Like most other distribution co-ops, Trico Electric serves houses and schools, restaurants and offices. But it has one member that’s a little bit different than the others.

To say the least.

La Comisión Federal de Electricidad is a member in good standing of Trico Electric Cooperative in Marana, Arizona. You read that right: A company created and owned by the government of Mexico is a member of a U.S. electric co-op. The reason can be seen 70 miles southeast of downtown Tucson, where power lines run right over a border wall separating the two countries.

It’s a rare instance of an American electric co-op serving a foreign country, and it’s a story that goes back generations. To hear it firsthand, you need to exit Interstate 19 and head for the border along Arizona Route 286. You’ll go through the town of Sasabe, Arizona, where Deborah Grider presides at the Sasabe Store.

Blast from the Past

The cross-border power story begins at the Sasabe Store. It’s a lone retail outpost amid a small western town lifted out of a 1950s-era TV show. You can pay in dollars or pesos, or even a personal check, whether you’re pumping gas from a pair of 1970s vintage gas pumps or buying anything from detergent, eyeliner, and Cheetos to Jim Beam, Twinkies, and sweatshirts with “Where The Heck is Sasabe, AZ?” printed on them.

“I’m fourth generation from here, but the store is three generations,” Grider tells visitors. Her great-grandfather built the store around 1920, and above the counter hangs a picture of Grider’s grandparents, Carlos and Luisa Escalante, the key figures in the story of power in the region.

They owned the town, Grier says, and not in the way Al Capone “owned” Chicago. They literally owned the town. To prove it, Grider pulls out a yellowed copy of Lifemagazine dated March 28, 1960, and opens it to an article headlined, “Any Money Down on Desert Town?” It’s about Carlos Escalante’s efforts to sell Sasabe for $500,000.

“The 450-acre tract includes the town of Sasabe, its 29 adobe buildings, one a dance hall and all run down,” the story notes. “Sasabe’s more impressive assets are a rolling terrain rimmed with mountains and 12 months of sunshine.”

View Photo Gallery | Sasabe: Co-op Border Town

There were no takers, and when the Escalantes died, Grider’s mother, aunt, and uncle inherited the town. They later sold it to Domingo Pesqueira, who owns Sasabe to this day.

Pesqueira lives in Mexico, and Grider manages the town for him—including the store—while living on three acres her family kept nearby.

Carlos Escalante—whose father was governor of the state of Sonora during the Mexican Revolution—was a businessman with interests across the border.

“That’s how Trico got the right-of-way to go to Mexico, because my grandfather gave it to them for free,” Grider says. “My grandfather had generators, and he owned businesses in Mexico. What he wanted to do was eliminate the generators and have electricity. He talked to the people at Trico, and I guess they came to an agreement, and he gave them the right-of-way to go into Mexico.”

While Trico brought electricity to the Arizona side of the border in the 1950s, it wasn’t until 1963 that the line came over from Mexico. Escalante also had other plans that necessitated cross-border electricity.

“We’re close to the beach. My grandfather’s vision was to get this road paved from Mexico to the United States so it would be a shorter trip for tourists to come,” Grider says. “The existing road from Sasabe to Altar [Mexico], my grandfather built it with the help of other people, so that [the Mexican government] would pave it. That never got done. It’s there. It’s still a dirt road.”

But his legacy lives on whenever someone in neighboring Sasabe, Mexico, flips a light switch.

Over the Border, Instead of the Mountains

Within feet of clearing Mexican customs and immigration, the paved road turns to dirt. Unlike border towns like Tijuana, visitors don’t flock to Sasabe, Mexico. There’s a bar and a small store, but no gas station, so it’s easy to see why residents cross into Arizona for necessities.

But there is electricity. And while no one south of the border is a Trico member, co-op power keeps the lights on.

A few feet just inside the U.S., la Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE) picks up the service and brings it across the border.

Across Mexico, CFE generates, distributes, and markets electricity for more than 35 million meters, or about 100 million people. It has more than 200 generating plants, with about 52,000 megawatts of capacity.

So why is it getting power from Trico? A simple matter of logistics.

