Archives for category: Reflections

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI wish I could put a word to it, although doing so would unjustly confine it. “It” being those circumstances of something more than just coincidence, something that God brings to your attention again and again, like He is allowing things to come full circle for us. “It” being those instances that knock the wind out of you, that make you raise an eyebrow to the sky and ask, “Really?” Our “Dios grande,” as Miguel (one of our canellito friends) would say, is a little “chistoso” at times. Between every minute of my joyful time at La Luciérnaga and the stories and moments Fr. Boyle describes in Tattoos on the Heart, I am finding myself feeling blessed with these connections that are both awesome and at times just plain ridiculous.

And this brings to mind the question, why me? This question is on my mind almost as much as the age old “como se dice…?” Why am I allowed to be a part of this experience, which is not only confusing because of the dissonance caused by my economic advantage that allows me to come here, but how was I “lucky” enough that the events in my life lead me to here? Why am I allowed to experience something as beautiful as La Luciérnaga, or the opportunity for growth in spirituality and community?

While all of these questions have been important in helping me reflect on gratitude and grace, I realize that in focusing on my own singularity in this experience at Casa de la Mateada, there is an underlying implication that I had a part to play in this, that by some merit or action of mine I was chosen to be here rather than another. In reality, these subtle, internal insinuations that I am here because of some excellence on my own part not only isolate me from the Other, who does not have access to the advantages I was born with, but it also acts as a shield against the unknown and unexpected. If I believe that I am able to experience beauty because of my own doing, then I will expect the same from the rest of my life–but only if I keep everything under control. I can be happy if I am perfect. And the most important part of “I am perfect” (in this way of thinking) is the “I am.”

This isolating and exhausting train of thought is greatly influenced and reinforced by my college education. While I am entirely grateful for the opportunity for a good college education, it has secured my place in a grid of “I’s” wherein I am fully responsible for my own success, and any privilege I own is earned by my own good doing. And yes, there is great possibility within myself, and yes, I can achieve things. But in this search for my own best inner self, I often forget that my inner self is not man-made. We do not make it, certainly not by ourselves.

Again, I am reminded (“reminded” being used here as a gentler form of “smacked upside the head”) with the depth of God’s love, and the paradoxical power of being small. I am reminded of my place in the community, the Body of Christ, and the blessing of having not only someone, but the One, to care for me, to remember me.

And reflecting on this care and remembrance that I am unabashedly given, not only through God’s love, but through the people around me, isOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA another lesson in how tremendously important it is that we remember others. Gustavo Gutierrez notes that “…the breakthrough of the poor in Latin American society and the Latin American church is in the final analysis a breakthrough of God in our lives.” And this, I am coming to see, is real, not just a metaphor. By experiencing the breakthrough of God in such encounters, like those that happen every week at La Luciérnaga, we experience our own humility and our own reliance on others, and we break into the world of the people ignored. We are reminded of our responsibility to the poor, to ourselves. It is both a result of and point of departure of God’s breakthrough in us.

Sometimes we experience this paradox, this loss of a tightly secluded self and gain of God’s likeness of His Church through the gentle leaching away of our thoughts or those “videos,” in our head, a false reality that is perverse by nature (as no one could create a reality as complex or stunning as God). Sometimes our true nature is exposed by our being buffeted helplessly by events and people roaring by us.

La Luciérnaga is an endless source of this “pummeling” kind of grace for me. I had read Tattoos on the Heart a few times before this semester, but reading it in light of my experiences at La Luci has made it all come to life anew. Today, as our canellito friend told us his real name (we had been using his nickname all this time), Father Boyle’s anecdote about Sniper and the importance of names, and of remembering names, came to life. Our friend “Chancho” suddenly becomes Christian Javier, the name his mother gave him, and Christian Javier is really just a son loved by his mother.

