Archives for the month of: June, 2015

By Jennifer Abe

IMG_20140825_080353I sit at the kitchen table looking at the tall jacaranda trees lining the street outside the window. On this cold autumn morning in late May, the sky in the Southern Hemisphere in Argentina is midway between gray and blue, and the leaves are starting to turn light green. In another month, the great sprawling branches will be winter bare, following an ancient natural rhythm marking the seasons that we have witnessed from this kitchen window, now for the second time.

Two years in Argentina. This time, when the students leave Córdoba, we—Doug, myself, Adam, and Bennett, our 11-year old boys–will follow them just days later in our own return journey to the United States. A return journey. It is not just winging our way northwards. Argentina is no longer an abstraction, and Córdoba is much more than a dot on a map. This place has become our home.

The Casa de la Mateada program was just an idea when Doug and I first came to Córdoba as faculty co-directors with our four of our children. It was inspired by a fully developed model in El Salvador, a program which originally conceived and developed the four pillars–Community, Accompaniment, Spirituality, and Academics–in striving to form students in a “well-educated solidarity.” We were charged, along with our colleagues, with turning that idea into a reality when we arrived.   Two years later, we have witnessed how our students have experienced those pillars in visceral ways. Learning to respect and love the members of their praxis communities at La Luciérnaga, Barrio Argüello, and Nuestro Hogar III for their resilience, determination, and capacity for love and laughter in the midst of the hard realities of their lives. Washing dinner dishes with the music turned up loud (“dance party” time, they call it). Sitting in shared silence together at retreats or during weekly nights set apart for this contemplative practice. Reflecting out loud and on paper, in class and in journals, in conversations with us, each other, Nestor (their taxi driver), and others. The questions crossed over from the academic realm into the ream of real life in trying to make sense of their experiences in Argentina. Joking around with Martin Maldonado, their irreverent and irreplaceable praxis coordinator and professor of political science. And going out for coffee or ice cream with their beloved Bianca McNeil, a staff member who lives with them and coordinates their community life.

In the simple practice of learning how to pay attention to the little things, to make the effort to notice ordinary moments, students often find that the Casa experience can become quite extraordinary for them. Time moves differently. There is time for conversations, for journaling, for drinking mate, and for playing silly games, for noticing spiders, and the color of leaves falling from trees. Life becomes vivid. Riding the bus to classes and praxis, noticing how seated riders always get up and offer seats to the elderly, to women with children, to those with disabilities, no matter what. Feeling the “kisses that stick” softly brushing your cheek in the Argentine practice of besos for every salutation, whether greeting or goodbye. Feeling your head full and tired from the effort of speaking another language all day, and then suddenly feeling compassion for those whom you never thought about before; those who have to do it all the time in your own country.

Through their time in Argentina, students learn to see themselves as connected to the broader world, especially to those on the margins due to poverty, and in the process, develop a sense of connection to something beyond themselves. Casa is ultimately an experience of learning how to be open to one’s own life in a world that is fragmented, unjust, and also utterly–almost unbearably–beautiful. To experience a life filled with vulnerability, tenderness, and gentle acceptance, as a radical alternative to the powerful social current that so often flows towards seeking certainty over questioning, and individual success over community thriving. Yet these other possibilities are also part of what they take back with them to the United States.

Maybe something of that has happened to us, as well. We are returning to the US changed in many ways of which we are not yet aware.   So it is with a mix of feelings that we return to our former lives, yet not as our former selves. The sweetness of knowing we will have more contact with our beloved family and friends again. The difficulty of leaving our dear friends and colleagues behind. These are the friends with whom we have labored so hard, as well as with such joy and sense of camaraderie these past two years, some of whom our students have never met. So, I will end this reflection with our deepest appreciation, affection, and gratitude to all our friends in Argentina: all those who have befriended us and our children, who have shown us hospitality and kindness when we were still strangers (to our friends at UCC, Colegio Mark Twain, Alla Arriba, CELEC and in our neighborhood). And to our amazing, hard-working, and inspiring program staff in Argentina–Santiago Bunce, Michelle Lally, Diego Fonti, Pablo Giesenow, Marta Risso Patron, Ariel Ingas, Jessica Laulhe, and especially Martin Maldonado and Bianca McNeil, who became like family to us–we hold you in our hearts with gratitude and love. Thank you!

