Archives for the month of: November, 2013

The following post was written by Lorena Brothers, a senior Sociology major at Loyola Marymount University. She has been spending her Tuesdays and Thursdays this semester working (together with a small community of Salesian nuns) with children in Barrio Argüello, in the northern part of Córdoba. 

photo[3]What does it mean to love? To open yourself more fully in love? To practice giving and receiving love? These questions have always been important to me. But I have been considering them with greater care and attention this semester during my time in the Casa de la Mateada program here in Córdoba. More and more, I am coming to see that learning to love involves cultivating a deeper awareness of life—an awareness that can open the doorway for God’s gifts to come into existence in the form of light in our lives. These gifts from God serve as the inspiration and motivation for us to continue in spite of the difficulties we face when encountering rough realities. I had received such a gift recently during my time at my praxis site in Barrio Argüello that will forever leave an imprint in my heart. It came in the form of touch, the simple moment of contact between two human beings. I was having a difficult time that day, feeling overwhelmed by all the suffering happening in the world. I was trying to figure out my own position in the struggle for a better world and whether there was anything I could do. But I was feeling a little despondent.

It was at that moment that he walked into the nuns’ house and began touching the nail polish on my fingernails. In return I began to caress his little hands. He immediately threw himself onto me, hugging me and looking into my eyes, allowing so much to be said without the use of words. I knew in that moment that all he needed was love, compassion, and care. His name is Sebastian, a six-year-old child who has been abandoned by his parents in the barrio and currently walks the streets begging for food and money rather than having the opportunity to attend school. I did not know his story at the time. But without a word being spoken, I felt before me an innocent child in need of love; simply love (Yes, he also needed many other things—a home to call his own, a family, a chance to grow and thrive. But I could sense how hungry he was for love). There I stood, concerned about issues on such a large scale; here on a smaller, more intimate scale was one human being who in that moment simply needed love and attention. This beautiful gesture filled us both with the hope to keep going with only the flow of compassion and a need for love. Although it is difficult to explain, I know that this same gesture filled him with the love to keep going that day. I know it helped to sustain me.

My time in Barrio Argüello is spent with three Salesian nuns, Leticia, Maria, and Theresa. We go out and visit people from the barrio on a weekly basis. People who are ill, lonely, and mostly in need of company and prayer. Where there is poverty there seems to be a higher level of brokenness within families. As we assist the kids with homework in the afternoons, the love, time, and affection that we share with them is all we have to give; sometimes I have the sense that it is the only thing they have to look forward to.

During a study abroad fair at LMU during the spring semester last year, I had a brief conversation with Jennifer Abe about this new program: Casa de la Mateada in Argentina. Little did I know, at that moment, that I would soon be living in Argentina, experiencing a new manner of combining academics with spirituality, community, and accompaniment. Working with the sisters in Barrio Argüello has taught me so much about the meaning of accompaniment. There are times when we find ourselves in the presence of someone in need and our first reaction is to find the right words to console him or her, or we attempt to suggest that we know what they are going through. Accompaniment, however, is taking the hand of someone in need and giving them love through touch and time, as in the case of Sebastian. It often simply means being still and present with the person in need, allowing your open heart to share a moment in which the person in pain can feel raw, yet not alone.

It is especially challenging and exciting to do this work in community. We students came here not knowing one other, but with a willingness to open ourselves to one another in order to allow a community to develop. Back home in the U.S. we are all embedded in the fast pace of life and technological consumption that, taken altogether, limits our capacity to have a deeper connection with other people and with the world. Here at Casa de la Mateada we have begun learning how to live intentionally in relationship to one another, the world, and ourselves. Gradually, we have begun to notice in one another, individually and as a community, our roles and responsibilities in bearing witness to the suffering of the world. Living in community has been about caring, loving, and sharing an experience.

I came here to learn how to be more present; to learn and live the meaning of “here.” This has been a time to restore the relationship within my own heart. Here is where I have begun to narrow the distance between God and my soul. This is a place to leave footprints, to capture moments, and to feel alive. Together, as a community, we have come here to learn how to build a circle of wholeness with other beings.  Our time is now: to give ourselves away in love, to the sad, the poor, the lonely, the sick, and those lacking love; and to allow ourselves to be healed by our contact with those among whom we live and work. Little by little we are learning what it means to love.