We often talk about traveling at La Luci, so when I read the heartbreak of the homeboy who wrote, “they see me as less,” (Tattoos), I immediately thought of Mariano, my age, who told me that he just wants to travel wherever he’s not seen as the “lo minúsculo.” It would seem like an impossible coincidence that these parallels are forming, but really it is the formation of a bigger picture, one that we know well: that we, as humans, have that “great pull in us to connect,” (Tattoos), that we want to be known, and we want to be remembered.

The first time we went to La Luci, there were students from a colegio visiting as well. That day, we were introduced to the can’t-miss Argentine experience that is Victor’s impossible Castellano. Since then, a few more schools have visited, and each time, miracle upon miracle, I am understanding a bit more. The most insane part of these school visits, however, is my place, my physical place, in them. Unlike the first visit, when we sat with the masses on the steps, peering down at the canellitos from above, now we sit with them on the floor, with the rest of the pueblo Luciérnago. We are introduced as part of the group, sitting with knees all folded so more can cram onto the groaning table that becomes our seat, Darío leaning up against my legs like they’re the back of a chair, Miguel sitting to my side so he can lean over and whisper (I use the word “whisper” generously) snide comments and insults about all the kids in their uniforms (then he goes and sits with them at lunch and chats with them like they’re old friends; he’s only a few years older than them after all).

My position not only in imgres-1the room, but most importantly, my position with the people there, has integrally changed, and with that, I am integrally changed as well. Somehow, I have become a part of this group, somehow I am sitting with them, am presented as a part of them. Somehow, on La Avenida Sarsfield, in Córdoba, Argentina, in this unsuspecting place where all these lives miraculously find a common thread, I have found a home.

Rachel Nease is a student at Gonzaga University in Washington, where she is majoring in biology. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere was a lot of talk about “living simply” at the beginning of the semester. Some of us were concerned. How can we live simply in this nice house? How can we live simply when a large pile of pan magically appears every Tuesday with our groceries? In his book, Tattoos on the Heart, Greg Boyle said, “Our choice is not to focus on the narrow but to narrow our focus.”

Here are some things that I don’t normally focus on that I have found myself focusing on this semester: steam twirling above a mug of tea, water sounds, clouds slowly moving, the smell of flowers on the walk to the bus, flight patterns of mariposas, birds chirping, clothes swaying on the line. Also, curling up with friends to watch a movie, watching sunsets together, sing-a-longs and sharing stories. I looked up from my reading to encounter a bird fly by and land on a branch perfectly in view. It was a warm, beautiful morning in our quiet backyard. I allowed myself to take a big gulp of the sun’s rays and was filled to the brim with gratitude. “Wow, I thought. I am so grateful I have the time to do this.”

Then, I realized something very important: I don’t have the time to do this. I am still busy here. I want (and need) to go to class, go to praxis, do homework, spend time with friends, pray, call my mom, clean . . .  our “to-do” lists in Argentina are as long as those in the States. This is great news because it means these moments are, potentially, everywhere. I can live simply in a tiny village in the hills of some foreign country. I can live simply in a big city. I can live simply at Casa de la Mateada and at Spring Hill College.

“The gate that leads to life is not about restriction at all.” The simplest life is the one lived in the present moment. The act of just being requires a focus so narrow… it might even exclude the simple living toaster.

Maddie LaForge is a Theology/Psychology Double Major from Spring Hill College in Alabama. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is a pleasure to introduce to you the students from our Fall 2014 (or Spring, if you are looking at things from Argentina) cohort of Casa de la Mateada. They have arrived here from different parts of the United States and from different Jesuit Universities–LMU, Boston College, St. Louis University, Gonzaga University and Spring Hill College–to open themselves to an exciting, challenging (and yes, sometimes bewildering) experience of living, studying, learning, traveling in and being changed by Argentina.

How are they being changed? It is probably too early say. But already these students have distinguished themselves by their readiness to throw themselves into the life of this place, to open themselves to the experience of being here. That takes courage. And a willingness to allow yourself to be vulnerable.

