Sonoran Desert Retreat Center & Residencies

International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA)

Funding Received: 2013
Ajo, AZ
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
August 17, 2013

Update and Reflection

At ISDA our lives seem to be in a constant swing between renovation projects and programming--all in service of community revitalization and economic development. As a small nonprofit, we are incredibly fortunate to own many of the most prominent historic buildings in our town center, including Ajo's town plaza with arcaded buildings surrounding a central palm-tree lined park and  the historic Curley School campus which is a fledgling artist community with 30 large, affordable artist apartments, studios, workspace, tools, and a learning center.  The Curley School campus is the site of our ArtPlace project, the future Sonoran Desert Retreat Center, where you can hear hammering and sawing all week long as sleeping rooms are currently being framed out.

Ownership of all these buildings creates extraordinary opportunities--it will be a long time before we lack space for all sorts of creative endeavors. Owning Ajo's historic treasures has also become a tremendous responsibility. Who would ever have imagined our small nonprofit being responsible for the care and maintenance of all this property?  Not us, to be sure.. In a city, most of these would be public buildings, owned by the City.  But Ajo is unincorporated.  Owned by a community-based nonprofit is as close as Ajo will come to "public" at least where these town-center buildings are concerned. We take the view that we are holding all these buildings "in trust" for the community.  And where once we thought that the plaza and the retreat center would generate earned income that could support ISDA's operations and programming, now we understand that for many years to come, the earned income these projects generate will be used to create a building reserve fund for long-term maintenance and preservation costs.

We could use some help creating this understanding in our community. In this very rural community, our substantial ArtPlace grant has led many town residents to think ISDA is wealthy and doesn't need their support.  Whereas in fact, we need everyone's help to restore and preserve these beautiful buildings.

Meanwhile, throughout August we are preparing for our town's 10th annual tri-national celebration of International Day of Peace.  Ajo is the place to be on September 20-21. Over the last 10 years, numerous giant parade puppet doves have been created from recycled materials on the Tohono O'odham Nation, in Mexico, and in Ajo.  On Friday evening September 20th, the doves and other Sonoran creature parade puppets will make their way from our public school to the town plaza, escorted by hundreds of teachers, students, dignitaries, and community residents from Ajo, Mexico, and the Tohono O'odham Nation. The plaza will host music, dance, and other tri-cultural entertainment Friday evening and again on Saturday--September 21st is the official date for International Day of Peace world-wide.

Recent Wins

We are thrilled to have just been awarded a "Transnational Cultural Remittances" grant by the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC).  The grant enables ISDA to move forward with our new Songs Without Borders program that will bring people from Sonoyta, Mexico together with people from Ajo, Arizona. Mexican musician Tomás Kalmar, director of ISDA's Community Learning Center in Ajo, will lead participants in learning each others' languages and cultures  through song.  ( Our lead partner in Mexico is Colegio De Bachilleres Del Estado e Sonora (COBACH), working with Desarollo Integral de la Familia (DIF), Casa de la Cultura, and the Mayor's Office.  No doubt the project will soon become tri-national, as members of the Tohono O'odham Nation also participate.

As a bonus,  The Border Project, a stunning multimedia installation piece created by community artist Morgana Wallace-Cooper and photographer Jewel Clearwater  together with high school students from Sonoyta, Ajo, and the Tohono O'odham Nation, will be exhibited in  Sonoyta for the first time.  Many thanks to NALAC!!

ISDA has also received good news from USDA regarding funding needed to finish our commercial kitchen on the Curley School campus, the kitchen that will enable Ajo caterers to serve meals to groups who stay in the new Sonoran Desert Retreat Center,  and Ajo entrepreneurs to prepare foods for vending in the Ajo Plaza or to package cultural food products for sale. Members of our Ajo Cooks! program will have a place to work again.


Buildings are important, especially when like ours they are historic treasures.  But buildings isn't what revitalization is about. Despite the millions of dollars required to save them, buildings don't create community. They don't transform community.  Art can. At festivals like International Day of Peace and in programs like Songs Without Borders, people forge the bonds that create community across cultures and national borders. This is what matters most.