The students greet us at the door with besos (specifically, a single kiss planted on the cheek) and abrazos, Argentine style, the light of the lamps casting a warm glow on the tangerine-colored walls of their living room in strong contrast to the darkening sky outside. We arrived at the student house for an asado, to be prepared by Martin, an experienced Argentinian asador. Martin, who also has a Ph.D. in political science and teaches a class on poverty to our students, was behind the house placing various cuts of costilla de vaca (beef ribs), morcilla (blood sausage), chorizo (pork sausage), matambre (beef), and chinchulin (glands) on two large steel grills covering the concrete block barbeque located just outside the quincho (outdoor room) in the backyard. He placed blackened branches, still aflame, upright in one corner of the barbeque, and as they crumbled into glowing coals, carefully scraped them into thin layers of gray and red embers under the grilling, crackling meat.
Various students brought out platters of salame, cheese, and freshly baked focaccia bread, some rounded loaves garnished with rosemary on top, others topped with sliced tomatoes or plain (the baking of bread led by Catherine, one of our students). These dishes comprised the picadas, which precede the eating of the food—okay, meat–associated with the asado itself. Three heaping bowls of salad and a long low container of Caesar dressing which Amanda, another student, had prepared based on her family’s recipe, were also brought to the table. Meanwhile, swarming kids and adults of various ages played fútbol on the wide lawn in the backyard near the quincho, their squeals and yelps of delight, mixing in with fragments of conversation, music from the boom box, and the wafting fragrance of grilled meat.
On this night, I felt something shift inside me as we shared in this traditional Argentine ritual–faculty, staff and our families, as well as the students of the Casa program (about thirty of us in all, with about a third of our group representing native Argentinians). What was different, I realized, is that we were finally settling into a rhythm of living that felt familiar and dear, and somewhere in the process had become a real community. The “mother” Casa program in El Salvador—Casa de la Solidaridad–through its long experience and wisdom, has developed a weekly routine that both anchors Casa students to provide stability and security, while also facilitating growth. These rituals include a “fiesta de la limpieza” (weekly house cleaning chores), community night (discussions in the house that arise out of what it means to engage in simple living and intentional community), spirituality night, M/W/F classes, and T/Th days in praxis communities. In Argentina, Friday evenings have become a ritual in which students cook a meal for the larger community, including Doug, me, and four of our children—“family nights” they have come to call these shared meals, including this asado.
It helps to step back and remember that when students participate in the Casa program, they have chosen to leave (for a defined time) their families, friends, and their incredibly busy and rich lives as students and leaders at their home institutions in the U.S. They have willingly given up their constant access to the internet, their use of cell phones (for all but emergencies), and have traded their cars for public transportation and walking. They have allowed themselves to become cultural outsiders—instead of being cool and competent, they have opened themselves to not knowing, to navigating the complete unknown. This is a world in which they are defined as foreign, not the other way around. A world that was so unfamiliar to them in language, emotional expression, social norms, traffic rules, and even seasons at the beginning of the semester. And now, twice a week they ride their buses, shuttles and taxis to get to their praxis sites, spending time with kids and adults in these communities, hanging out, helping, talking, eating, playing and generally coming to know and to love individuals whose lives and realities are so different from their own.
When they get back to their house, students join their eight other companions, and two staff members, individuals who were strangers to them but a few short weeks ago. And now all of them live together in a large 4-bedrom house, with a quincho and asado in the backyard. Each week, they eagerly catch up with each other after their praxis site days. Each week, they also pile together on couches to read, do homework, watch videos on bunk beds, prepare compost for an emerging garden, sing prayers, and eat meals around a single table. And always, they are taking in and trying to digest their experiences, talking to each other, journaling, calling home, and reflecting more formally in writing for class assignments. What does it mean for them to do this? To live like this for a time, at least? What does it all add up to?
Each semester represents a time for students that is set apart from the rest of their lives. It is a liminal period, and perhaps might even be regarded as holy (one meaning of which is “to be set apart”). Here in Argentina, students are able to try on a different perspective, viewing their lives in the U.S. from outside their usual vantage point, testing out questions they have about their place in the world from their experience of being in a different reality. It is all-absorbing to be here. The focus on simple living and intentional community is to help them consider, more fully, what it is that calls to them most deeply in their lives. It takes a lot of guts to do this, to try to identify, respond, and to be true to the truth of one’s life. Who will they become? What will become of them?
When we came to Córdoba to help establish the program as LMU faculty members, we knew that we, too, were seeking a time set apart from the rest of our lives. We had made a three-year commitment to be here with students, which meant we sold our two cars, rented our home, got rid of many of our possessions (storing the rest), as we moved to Argentina with two suitcases each—four kids, us, and our cat (who did not get two suitcases)—last summer. To what am I being drawn? Who am I becoming? How do I choose to live? These are questions that are not only meant for college students, but for all of us at different moments in our lives. Yet, the move we made, big and dramatic as it was, tends to be viewed more the hallmark of young adulthood than of middle age. “You are moving to Argentina with four kids for how long??” we would hear again and again. And we do sometimes ask ourselves, we’d have to confess, “What were we thinking?” in the midst of the bewilderment we often feel in light of all the changes we have faced in these short months here.
Nonetheless, as we see the changes in the students’ rhythm of living, listen to the Spanish that flows more easily from their lips, witness their enthusiasm at hearing about each others’ praxis days, see their simple pleasure in preparing meals together, talking about their lives and loves with each other—well, we feel the beauty of who they are emerging more and more. And we are deeply moved by them, and by the chance we have to be part of their lives during their time in the Casa program. In taking our own leap of faith, asking similar questions as our students–albeit in a different form and at a very different time in our lives–we are learning again with them what it means to inhabit our lives more fully, as part of a world that is overwhelming both in beauty and in suffering. Learning to belong to each other. There are always challenges in life no doubt, and life is not easy enough for too many people in this world. Yet still, this is joy.
Jennifer S. Abe, Co-Director, Casa de la Mateada