The brief introductions below were written by the students. They interviewed each other and composed brief sketches of their classmates: those characteristic features that have already begun to emerge during the first few weeks of the program. You will enjoy meeting them. And a little later on, you will hear more from them directly.


The mighty Helen hails from Cleveland, Ohio and is currently at Saint Louis University studying Economics (along with International Studies, Spanish and Urban Poverty Studies). She is pure, sweet, and strong. She has the spirit of both a playful child and of a fierce wolf. One time, her parents told her she wouldn’t be able to run a marathon, so she signed up for one and ran it the next week. Helen is badass. In her spare time here at Casa de la Mateada she likes to build benches in the backyard and play soccer with the boys. She is also the master of pranks.


The indescribable Claire Horrigan made the trip all the way from her home of Greenwood Village, Colorado to Córdoba with her giraffe pillow pet, Wilbur (and her sense of adventure) in tow. She is in her third year at Boston College, studying economics with a minor in Faith, Peace, and Justice. Claire loves to run and to be outside; she also loves baking delicious pasteles, painting and making art. In Boston, she likes to volunteer with Saint Francis House, eat cannolis, and generally obsess over the Jesuits. She loves the beautiful architecture and the antiquity of the churches in Córdoba, and is amazed at the welcoming nature of the Argentines. She thinks that the warm and loving culture here and the continual besos are wonderful!


Farah’s adventurous spirit has led her all across the world! From Tajikistan to China to Korea, nothing is too foreign for Farah. And now, Argentina. Farah enjoys listening to music, chatting with her friends, drinking coffee in mom and pop cafés, and taking long walks. One of her major talents and hobbies is photography, which she picked up from her roommate in China who had a camera. She most enjoys capturing nature and candid photos of her friends in their funny moments. In addition to this, Farah also has a passion for languages. She believes that they allow you to communicate and develop deeper relationships with people of other cultures, which would explain why she has chosen Modern Languages as her major!


Maddie enjoys making chistes. Poquitos chistes. She hails from the land of alligators, jambalaya, and voodoo. Her motto, “¿porque no?” allows her to embark on many great voyages while wearing her trusty chacos. As a theology and psychology double major at Springhill College in sweet home Alabama, all Maddie does is read, read, read, no matter what. Maddie also enjoys long runs, immersing herself in Latin American culture, and eating chocolate. Maddie is a ray of sunshine, even in Casa Sol.


Ladies and gentlemen, meet the one and only Rachel Nease. A true Fort Collins, CO, native, Rachel loves the outdoors, especially the mountains. She is a junior at Gonzaga University, majoring in biology and minoring in Spanish. Rachel loves working with adults with disabilities through GUSR (Gonzaga University Specialized Recreation). When she’s not studying or volunteering, you may find Rachel playing some variation of a string instrument. We at the house are hoping for a concert one of these days . . . In true Rachel-fashion, some of her favorite things about Córdoba so far are the beauty of the Sierras, churches and graffiti. She is looking forward to getting to know the people of Argentina and learning the culture and language.


Abbi seizes each day with an ambitious, joyous disposition, often expressed through her graceful, energizing dance movements (she is a dancer). This LMU student’s pursuit of knowledge and spiritual growth is ceaseless, propelling her into dynamic conversations and sometimes carrying her across continents. Spanish proficiency has quickly integrated itself among this nature lover’s other tongues (including Swedish, French, English and even. . . cat!). Abbi, a Pennsylvania native, is studying Dance and Theater and looks forward to exploring deeply rooted unconscious patterns within herself this semester.


This beautiful chica hails from the coast of sunny California, specifically Huntington Beach. She has brought her love for fun in the sun with her and enjoys going for jogs or walking around town. As a self proclaimed people person, she has gotten to know many Argentinians already. Due to her love for staying in motion, she is almost never sitting down, but once in a while she will take a break to read and will read just about anything and everything.