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20131005-082515.jpgLa Perla (The Pearl.) How strange and terrible that this beautiful and precious element of creation has come to be associated with one of the most infamous detention centers from the period of ‘La Dictadura’ (1976-1983) in Argentina. But it has. The name has particular potency in Córdoba, the city closest to the center and whose population was deeply affected by it. And for all of us in the Casa de la Mateada program, knowing about and confronting the history of this place has become an important part of our experience of living, studying and working in this country. It has become particularly important in helping us learn what it might mean to practice accompaniment in this place.

We visited La Perla several weeks ago as part of our ongoing effort to understand the immensely complex history and politics of this country. And in particular to help us understand better the story narrated in Alicia Partnoy’s La Escuelita. That book, written by a member of LMU’s Modern Languages faculty who is herself a survivor of imprisonment and torture during the period of ‘La Dictatura’, became an important focal point in our students’ work this semester. I wrote earlier about the deep impact reading this book had on them, on all of us. How it shifted their (and our) sense of where we are and what we are doing here: this happened to Alicia, to friends of hers, and to many, many others here in Argentina. It was real. We would have to reckon with this reality as part of our encounter with this country and its people. It also raised new questions for us about the meaning of accompaniment.

Twice a week, with utter faithfulness, our students spend their days at praxis sites (three sites that ring the city of Córdoba) working alongside community leaders, teachers, women religious, and children; working with them, hanging out, listening to their stories, entering into conversations, cooking, reading, playing. Without question, this work has been transformative for our students. They talk about it all the time. They express their deepening regard, respect and affection for those whom they are accompanying, and who are in turn accompanying them.  The notion of accompaniment (related to but different from ‘service,’ something that many of our students are well versed in before arriving here) is central to the ethos of the Casa experience. And the experience of accompaniment in the praxis sites is in some ways at the heart of this reality for our students.

Still, as we set off for La Perla on a mild spring day a few weeks back, I became aware that this place might also have something important to teach us about the meaning of accompaniment. If nothing else, encountering this place would require us to confront, more deeply and perhaps more viscerally, a shadowy and painful moment in the history of this country whose effects can still be felt here in so many ways. I wondered: would we be able not only to ‘learn about’ this dark period of Argentina’s history, but open ourselves to it, feel it and become capable of responding to it with real thought and care? And even if its meaning proved impossible to grasp (which in some ways it must), would we be able to make a place in our own imaginative and spiritual lives for this experience? Could we make room especially for all those who were brought here to be tortured and killed? All those disappeared without a trace, whose families still grieve for them, hunger for word about what happened to them here. Could we learn to accompany them?

20131005-082541.jpgI realize this question might seem strange, even presumptuous. Is it really our place to ask such a question? We are not native to this place. Nor are we citizens of this country. And we have only recently arrived here. This is part of the reality of being here in Argentina as citizens of another country. We need to take care with the kinds of questions we ask, with how we ask them. Not because of fear of repercussions. No, it has more to do with what it is to be here as visitors, guests. We may ask our questions. But it is important to remember who we are and where we are and where we are from. For me, it is important to ask this question (with humility and an acute recognition of all I do not and cannot know), if only to help me learn how to approach this place and its story honestly and fully.  Above all to help me begin to consider how to make room in my consciousness for all the people whose lives ended here, brutally and before their time. Nor is it my question only. It has also become real for our students.

No one knows exactly how many people were ‘disappeared’ to La Perla (estimates are from between 2,200 and 3,000 persons). Or disappeared from La Perla, never to be seen again. ‘Disappeared.’ It feels strange to speak this way. But the particular language used to describe the reality of those who were abducted, tortured and killed during this time has undergone its own unexpected transformations. ‘Disappeared,’ in this context, is both a verb and a noun. It is something that was done to people by the military personnel during the dictatorship; we say people were ‘disappeared’ as a way of trying to account for the terrible circumstances in which they were removed from their homes, their families and from the world forever. It is also the name given to all those who were subjected to this brutal treatment. The ‘disappeared’ (los desaparecidos) are remembered in a particular way in Argentina. And their fate has become tied to the unfolding identity of this nation. Trials for those who are alleged to have participated in these crimes are still ongoing. And the question of how to understand this period of history continues to affect politics, culture and social reality in contemporary Argentina. How one thinks about the disappeared and the social and political conditions that made their disappearance possible often determines how one thinks about the possibilities for life in Argentina today. And they cast a long shadow over dreams for the future of this country.

