Archives for category: Reflections

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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Little SchoolThis week, we read The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival with our students in the Casa program (as part of our ‘contemplatives in action’ course). It is Alicia Partnoy’s beautiful, heartbreaking memoir of her time in La Escuelita–one of the infamous detention centers used by the Argentine dictatorship to hold and torture those deemed to be ‘subversives’ or ‘enemies of the state.’ Alicia is a colleague of ours at Loyola Marymount University, a native Argentinian and a strong supporter of our new Casa program in Córdoba. She is also one of the ‘disappeared,’ one of those who survived. And she has written what has become recognized as one of earliest and most important accounts of that experience to emerge. Jennifer Abe, one of our faculty co-directors in the program, has been using The Little School in her  LMU classes during the past several years, often inviting Alicia to speak to her students about her experience. Every time, students are shaken by the sheer force of Alicia’s account, by the realization that such things are still happening in our world (Abu Graib, to mention only one of the most awful recent cases in the history of the United States), and that they themselves are being invited to reckon with and respond to this reality. Yesterday was no different. Except in one important respect: we all felt the power of reading The Little School here in Argentina. One of the questions we have carried with us as we planned for and then embarked upon this new Casa program is how we would engage this particular period of Argentina’s history.  Of course, the history of Argentina cannot and should not be reduced to those terrible years between 1976 and 1983. And during our time here in Argentina, we are making an effort to understand and enter into and respond to the entire life and history and culture of this place. Still, the events of those years, during which many, many thousands of Argentines were killed or disappeared (almost 30,000 persons between 1976 and 1979–the worst years of military rule), have a particular claim on our attention. And, thanks to Alicia Partnoy’s courageous memoir, we have been given one way to begin engaging those events seriously and thoughtfully. I want to focus my attention here on the work of the students in engaging Alicia’s work, for that is where the life of this program can be seen most clearly. Yesterday, students were invited to read aloud from and comment on a passage of the book that had captured their attention or moved them. One by one they did so, each of them giving voice to a particular moment in the memoir that, for them, proved unforgettable. It was really something to hear Alicia’s text given ‘voice’ in this way, through a multitude of voices, each one distinct, each one giving expression to the text in a slightly different way. Earlier, we had listened to a recording of Alicia herself reading aloud from her book, en español. That was also beautiful to hear, the musicality of her voice bringing the text to life in a way that only she could do. Still, here were our students, inhabiting the text in a way that only they could do. And I felt a growing sense of amazement as we moved around the circle, each student reading in turn, each one of them allowing the work to flow through them, out into the world. The life of the text taken up into and extended through the imaginative life of its readers–in this case, this little band of students in the Casa de la Mateada program in Córdoba, Argentina. This communal reading of the text also contained many silences, as we struggled to take in and respond to the immensity of what we were hearing. And the students’ comments and observations were also encircled by much silence, as they paused to search for words to express what they felt and thought: a searching out of language to express what could not, perhaps, be fully expressed. The hesitations were, I think, born of genuine humility, rooted in our shared sense of the power and honesty of Alicia’s witness. We wanted to honor her testimony by taking care with our own responses, by speaking as honestly and truthfully of what is in us. And by acknowledging the real limits of our capacity to understand, enter into and grasp what we were reading and hearing. Such humility is necessary, I think, to all genuine learning. Yet it is also important to recognize the changes that can occur as a result of one’s encounter with such a work, and the new understanding that can emerge. It is still too early to say all that happened to us from our reading of The Little School. But