20140802-131843.jpgIt is late winter here in Argentina. The trees are still bare, and the nights cold. But already we can feel the weather beginning to turn warmer. The heavy jackets are starting to come off. Movement in the streets is a little livelier. Spring is on the way.

So too is a new cohort of students (they are due to arrive next week). Soon enough we will introduce them to you. But it feels important to us to pause at this turning of the seasons to reflect more personally on where we have been and where we are heading. In truth, it is difficult to speak with certainty about either of these things. We are beginning our second year in Argentina. So much happened this past year– a rich, abundant, joyous, challenging and sometimes bewildering first year of our program. We are still absorbing it.

And the path ahead? We have a rich program planned for our students and we are confident in our ability to guide them through it. But we have also learned from experience that it is impossible to predict what will happen from month to month–from power outages, to labor strikes, to complicated narratives around the Argentine debt crisis–even as we have gained a greater understanding of, and appreciation for, the rhythms of everyday life here. So we know that much of what lay ahead is and must remain unknown to us. We are learning to accept more and more the need to simply walk into our days with attention and openness; and to trust that the path ahead will gradually become clear.

It has been a little over a year since we arrived here in Córdoba in the depths of another, much colder winter. How little we knew all that awaited us! But as we disembarked from our plane, together with four of our five children and one seriously-stunned cat, we could feel how momentous this move would be for us. And it has been. The first cohort of students arrived not long after and soon enough we were off, tumbling forward into this grand adventure: orientation, classes, first visit to praxis , community living and the gradual unfolding of all the diverse elements of life here in Argentina: the extraordinary kindness and graciousness of our new Argentine friends, the food, the music, the vibrancy of the city, the physical beauty of the surrounding countryside; also the complex social, economic and political realities that shape everyday life here. All of it.

We have also become more aware of our complicated, ambiguous status as extranjeros. We have come here in part to help our students learn (and to learn ourselves!) what it means to accompany and be accompanied by others, and to do so in a country, culture and language not our own. Any one of those ways of being “Other” might make this task seem not only ambitious, but presumptuous. Yet one of the joys of being part of this program has been witnessing the way our students have responded to this challenge. How generously they have opened themselves to their experience here. How responsive they have been to the challenges and opportunities they were given. How vulnerable they have allowed themselves to become to a place and people that were, at first, almost completely unknown to them.

Not that they have not struggled at times. No one has been unaffected by the recurring waves of uncertainty and disorientation well-known to anyone who has lived abroad. A lot of things just don’t seem to make any sense (the names of things in the farmacia; the ever-changing bus routes; the way dinner-time and bed-time seem almost interchangeable; the free-wheeling life of dogs on the streets). There are unexpected bouts of fatigue and homesickness. An urge to seek refuge in the familiar. Over time these feelings dissipate; but they never go away completely. And this is a big part of the growth and stretching that happens in this kind of experience. You gradually learn to relinquish your own idea of how the world is supposed to work. And accept that another way is possible. It isn’t easy. But its good for you!

That’s a big part of what we have learned this year—being here has been good for us, and for our students. We hope, in time, that the communities who have opened their doors so generously to us, and the colleagues who have been so generous in their work with us, will also be able to say that their experience of us, and the program, has been good, is good. Perhaps they already do. But we are still so new here. Looking back and yet barely beginning.

Along with our students, we are still trying to wrap our minds around all that has transpired this year, how we have been touched and changed by this experience. It is not easy. Maybe it is not even possible. So we share stories, memories of our time together. We do our best to stay in touch, to help each other navigate the different transitions (going home after such a big experience can be challenging), to regard one another with the love and affection we have come to feel for each other during the time we have spent together. That in itself is a gift.

Still, it is not just about us, or even about our students. Casa de la Mateada is about this country, this city, its barrios, the people we are coming to know in the praxis , at the university, in the kioskos and panaderias, on the buses, in the streets. Their well-being has become important to us (as our own well-being has so clearly become important to them, much to our astonishment). And we try to express this in whatever way we can. Mostly by paying attention, by opening ourselves to their lives, and to their realities. Trying to understand what it means to practice accompaniment. Doing what we can to stand together with them. This is a simple thing. But it is not always easy to know how to enact it. We are learning by doing. By feel. By continuing to respond to what unfolds before us.