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por Jennifer Abe

IMG_20140825_080353Me siento a la mesa de la cocina, mirando a los grandes jacarandas alineados en la calle afuera la ventana. En esta fría mañana de otoño en mayo, el cielo del hemisferio sur en Argentina tiene colores entre grises y azulados y las hojas están poniéndose más claras. En un mes, las grandes ramas desplegadas van a estar desnudas de invierno, siguiendo el antiguo ritmo natural que marcan las estaciones y del que hemos sido testigos desde esta ventana, ahora por segunda vez.

Han sido dos años en Argentina. Esta vez, cuando los estudiantes se vayan de Córdoba, nosotros—Douglas, mi marido, Adam y Bennett, nuestros chicos de once años y yo—vamos a seguirlos apenas unos días después en nuestro viaje de regreso a EE.UU. Un periplo. Lo que no es simplemente emprender nuestro camino al Norte. Argentina ya no es una abstracción y Córdoba es mucho más que un punto en el mapa. Este lugar se ha convertido en nuestro hogar.

El programa de Casa de la Mateada era solo una idea cuando Douglas y yo llegamos por primera vez a Córdoba como profesores y co-directores con cuatro de nuestros hijos. El programa estaba inspirado en un modelo desarollado en El Salvador, un programa que, originalmente, concibió y desarolló los cuatro pilares–la Comunidad, el Acompañamiento, la Espiritualidad, y los Estudios Academicos–en un esfuerzo para formar estudiantes en una “solidaridad instruida.” Estabamos encargados, junto con nuestros colegas, de transformar esa idea en una realidad. Dos años después, hemos sido testigos de cómo nuestros estudiantes han tenido esa experiencia con estos pilares de maneras concretas. Aprendiendo a respetar y amar a los miembros de las comunidades de praxis en La Luciérnaga, en Barrio Argüello y en Nuestro Hogar III para su fortaleza, determinación y capacidad de amar y alegrarse en el medio de las duras realidades de sus vidas. Lavando los platos con la musica a todo volumen (“dance party” le dicen). Sentándose en un silencio compartido en los retiros o durante las noches dedicadas a esta práctica contemplativa. Reflexionando en voz alta y en papel, en clase y en los diarios, en las conversaciones entre nosotros, entre ellos, con Nestor (el conductor de taxi) y otros. Las preguntas cruzaban desde el ámbito academico al ámbito de la realidad para darle sentido a sus experiencias en Argentina. Bromeando con Martin Maldonado, su ocurrente e irremplazable coordinador de praxis y su profesor de Ciencias Politicas. Y saliendo a tomar café o helado con su querida Bianca McNeil, una miembro del staff, quién vive con ellos y coordina su vida comunitaria.

En la sencilla práctica de aprender cómo prestar atención a las cosas chiquitas, de hacer el esfuerzo para tomar conciencia de los momentos cotidianos, muchas veces los estudiantes descubren que la experiencia de la Casa puede convertirse en algo extraordinario. El tiempo transcurre de un modo diferente. Hay tiempo para las conversaciones, anotar en un diarío, tomar mate, y jugar juegos tontos. Para prestar atención a las arañas y los colores de las hojas que se caen de los árboles. La vida se convierte en una más vívida. Subiendo a los colectivos para ir a las clases y a “praxis,” prestando atención a la manera en que los sentados siempre ofrecen sus asientos a los mayores, a las mujeres con sus hijos, y a los discapacitados. Siempre. Sintiendo el roce de los “besos que se pegan a la mejilla” como parte de la costumbre argentina de besos para cada ocasión, sea saludo o despedida. Sintiendo la cabeza como llena y cansada por el esfuerzo de hablar un lenguaje diferente todo el día y luego, de repente, sintiendo compasión por aquellos en quienes nunca antes habías pensado; por quienes tienen que hacer eso todo el tiempo en tu propio país.