one thing seems clear: we cannot look at the world in quite the same way as we did before. Indeed, the book is, among other things, a sharp reminder of the importance of learning to look more carefully at the world, of learning to see. Of not being afraid to look, or to see. Every page of Alicia’s book contains images of La Escuelita: things she was not supposed to see through her blindfold but which she did see because of a tiny, imperceptible opening: the plastic sandals with one daisy, the blood on the tiles, the scraps of bread placed between her toes and passed to another prisoner, the path to the latrine. These is a dark humor to this. It is her nose, the size and shape of which she has long struggled with, that gives her access to the world: “My nose allows me to see. No I haven’t suddenly become metaphoric. Indeed, it’s thanks to my noise that I can see. What happens is that its shape keeps my blindfold slightly lifted. Portions of the world parade before these small slits.” “I crouched above the latrine and I saw–from under my blindfold–Pato’s tennis shoes. He was watching me. I also saw my dark red dress, and I tried to cover my legs with it. I spotted my slipper with its plastic daisy on the dirty floor caked with urine and excrement. There was a nice breeze, and if I didn’t have my nose facing the latrine I would have breathed deeply. Birds sang and I heard the sound of a train.”  Ordinary moments in a day, degradation mixed with surprising beauty. She lets all of it stand, witnessing to her experience of this place. But she also strains to see (and describes) what cannot be seen with eyes alone: her own fear and anxiety, the courage and simple kindness of her fellow prisoners, the unrelenting cruelty of her guards, the alternating feelings of utter despondency and unexpected hope. And she acknowledges, in one one of the most haunting passages of the book, what she can no longer see at all (but so longs to see): the face of her daughter. Even the memory of it has been lost to her in that terrible place. Learning to see. In The Little School, this becomes an essential moral task, a way of affirming that one is still alive, still human, especially in the face of the most aggressive efforts to destroy all traces of that humanity, to reduce human beings to something expendable.  In this context, the work of seeing, and bearing witness to what one sees, becomes a fundamental responsibility that one is called to fulfill–not only for one’s own sake but also for the sake of all those who cannot speak or bear witness themselves. I am beginning to understand such seeing as one crucial expression of contemplative practice–something that is at the heart of our work in the Casa program and which has always been central to the Ignatian spiritual tradition. To seek to become what Jerome Nadal (an early companion of Ignatius of Loyola) described as a ‘contemplative in action’ means opening oneself deeply to the work of seeing and bearing witness to reality as it presents itself. Not turning away or hiding from that reality, but seeking to behold as carefully and fully as we can the whole mysterious reality of the world unfolding before us. In all its beauty and yes, its unspeakable horror. Reading Alicia’s book with our students yesterday, I found myself recalling another faithful witness who has become important to me: the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. In one of his essays, Milosz reflects on his own understanding of what it means to see: “‘To see’ means not only to have before one’s eyes. It may mean also to preserve in memory. ‘To see and describe’ may also mean to reconstruct in imagination. A distance achieved thanks to the mystery of time must not change events, landscapes, human figures into a tangle of shadows growing paler and paler. On the contrary, it can show them in full light, so that every event, every date becomes expressive and persists as an eternal reminder of human depravity and human greatness. Those who are alive receive a mandate from those who are silent forever. They can fulfill their duties only by trying to reconstruct precisely things as they were by wrestling the past from fictions and legends.” This, it seems to me, is a wonderful comment on precisely the kind of seeing that one encounters on nearly every page of  The Little School. It is a way of seeing that we ourselves are called to emulate, in the life of this program, and in our lives more generally. We have only begun to embark on this work together here. But I feel so encouraged–by Alicia’s work and by our students’ open-hearted response to it–about the prospect of learning, little by little, to give ourselves over to this important work here in Argentina.