20131005-082704.jpgThese realities were only faintly visible to us upon our arrival at La Perla that day. Nor, not at first anyway, could we really feel the weight and density of what had transpired there. Within a few hours, that would change. Much of this has to do with the care, honesty and tenderness with which the work of remembering the victims has been realized there. Walking through the rooms, you encounter the stories and sometimes photographs of particular people–both perpetrators and victims–almost always presented with a striking lack of adornment. And there are artifacts (precious few to be sure), the only traces of those who were disappeared from that place:  A watch. A purse. A wedding ring. Again, palpable reminders of what happened here, of those who were put to death here. Not only carried in stories, but also in things.

The deeper we moved into the complex, the more completely we descended into silence. It was too much to take in. Certainly too much to try to verbalize. And too early. That in itself was such a valuable part of the experience: hold your tongue. Don’t try to climb back up  into language too quickly, too soon. Listen. Look. Allow yourself to feel the power of the place. Which each of us, in our own way, did.

It is hard to account for the way the power of past experiences, especially experiences of extreme trauma, can linger in a place. It cannot be measured with any instrument. But it can be felt. Many of those who have visited the concentration camps in Eastern Europe, or El Mozote in El Salvador, or Ground Zero in New York, have testified to such feelings. How much of this depends on knowing the narrative of what has transpired there before hand? It is hard to say. Probably it contributes something. But sometimes it feels more uncanny, more visceral than this, as though all the accumulated suffering of a place is still present, seeping into your own body.

The narrator in W.G. Sebald’s great novel Austerlitz describes an instance of this in his account of what it was like for him to approach the area around London’s Liverpool Street Station; it had once been the site of a hospital for the mentally ill and other destitute persons (known as Bedlam). Austerlitz recalls how on his many visits to that place, he would find himself trying to imagine the rooms where the asylum inmates had been confined, wondering “whether the pain and suffering accumulated on this site over the centuries had ever really ebbed away, or whether they might not still, as I sometimes thought when I felt a cold breath of air on my forehead, be sensed as we passed through them on our way through the station halls and up and down the flights of steps.”

20131005-083243.jpgYes: does all that suffering ever really ebb away? Or can you still feel it as you walk through the precincts of such places? And, if you can feel it, what then? What do you do with such feelings? What kind of response is possible?

I am not sure it is really possible to answer these questions in any definitive way. But even considering them can help create a bridge between the dense, inchoate sense of dread that you feel moving through such a place and the possibility of arriving at the kind of response that can open the way to hope. Even if part of that response entails witnessing silently to your experience.

We have been thinking alot these past few months in the Casa program about what it means to move from being a ‘bystander’ to being a ‘witness.’ From being a person who is dislocated from her or his own experience and from the suffering of the world to being a person who enters in, participates and accompanies others in their suffering. A person who seeks to stand with others. This is an important distinction among certain thinkers who have committed themselves to developing a more encompassing, socially just way of being in the world. Not that it is ever really so simple or clear. Most of us experience ourselves at times as bystanders, even if we long to become witnesses. We are overwhelmed by the suffering around us. We feel defeated by it, reduced to hopelessness. Still, there are moments when something else shines through in our lives: an unexpected capacity to stand with others in their pain and struggle, even if this gesture does no apparent good, solves nothing.  Still it is a way of bearing witness to the possibility of a different vision of community, of life.

I thought about this as we moved through La Perla that day. These students who have become so dear to us were giving themselves over to the place and its sad, painful history. You could see it in their faces, in their slumped shoulders. There was nothing any of us could do to undo what had happened here. That in itself was more than a little dispiriting. But we stayed, trying to take in what we were seeing, trying to summon the courage to stand with those who had been brought to this place to suffer and die.

