is another organization, like Rohrbach's, that is interested in working with her to start a scholarship program for students in Fronteras.

Her top preference, however, is to find another American entrepreneur like Ingenthron to setup shop in the old Levolor factory building. At 28,000 square feet, it has room for other businesses, and Las Chicas Bravas would offer the space rent-free as an incentive.

"We want this to grow," cooperative treasurer Virginia Mercado Ponce says, "so everyone can have a job."