“Here, where we have the electric supply, it is a bit far,” explains Roberto Cruz Larios, superintendent of CFE’s Caborca zone, which handles distribution to nearly 500 customers in the area.

“We are 50 kilometers [30 miles] from Sáric, the main town. The town is over the mountains.” Bringing power from Sáric to Sasabe “would have been very difficult,” he says. “It would take a long time to recover the costs.”

And unlike a typical utility hookup, there are two meters—one on each side of the border. Cruz says they “review the bill to make sure they’re equal.” But that’s about it for differences.

Among the people relying on that line, there is gratitude. Francisco Duarte Amarillas grew up without electricity.

“Yes, I remember. I was a child. Life was very difficult without electricity,” says Duarte, 62, the municipal commissioner of Sasabe. “We could not do it now because of the temperatures.”

Duarte lives alone in his three-room house, so he only runs the air conditioner in one room. His monthly electric bill runs about 300 pesos, or $16.

“Electricity is most necessary. Water also,” Duarte says.

So Trico and CFE keep the power flowing.

A Perfect Fit

For Vin Nitido, bringing power to CFE epitomizes what it means to be a cooperative.

“To my mind, it’s a classic cooperative relationship: It’s an underserved area with a customer that, by and large, is very appreciative of the service,” says Nitido, general manager and CEO of Trico. “We like being able to serve customers like that. To me it fits perfectly with our cooperative mission.”

And as unusual as it might seem to have an international member, Nitido says it’s really not.

“The thing that’s most striking to me is how similar it is. CFE is a lot like many of our other members. Their load is roughly the same amount as a grocery store. They’re about a half a megawatt,” says Nitido, adding that CFE is on a commercial rate.

And while CFE hasn’t been to a Trico annual meeting—though its representatives would be most welcome—the CFE and Trico folks know each other.

“They have come up here several times to meet with us. We have issued capital credit retirements to our members, and they’ve come up here to meet with us and receive their check. We’ve also visited with them and toured the electric facilities in Sonora,” Nitido says. “Our relationship is very good.”

Cruz concurs.

“We always had a very good relationship with Trico,” he says.

And if CFE needs anything, they have an excellent contact in Benito Hernandez, Trico’s supervisor of planning and engineering. He worked for CFE’s Caborca zone for 14 years before joining the co-op.

“I know all of them,” Hernandez says, sharing a laugh with Cruz. “My family lives there, so I go to Caborca pretty often.”

A Simpler Time

Arivaca, Arizona, is about 30 minutes from Sasabe, Arizona, and while it’s not exactly Phoenix, it’s bigger than the border town. Arivaca boasts a library, a health center, a few stores, and the La Gitana Cantina restaurant, where Barbara Stockwell is holding court.

Stockwell could be considered the grand dame of Arivaca. Now 79, she’s lived there the better part of six decades, arriving after her first year of college when her parents bought a cafe in town.

“I moved here a year after the electricity got to Arivaca,” she says, still admiring the line.

“That’s a beautiful line: trim and tight and good poles.”

Stockwell met the man she would marry and stayed. Among the things that have kept her busy over the years are raising four children, running a beekeeping business with 1,400 hives, and serving as a Trico director for 39 years. She still represents District 5, which includes CFE.

She remembers a time when walking over to Mexico was a simple affair, with no one carrying a passport.

“We would take our kids over there to play baseball. They would come over to play baseball on this side of the line,” she recalls.

And the cooperative principle of commitment to community carried an international flair.

“I knew the teachers over there, and Trico donated books, recycled computers. They had to get a new transformer, which I helped them get money to buy, so they could run the computers. And they still have that transformer.”

Stockwell is proud that Trico is bringing power to her southern neighbors.

“They would have nothing. It’s too far to Altar. It’s too far to Caborca,” Stockwell says.

Upon hearing that a group of visitors had just returned from a trip to Mexico, Stockwell laments a missed opportunity. It’s not too far for an afternoon jaunt.

“I guess I should’ve gone down with you,” she says. “That would’ve been cool.”

All photos by David Sanders