20131005-082732.jpgSeveral of us commented later on how beautiful the place is. We felt it especially on this early spring day. It sits on a small rise just north of the road to Carlos Paz. In the distance, you can see Las Sierras Chicas. The trees were just beginning to leaf out. There was birdsong. It was peaceful. Beautiful. Which only served to create a greater sense of dissonance with what we were seeing and feeling. But it was also consoling: even here, the deeper rhythms of the natural world were alive. The world was once again being reborn. It was impossible not to notice and feel this.

We departed in silence.

Later that evening, in a conversation with one of my new Argentinian colleagues, Diego Fonti, the Vice-Rector at La Universidad Católica de Córdoba and a professor to our students, we found ourselves discussing the larger history of which La Perla is only one part. He mentioned the ongoing trials in Córdoba, and how far the country still is from reaching closure and healing; also how important these legal procedures are to realizing this closure and healing. I shared my own sense what it felt like to be at La Perla, not only the force of its impact on me and on the students, but also my uncertainty, as a visitor in this country, about how to respond to it. He understood. And he appreciated, I think, my hesitation, my uneasiness. But he also expressed clearly his own sense of what it was to share concern for the kind of human rights abuses that had taken place at La Perla and also continue to take place around the world, including in my own country. He nodded and looked at me with genuine compassion. “Look,” he said, “when it comes to this kind of thing, for me it is really very simple. My dead are your dead. And your dead are my dead. There is no separation.”

20131005-082502.jpgThere is no separation. There is not and cannot be any separation. These words have remained with me, as a gift, a reminder of what it is to open oneself to the life of another, honestly and deeply. We have only recently arrived here in Argentina. And yes we are visitors. We cannot know or feel or understand the full extent of the suffering and loss that occurred during ‘La Dictatura.’ But we can stand with our Argentinian friends in silent witness. We can open ourselves to the complicated and often-comprised history of our own country. There is no way of standing aloof from these realities, or pretending that all of us are not in certain respects complicit. And even if we do not always know in any given moment what particular response to make, or what response is even possible, we can open ourselves to the reality before us. We can try to look at it honestly. And feel it.

There is no separation.

The following post was written by Alyssa Perez, a Loyola Marymount University junior (Theology and Political Science double major) who is spending the Fall, 2013 semester in the Casa de la Mateada program in Córdoba, Argentina. Her account is a reflection on the mid-semester break which comes after students have spent nearly two months in the classroom and in their praxis sites. The break is designed to give students an opportunity to move out beyond Córdoba and explore other parts of Argentina and Latin America and to bring these experiences back into their lives–in the Casa program and beyond. 

Traveling is one of the best experiences that a person can have.  Visiting other places in the world has opened my mind and my heart to new places and new people, and helped me to cultivate a deeper appreciation for other cultures.  During our weeklong mid-semester break,which couldn’t have come at better time, we were able to travel together and explore Argentina and Chile. We ended up having some of the best experiences of our lives and went on adventures that we will never forget.

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We started off by hopping on a 24-hour bus straight to Bariloche (south of Córdoba, in Patagonia) where we were expecting super cold, borderline-snow weather.   When we arrived, the sun was out and it was actually pretty hot weather.  We were so relieved because none of were really prepared for snowy weather when we packed for Argentina.  Our first mission was to find a hostel and we got lucky at the MarcoPolo Inn.  It was like a hotel and there were tons of travelers staying there with whom we got to meet and exchange stories with during our stay.  We were staying by a gorgeous lake and spent most of our two days there just soaking up all of the fresh air  and views.  Most of our time in Bariloche was spent eating delicious chocolate, shopping, ice cream tasting, cake devouring, relaxing, walking around, and hiking–pretty much every college kid’s dream.

