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Untold Arizona: DouglaPrieta Co-op Empowers Women, Keeps Families Together

It’s a cloudy morning in early February. The trees are bare and a chilly breeze rustles through yellowing grasses. But inside the garden of DouglaPrieta, it’s still green.

Rosalinda Sagaste grabs her basket and walks in.

“And I say to myself, ‘What am I going to eat? Chard?” she says. “Then I pick my chard, I cut my onions, I cut some cilantro. And then I go get few eggs from the chicken coop, and that’s my breakfast.”

It’s part of her daily routine here at the DouglaPrieta Trabaja, or DouglaPrieta Works, a women’s cooperative she helped start 15 years ago.

The name DouglaPrieta comes from Douglas, the Arizona town, and Agua Prieta, its neighbor across the border in Sonora.

With her long, dark hair still wet from a shower, Sagaste gathers dark purple-tinged chard, fragrant cilantro, and delicate green lettuce. Then she picks the last few tomatoes off a drying stem in DouglaPrieta’s weathered greenhouse.

She tosses some greens to two rabbits she’s raising on her way into the chicken coop.

“Some people who don’t have a garden like I do, they have to go to the store for all of these things I can get right here. It’s a big difference,” Sagaste says. “What more could I ask for?”

With her baskets full of her day’s harvest, she heads inside to start making breakfast.

Soon, a few other women have gathered at the center. It’s a long building painted with murals of bright flowers and tall corn stalks. On the other side of the building are two flags, one American, one Mexican, connected by two clasped hands.

DouglaPrieta has always been a binational effort, Sagaste says. Binational because it’s board members come from both sides of the border.

“We work together,” she says, adding that her counterparts in the U.S. often help them find resources, apply for grants or bring in volunteers to teach classes.

Supporting Their Families

Right now there are about 10 women who show up each day at DouglaPrieta to tend the organic garden, attend quilting, crochet or English classes and pick up fabric for sewing projects.

“The mission of DouglaPrieta is to teach,” Sagaste says. She calls the center a school.

But it’s also meant to help women provide for their families.

“Sometimes, we don’t have enough to buy a kilo of tortillas,” her sister Matilde Sagaste says. “And then a group will come visit [the co-op] and I can sell something, and with that, I can buy what we need.”

Matilde has been with the co-op for almost four years. Her husband’s wages at a local factory, she says, aren’t always enough to make ends meet. So when she brings home fresh food or sell something she’s sewn for a few pesos to buy tortillas, it makes a big difference.

The little extra the women make at DouglaPrieta is enough that their husbands and sons don’t have go to the United States to make a living, they say.

Most of the women in DouglaPrieta, like their neighbors, have moved to the border town for work from other parts of Sonora or Mexico. But they don’t necessarily want to cross the border, says Joca Gallegos.

Gallegos teaches crocheting classes and brings cross-border tours — like a group from a Tucson church she was translating for in February — to the co-op.

“A lot of them, they want to keep their roots in Mexico, their families,” she says.

Many families are drawn to the border to work in factories, or maquiladoras, says Michelle Téllez, a Mexican-American studies professor at the University of Arizona. But the cost of living is high and there’s little infrastructure in place to help families survive once they get there. For some people, that means crossing the border for work.

Others, especially women, become innovators at home.

“Women leading social movements, women at the forefront of future endeavors, women who are concerned about the future of their children, oftentimes,” Téllez says.

Feeling Empowered

These days, Maribel Ruiz is in charge of accounting for DouglaPrieta. And she manages their sewing operation, which sells bags, bandannas and other products to a union-owned print shop in Tucson called the Gloo Factory.

It’s a role she never would have imagined for herself six years ago. Back then, she says, she didn’t know what she was capable of, she says.

“And now I’ll say to myself, ‘How could I have imagined everything that I do now?’ I feel fulfilled, in a nutshell,” she laughs.

These days, Ruiz uses email and social media to connect across the border. And she keeps a tight ship, managing project deadlines, materials and funds.

For Sagaste, seeing the way DouglaPrieta changes people’s lives is what makes all her hard work worth the effort, she says.

“I have three of my greatest sources of pride right here,” she says looking at the women around her.

But while she’s proud of the garden, the sewing project and the community classes at DouglaPrieta, Sagaste says she doesn’t think she’ll ever be totally satisfied.

"I'm happy, but I'm always going to want to do more," she says.

Kendal Blust, an Arizona native, reports from KJZZ’s bureau in Hermosillo, Sonora, focusing on business and economic relationships between Arizona and northern Mexico.Prior to joining KJZZ, Kendal worked at the Nogales International, reporting on border and immigration issues, local government, education and business. While working on her master’s degree at University of Arizona School of Journalism, she did stints with the Arizona Daily Star and the Tico Times in Costa Rica, and completed a thesis project about women art activists in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands.In her pre-journalist life, Kendal was a teacher, first helping Spanish high school students learn English, then heading to Tucson to teach fourth grade.When she’s not in the newsroom, Kendal enjoys getting outside for a hike or a swim, catching a good movie, hanging out with family and friends, and eating great food.