Here we are. In Córdoba, Argentina. But who are we? And what are we doing here? These are questions that arise often here at Casa de la Mateada–for students, community coordinators and directors. We have been here only a short time, so it is perhaps understandable that are still discovering the meaning and purpose of our life here. Also coming to sense already that some of the meaning of this experience may not become clear until after we have departed for home. For now, we are making an effort to live into each day with our eyes and hearts open, learning–poco a poco–what it might mean to become part of this place, to enter into the work of accompaniment that has brought us here.  So, we continue asking ourselves these questions, recognizing that the asking and responding are taking on a different character with each passing day.

First Cohort

The first cohort: Dan Letchinger, Sarah Scherk, Alyssa Perez, Jake Harter, Kayleigh Sobieski, Amanda Montez, Jake Wild Crea, Catherine Goggins, Lorena Brothers

On August 20, 2013, nine intrepid students arrived in Córdoba, from different parts of the United States, to help inaugurate the life of Casa de la Mateada, Loyola Marymount University’s  new study abroad program in South America. For months before that, the three co-directors of the program and the two community coordinators prepared for their arrival (Not to mention a host of supporters back home at LMU, without whom the program would never have seen the light of day). Still, more than a few times, as we prepared for the arrival of the students–looking for housing, setting up the curriculum, establishing working relationships with the Universidad Cátolica de Córdoba, finding the right praxis sites for our students and yes, buying pots and pans, painting walls, learning bus routes, and discovering the best places to shop for criollos, frutas and many other things–through all of this we paused from time to time to ask ourselves, amidst the craziness: what exactly are we doing here? And now that the students have arrived, we cheerfully share the question with them.

The students who have arrived for this first semester are all in their own way adventurers. Brave souls with a desire to enter in as deeply as they can to the life of this place. Still, I think it is safe to say that the challenge of doing so has already proven greater than many expected. This too is part of the gift of living through this experience together. And the mutual support found in community living is no small part of the experience here. In the weeks and months to come, we will try to give expression to that experience here in this space, as well as the sense of what is like to study here, to work in praxis sites, to travel and come to know the life of Argentina, to feel a new sense of self emerging, all of it.

Our students are the heart and soul of the program and what happens to them and who they become while they are here in Argentina represents the essence of Casa de la Mateada. But it is it not only what happens to them. It is also what happens between and among them and all those with whom they share their lives–their community coordinators, the community leaders at their praxis sites, their professors, indeed everyone whose lives they touch and whose lives touch them while they are here. And it is the mysterious opening up of awareness and understanding–about the complex social and political fabric of this country, the enduring value of certain cultural traditions, the challenging of practicing accompaniment, the meaning of spiritual practice–that can and often does change everything.

But it is early and so we are only beginning to understand what we are doing here and who are we becoming as we live into this work. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is probably a help to us in our work here to adopt an orientation of real humility, to acknowledge on a daily basis all we do not know or understand. Those of us have been involved in dreaming the program into being–and that includes many, many people at LMU, as well as colleagues in the two other ‘Casa’ programs in El Salvador and the Philippines–have begun to notice this fundamental tension in our work. We have ideas and hopes for what the program might be, what it might mean for our students to engage in this work of accompaniment. But the question of what we hope to learn and to contribute remain mysterious and elusive at the moment. Many of these questions will only be answered in time, as we live into the work. But for now, it is good to pause and remember the longstanding and carefully developed ideas about education that have shaped the Ignatian tradition from its earliest days and which have continued to develop in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And which continue to challenge Jesuit Universities around the world to deepen their fundamental commitments.

One of the most important points of reference for thinking about this question here is: “The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice in American Higher Education,” a talk given by the then-General of the Society of Jesus Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J.  in 2000 at Santa Clara University. He addressed his remarks in a particular way to leaders at Jesuit universities in North America, asking them to consider what it means for universities in the U.S. to be committed not only to academic excellence but also to the service of faith and the promotion of justice. One of the most important ideas in that talk, and one that has had a real impact on the formation of the Casa model of education, is Fr. Kolvenbach’s insistence that our universities need to commit themselves to “educate[ing] the whole person of solidarity for the real world.”  It is a powerful idea that has the potential to challenge many of our fundamental assumptions about the meaning of higher education. But its meaning, including its practical meaning in the life of particular universities, is still very much being worked out in the present moment.

The Casa model is one response to Fr. Kolvenbach’s call to educate students in a holistic, socially and spiritually engaged way. We are just beginning along this path in Argentina and still have so much to learn. But in the months and years ahead we hope to bear witness to our experiences and findings (our successes, but also our failures and places of learning) as part of a shared effort to think more deeply about what it might mean to educate students of solidarity for the real world.

We invite you to join us in this work.

Douglas E. Christie, Ph.D., Co-Director, Casa de la Mateada