2It was so nice to just relax for a while, with beautiful nature all around us, and have some time for ourselves (to journal, pray, and to just think).  The lake (Lake Nahuel Huapi) was the bluest one I’ve ever seen.  The best way I could describe the lake and the mountains was to think of the mountains on the Crystal Geyser water bottle labels and that’s where we were.  It was so beautiful and nice to be around some water since Córdoba is somewhat lacking in that area (it is in the middle of the country far from the coast).  The town is quaint, and the shops are full of artisanal goods and delicious coffee.   We had no schedule, no itinerary; we were just there and enjoyed every second of it.

Eventually we were ready to hit the road again, and  half of our group set out for Pucón and the other half went to Puerto Montt (both in southern Chile).  This was the first time in Chile for all of us, and from the second we got off the bus, it hit us that we were not in Argentina anymore.  The pesos were completely different (bills in the thousands), the culture and food were noticeably different, and the Spanish was foreign to our ears.  Argentina has a very unique dialect that has evolved over time, and we didn’t realize how particular it was until we were in Chile.  It was a nice change of pace, but the pesos still make no sense to me- I could not wrap my mind around the fact that I was spending 5,000 pesos on a sandwich.  Culture shocks aside, to say that we all enjoyed our time in Chile would be an understatement.  Those of us who traveled to Pucón enjoyed a day at some hot springs deep in the Chilean mountains where we simply got lost in nature and were cleansed by the healing, natural waters.  The group in Puerto Montt also enjoyed their day on a 10-hour long tour where they got to see beautiful waterfalls and took a boat around the lake. It was nice that we all got to enjoy a few days out exploring and seeing Chile for the first time; but it was even better to reunite in Valparaiso and finish off our week together (a rendezvous achieved without cell phones!).

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We spent our first day in Valparaiso on a walking tour throughout the city.  We saw so many of the vista points where we got a feeling for the strong European influence in the city.  The most impressive and beautiful part of Valparaiso was the profusion of art and murals throughout the city.  The walls on every street in the city were completely covered with murals and other inspired art paintings by local artists.  We found out that art was allowed, even encouraged, by the city government as a way to allow people to express themselves in a way that was uncensored.  As long as the art was not offensive, and permission from the owner was given, then any mural could be put up anywhere there was free space.

As we walked around the city on the tour, the art told us the story of Valparaiso and its people in a way that our tour guide could not.  The whole city was vibrant and alive with this art and left all of us wanting more and more of the city.  We could walk down the same street (or hill mostly) multiple times and find a new picture or mural that we hadn’t seen before.  It was such a rich experience and we got to see and learn a lot about the city in such a short amount of time.

S5ome members of the group stayed an extra day and spent the afternoon at the home of the esteemed Latin American poet, Pablo Neruda.  One of his homes, La Sebastian, was located on one of the highest hills in Valparaiso with a view of the whole city from his dining room chair and front garden.  There we learned first-hand about his life and poetry. His house was filled with a rich collection of things he had accumulated throughout his lifetime from all around the world.  Seeing his life in this new perspective gave us context and insight for his poetry, which some of us had studied in our Spanish classes.  The trip wrapped up nicely with a little shopping in one of the local plazas and then we bought our tickets for the long haul back home.

Throughout the many hours spent traveling on buses and backpacking through various towns in Argentina and Chile, we gained experiences and insights that we will always remember.  Some students ended the week with even more plans for future travels through Chile and Argentina in the future.  Bus travel and packing lightly has opened our eyes to a whole new idea of adventuring out into the world.  We set out on a mission to see as much as we could and soak up as much of the towns that we could–and I think we all ended the week knowing that we had done just that.  They say that travel does the heart good;  our months in Argentina (and now Chile) have taught me that traveling is good for not only my heart, but also my mind and my soul.  Traveling together (in a group of almost 9), as stressful as that may seem to some people, ended up making our experience that much better.  Looking back on the week, there was so much adventure, laughter, and love.   I am so grateful for this opportunity to see the world, but also for all of the friends that were with me along that journey.  We know first-hand that Elizabelth Gilbert knew what she was talking about–the most important things in life are to see the world, but more importantly to eat(a lot), pray (often), and love (unconditionally).  That is pretty much all we have been doing during our travels these last few months: we have seen some of the most beautiful places, eaten some of the most delicious food, opened our eyes and our hearts to the world, and spent some of the best days of our lives together here in South America.

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