A través el tiempo en Argentina, los estudiantes aprenden a verse a si mismos como conectados a un mundo más grande, especialmente a los que están marginalizados por la pobreza y en ese proceso, desarollan una sensación de la conexión a lo que está más alla de sí mismos. Finalmente, Casa es una experiencia para aprender cómo poder abrir el sí mismo a la propia vida en un mundo que es fragmentado, injusto y también a la vida que es completamente — casi insoportablemente —bella. Para tener una vida llena de la vulnerabilidad, el cariño y la aceptación gentil como una alternativa radical contra la corriente social que muchas veces fluye a buscar la certeza más que el cuestionamiento, el éxito del individuo más que el bienestar comunitario. Esas posibilidades también son parte de las que ellos van a llevar a EE.UU.

Quizás algo de eso nos ha ocurrido a nosotros también.   Estamos volviendo a EE.UU. cambiados en muchos sentidos de los que todavía no tenemos conocimiento. Entonces, es con una mezcla de sentimientos que nos regresamos a nuestras vidas de antes, ya no como éramos. La dulzura de conocer que tendremos más contacto con nuestra querida familia y nuestros amigos de nuevo. La dificultad de dejar a nuestros queridos amigos y colegas aquí. Ellos son los amigos con que hemos trabajado con tanto esfuerzo y también con tanta alegría y sentido de camaradería en los dos años pasados, algunos de los cuales nuestros estudiantes nunca tuvieron la oportunidad de concocer. Entonces, terminaré esta reflexión con nuestro profundo agradecimiento, cariño y gratitud a todos nuestros amigos en Argentina: a todos los que han entablado una amistad con nosotros y nuestros hijos, a los que nos han mostrado hospitalidad y amabilidad cuando todavía eramos extranjeros (a los amigos del UCC, Colegio Mark Twain, Alla Arriba, CELEC y nuestro barrio, el Cerro). Y a nuestros colegas del programa en Argentina, trabajadores asombrosos e inspiradores–a Santiago Bunce, Michelle Lally, Diego Fonti, Pablo Giesenow, Marta Risso Patron, Ariel Ingas, Jessica Laulhe u, especialmente a Martin Maldonado y Bianca McNeil, quienes se convertieron en una familia para nosotros–los guardamos en nuestros corazones con gratitud y cariño. ¡Muchisimas gracias!

IMG_20150522_150647By Aisha Walker

Every Tuesday and Wednesday morning Emily, Eileen and I step up to this gate—a rusted, brown, diamond criss-crossed pattern chain gate—with a four foot high door cut out centrally on the bottom. Just behind this gate, there is a set of French doors, painted blue. On the right hand molding, at the fringe of an arm’s reach, is a door bell, with a handwritten sign in black ink, “Toca Timbre”. Sticking my hand through the biting chained gate, I feel the white plastic give under my finger’s force. A moment later, I hear the jingle of Mariela’s numerous keys on her giraffe guarded key chain, as the secretary hurries from her office to greet us, opening the little door in the giant gate. I allow Emily and Eileen to pass through before I, too, fold my body in half at the waist, hunch my shoulders toward my center and squeeze through this little gate. Standing erect, I give Mariela a quick beso before taking a deep breath. I have arrived at La Luciernaga.

Every Tuesday and Wednesday morning, Emily, Eileen and I walk through the front office of La Luciernaga, past the stacked green and yellow boxes of glossy paper on which the magazines are printed in house. Past the open air office of Mariela and Oscar’s—the founder of La Luciernaga­—closed door before taking a slight right out the back door of the building, down three red tile steps and over a raised cement threshold into the heart of the community. I run my hand along the cement wall with chipped orange-red paint to my right, skimming over the ever-changing posters inviting the young men to history, recovery, success, and presence. I smell Fabuloso, a cleaning product, which alerts me to Paola’s presence somewhere nearby. Just a couple steps further and the room opens up. A vaulted ceiling with square sky lights allows the end of summer heat to reflect off of the chipped, cream colored tables and chairs in two rows that fill the cement floor, illuminating the room. I move my hand away from the wall, continuing farther into the room and into our community.