Often we feel our own helplessness, especially in relation to the larger social, economic and political currents moving through this country. The country is suffering through an acute economic crisis. Nor is there any clear sense of when or whether a way forward will be found. On the ground, prices for food, rent, and services keep going up. Life feels hard, the future uncertain. Of course, life here is not completely defined by these problems. Families gather for Sunday asados; friends meet in the park to drink mate and talk; the distinctive courtesies that mark ordinary daily life here still pertain; and the famous Argentine talent for improvisation is on more or less continuous display. Of course.

Still, day-to-day life here is not easy. Nor is it easy to imagine the way ahead.

For us and for our students, these realities complicate the question of what it means for us to practice solidarity and accompaniment. In many key respects, not least by our U.S. citizenship and our relative social and economic privilege, we are insulated from the difficulties facing ordinary Argentines. We don’t stand altogether on the same ground as they do. Even as we seek to engage with Argentina and to stand with our Argentine friends in relationships characterized by mutuality and reciprocity, we recognize and feel this difference. What does it mean, in light of this, for us to practice solidarity, to stand with others?

This not an easy question to answer. Nor should it be. In fact, it is probably good for us that it remains a live question, and that it continues to inform the daily work of our program. It helps us to proceed with greater openness and humility, to recognize how much we don’t know, how much we still have to learn.

We feel intensely the wonder and gift it has been for us to live in this beautiful, amazing, complex country. Even amidst the challenges and the struggles, we feel this. Nowhere is this clearer than in the small scale of day-to-day human interactions, in the kindling of friendship, in the simple practice of paying attention to one another. Here we catch glimpses of something immensely valuable for all of us: the emerging sense that we do indeed belong to one another.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“There sometimes springs an interior peace and quietude which is full of happiness, for the soul is in such a state that it thinks there is nothing that it lacks. Even speaking . . . wearies it: it would like to do nothing but love.” (Teresa of Avila)

Why does it sometimes feel like there is so little time to breathe, to think? Or even to pause and enjoy what is unfolding before us? To pay attention to the things that really matter?

These are  common and recurring questions in contemporary life. Certainly many of us from the U.S. feel the pressure of trying to fit too many things into too small of a space. That sense of always being behind, always catching up. But it is also true here in Argentina, especially in this time of economic instability when many are forced to work more than one job, often in different parts of the city, just to get by. It is not really possible to slow down. You have to keep moving.

Even so, the rhythms of life here are in many ways less frantic than what we commonly experience in the U.S. Córdoba is a busy, vibrant city and people seem always to be on the move somewhere. But there are also more moments to pause, to catch up with friends, to enjoy conversation. Time is not so pressured. Argentines seem to take real delight in spending time, lots of time, with each other. Often with no particular purpose or agenda. And with little sense of the need to rush off somewhere else. They are generous with their time. Or so it seems to us. Read the rest of this entry »

Krista (new)By Krista Chinchilla.

We gathered around the CASA de la Mateada staff members and I felt dumbfounded as we went through our weekly avisos (check-ins): NPR reports to keep us updated on the news, the schedule for the upcoming week, and food and transportation stipends. “It’s already March?!” I found myself thinking. Time is flying and Argentina has been an incredible teacher. There is so much I’ve already experienced, but there are a few things that really stand out to me when I think about what I yearn to implement into my daily life.

