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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!

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.

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.