Every Tuesday and Wednesday morning Emily, Eileen and I open ourselves up to the emotions of others, allowing what is theirs to become ours. It begins by walking into the arms of Tio Julio, our supervisor at La Luci. He hugs me. Not in a quick greeting kind of way, where there is only a light beso and abraso. Julio’s mid-sized frame envelops me, squeezing tight, reminding me that I am safe with him, invited home in his presence. After being released, I continue around the gathered circle of faces that are becoming more familiar every visit— Pablo, Anna, Laura, Paola—exchanging besos and abrasos. The lasting impression of Norma’s—the chef of the comedor—cheeks on both of mine, sharing her Uruguayan culture in her simple greeting. The aroma of mate mingles with the beginning stages of Norma’s cooking as the odor of chopped onions sizzles through the air. Taking a seat at one of the tables, I stare at the artwork that adorns the risers that lead to the second story of the building. The abstract blocks of pinks, yellows, greens, and blues defined by black outlines shift with every movement of my eyes. At the top of the risers, my eyes lock on the second door from the right, Victor’s office. Seeing a flash of movement, I wonder who is in there a moment before I hear Victor’s signature: “JULIO!” Chuckling to myself, I quietly sing the Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk line (“Julio get the stretch”) as Julio takes the stairs to the right of the risers two at a time up to Victor’s door.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI hear lighters pop and cigarettes burn, making my eyes water, as canillitas begin to trickle into the community. Some irritable, others buoyantly happy, they greet me all the same. “Como andas?” I ask them of more than how their walk to La Luci was. I ask of their emotional walk, too, as we share besos and abrasos in this place where the collective cares about each individual’s path. After eating a rich lunch of heavy foods that keep the canillitas full for their hours spent selling magazines on the streets of el centro, I make my way from the comedor outside to the grassy area behind the center. The over grown grass is dying as the weather turns from summer to fall. Even so, Angel and Priscilla—Paola’s kids— want to play soccer with a blue, deformed, undersized, plastic ball. I leave my form ingrained into my seventeen years of play at the goal line, allowing myself to be silly, miss the ball, and run aimlessly around this field, while Angel schools me in my sport and Priscilla’s dimples take some of the sadness out of her eyes.

One Wednesday, I walk out to the back lawn space, my hands covered in green paint after making a sign; Gonzalo—a canillita— guides me toward a faucet in front of the bathroom out back where I can clean up before the lunch of milanesas. He
holds the button down the entire time, allowing me to wash the Hulk off of me, into the red bucket below. Once I’ve cleaned myself up, he picks up the plastic bucket, full to the brim with water swirled with the blue and green paint of the day, and pretends to throw it at me. I flinch, clenching my eyes shut, my left leg lifting in a karate move of defense as my arms move to block my face from the spray and a high-pitched squeal escapes from the depth of my girlishness. After I moment, I peek out of the corner of my clenched left eye, to see Gonzalo laughing hysterically, doubled over, grasping his stomach as silent giggles erase the stress from his face. As I relax my stance, he catches his breath enough to chuckle through a reenactment of my fear, describing it in such rapid Castellano that I cannot even keep up. But, I can’t even be upset because the glow on Gonzalo’s face, his pure joy at the lighthearted joke is contagious. Hi smile automatically bringing one to my face, removing some darkness from my heart. Because that is what La Luci has given to me: a tingling sensation that consumes me when laughter, the universal song of love, permeates not only a language barrier, but circumstances, too. La Luci is the place where I have been humbled enough to acknowledge that the collective cares about the individual. Where my emotions are worth being seen and felt by other because every day of our lives are gifts that we share—both the good and the bad—with each other.

IMG_6145Every Tuesday and Wednesday morning Emily, Eileen and I step up to this gate—a rusted, brown, diamond criss-crossed pattern chain gate—with a four foot high door cut centrally on the bottom. Every Tuesday and Wednesday morning I fold my body in half at the waist, hunching my shoulders toward my center and squeeze through this little gate. When I stand up, I share my life, my time, and my emotions within these walls, within the safety of La Luciernaga.