I had always seen service as ‘helping’ another. Now, I can see the type of hierarchy that goes into this mentality; it denotes a kind of superiority and inferiority between me and another person. Accompaniment is one of the pillars of the CASA program, which I hoped would go right along with transforming my definition of (and, more importantly, how I acted out) ‘service.’ I liked the idea of accompanying another more than the ‘helping’ perspective on service, but there was still something that didn’t fully click. I couldn’t exactly pinpoint it, so I ignored it and hoped my time in Argentina would clear things up for me. After all, we’re here to simply be there with people, which didn’t really make much sense to me. What does “being there with others” even mean? It seemed so…useless. But here’s where some really great people come into the picture.

Soon after the end of our orientation, we were introduced to most of the women who work in a jardín (kindergarten) in Nuestro Hogar III, a small city in Córdoba. This jardín is one of our praxis sites; it is a space that also functions as a type of community center for various activities for those who live in Nuestro Hogar III. The women eagerly greeted each member of our cohort with besos (kisses on the cheek). While we are a smaller cohort, we were still about nine people walking into their daily lives. “Tienen hambre? Ya desayunaron?” “Are you hungry? Have you have breakfast yet?” they asked as they prepared mate and sliced some bread. We spent the day charlando (talking) and, yes, simply being there. Without fail, whenever we return, we’re greeted the same way: with eager eyes, excited words, welcoming faces and sometimes some dancing.

Read the rest of this entry »

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEncuentro. It is a word and an idea rich with meaning here in Argentina. To ‘meet’ another, to feel his or her presence, is a beautiful, mysterious thing in any place, any culture. But something all of us have noticed since our arrival here is how seriously (though also playfully) Argentines take their encuentros. Especially the first moments. Whether it is a chance greeting of a friend on the street, or arriving at someone’s home, or meeting someone for the first time,  you feel the extraordinary care and attention that is given to such moments. And not only to the first moment, but to the entire encounter (we often marvel as we walk or drive down the street how much time Argentines seem to spend in cafes, sitting and talking with their friends). 

You feel it first on your cheek, as you kiss and are kissed by the other. And if it is a meeting involving several persons, as often happens with our students, everyone kisses everyone. No exceptions. No matter how many you are. When you arrive and when you part from one another. A social nicety you say? Yes, in part. And, no, it is not always easy to judge how sincere those besos are (an Argentine friend reminded us once–with a smile in her eye as she said it: “just because we kiss you doesn’t mean we like you.” Ok, we have been warned.

Still, the feeling you have most often in such moments is of the simple warmth of the gesture. As you bend forward to give and receive those kisses, time slows down a little. There is no rushing through it. It takes as long as it takes. And, often, you find yourself smiling in the midst of the exchange. It is playful. Sweet. Intimate.

Read the rest of this entry »

IMG_1013The moment of arrival. You have been anticipating this moment for so long–when all your wondering and dreaming and uncertainty about what is to come finally gives way to your actual arrival in this place. When you are no longer anticipating, but actually here, now.

You walk through the gate and feel yourself enveloped in warm embraces (kisses too, for this is Argentina). Someone takes your bags, asks about your trip: “how you are feeling?” You hear someone else exclaim: “how happy we are you are here!” And then you are on your way.

The moment passes that quickly. Soon, you will walk across the threshold of your new home. You will meet the other students and the community coordinator with whom you will share your home. Soon you will begin, little by little, entering into your new life in Córdoba, Argentina. Soon. But not quite yet. You are still feeling the preciousness of this moment, a moment that will not come again: the sense of the relief at finally being underway (you are really here!), no longer anticipating, but embarking for real on this new adventure, beginning to open yourself to all that is to come.

This week we welcomed seven new students to begin their time in LMU’s Casa de la Mateada program in Córdoba. Their excitement was palpable as we met them at the airport (as was ours at finally meeting them). It somehow managed to transcend even the fatigue of twenty plus hours of travel, and perhaps soften some of the lingering sadness at having left family and friends and a life that they knew and recognized behind, for. . . what? Well, that is one of the questions that has already come tumbling out during the first couple of weeks: why exactly am I here? And where is here anyway? (the ‘idea’ or image of Argentina is quickly being replaced by the actual, concrete, and immensely complex reality) Also, how will it feel being so far from home living in a place I hardly know? And, is it always this blasted hot here (students arrived to temperatures well above 100 degrees, the famous Córdoba summer)? Will I be able to understand and express myself in that utterly distinctive Spanish (Castellano) spoken here in Argentina? What will it feel like living in a tight-knit community of students for the next four and a half months? Will I get to know the ‘real Argentina,’–its beauty, its complexities, its challenges? And so forth.

So many questions. And none of them fully answerable. Not yet anyway.

There is in this arrival a sense of all that has been left behind, as well as all that is still unknown, still unfolding, still to come. A sense of being, for the moment anyway, in a liminal, fluid space–between worlds. Not an easy place to be; but a place and a moment charged with possibilities.

This is also true for those of us (directors and community coordinators) who have been here since last July, who have been working steadily to create a space and a program where students can thrive and grow; where they can learn to risk themselves and practice the fine and subtle art of accompaniment. We are also between worlds, so conscious of all we have lived through during these past months with the first cohort of students (a remarkable, brave and creative group, whom we grew to respect and love). We carry within us such a strong memory of how generously they poured themselves into their work, how vulnerable they allowed themselves to become in the face of all they encountered here, how much they grew and changed. Also, how hard it was for them to leave. Leaving the country, yes. But even more so, having to say goodbye to one another (was there anything of themselves that they did not share these past four months?), and to their new Argentine friends from the praxis sites with whom they had developed such deep bonds of love and affection. A painful departure, made more so by the uncertainty of whether they would ever return.

This too is part of the experience of students who enter this program: gradually waking up to the realization of the “once only” character of their lives here in Córdoba. “No one steps in the same river twice” observed Heraclitus. The river keeps on flowing. You can step in this river only once. That is true of every moment of our lives; there is only the singular, utterly unrepeatable present moment. Yet, somehow the experience of stepping out of your life and entering into a life and world so different from anything you have ever known (which happens to all of us here) heightens your awareness of this fact.  This can and sometimes does leave you feeling startled, aware that the usual categories for constructing your identity no longer hold in the same way they once did. Who am I in this place? What has become of all my familiar points of reference—social, cultural, interpersonal; or the identity to which I have become so accustomed? My very self? These are just some of the questions that emerge as you enter into the life of a place not your own. Not the easiest questions to face or respond to, but good and important nevertheless. And potentially a means of opening yourself more fully to the world and to yourself.

Somehow, mysteriously, all of us—those who have come before and those who have just arrived, those from the U.S. and those who call Argentina home–are bound together in this common work. We are learning together how to open ourselves to and stand with those whom we encounter, those who inhabit a world so different from our own and yet with whom we also begin to see we share so much in common. And we are being challenged to learn how to fold our disparate worlds together into some kind of a whole. Feeling the depth of the bonds that connect us to our families and friends back home, even as we open ourselves to the new, still emerging relationships we are forming here. Seeing the well-established sensibilities formed by our life in the United States in being recast in response to the rich, new and still-strange personal and cultural sensibilities of this place. Feeling how entering into a new and different social, economic and political reality can help us see with new eyes our place in the world and the complex reality of life in our country.

In the weeks and months ahead we will do our best to represent these complex realities by featuring stories and images of our program as it is unfolding in the present moment, and with stories and images from our alums who have made the journey home. The life of this program cannot be confined to what happens here in Argentina, after all. It begins here. But its power and significance continue to be felt long afterwards, in ways that we and our students and our friends in Argentina are still discovering, and will continue to discover in the months and years ahead.

Still, all that discovery is rooted in what unfolds in particular moments–as when a new friendship begins to take hold; or when you encounter suffering which you can neither make sense of nor distance yourself from; or when some new awareness about your self and your place in the world and how you want to live gradually dawns in your mind.

Such moments are precious and unrepeatable. They are worthy of all the care and attention we can give to them. We are here, after all, once only.

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.

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.