Encuentro. 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.
So it was on a recent day when we arrived at Nuestro Hogar III to meet with Adriana, one of the leaders of the community and a woman with whom our students are working closely in this praxis site (soon they will meet Ale, who will accompany them during their twice-weekly time here). We hoped to do a little work, to help prepare the center for the coming school year. But in truth we did not know precisely what we would be doing that day. First we had to find Adrianna.
She soon emerged from one of the rooms of the center, beaming, clearly happy to see us. For many in our group, including all of our students, this was our first time meeting her. Somehow it felt different than that. She greeted us like old friends. Yes, (of course!) we exchanged kisses with her. It took a while, for as she made her way around the circle, she paused occasionally to say something or ask a question of one of us. Or just to enjoy the moment. But the moment stretched on for a while.
We continued standing in the circle for some time as Adriana gave her attention to each person in turn, making sure she knew each one’s name (delighting at one point when she realized that there was an ‘Adrianna’ in our group!), what areas the students were focusing on in their studies, where each person was from. It took a while. There was also much laughter as we moved back and forth between Spanish and English (she does not speak much English, but made little attempts here and there, so clearly wanting to put at ease those of our students who are not yet confident in speaking Spanish–a gesture whose graciousness our students so appreciated).
And what about the work? How might we help? We wanted to know. Yes, there would be time for that, said Adriana. But maybe we should eat first. We all agreed. That would energize us for our afternoon’s work!
So we rearranged the tables and began preparing the sandwiches, fruit and drinks we had brought to share. Adriana agreed to join us. I imagined lunch might be relatively brief (after all there was a lot of work to do). But that is not what happened. Instead, we sat around that table, eating and talking and listening to Adriana share stories about her life in Nuestro Hogar III. How long we remained sitting around that table I cannot say for certain (more than two hours I think). But it definitely cut into our ‘work time.’ We simply did not want to cut short our time with Adriana (nor, apparently did she want to cut short her time with us). She had already expressed her deep interest and concern for each of us. Now, in response to questions from the students, she began bearing witness to her life in Nuestro Hogar III, and not only her life but the life of her community. A community of which, for all its struggles and difficulties, she is immensely proud. As we listened to her tell her stories, it was not difficult to see why.
You approach Nuestro Hogar III from the circunvalación, a large highway that skirts the city of Córdoba. Immediately, upon leaving the highway, you slow down to navigate the dirt roads filled with potholes, proceeding carefully and slowly past children playing, dogs circling. You pass low-slung cinderblock houses covered with corrugated metal roofs; an occasional small mercado. There are a few trees. And because of the recent rains, grass is sprouting up along the side of the road. But it is not a pretty place. At least that is not the first impression you have as you enter this community. You can feel how neglected it is, how much it exists on the margins of life in Córdoba–geographically, socially, politically, economically. But it is home to a vibrant community that has become important to us in the Casa program. Slowly, we have learned to see the beauty that exists here, in the people and in the place itself. This is, in no small part due to our having learned to see it through Adriana’s (and Ale’s) eyes. With her help we have begun to see that the beauty of the place exists not in spite of the very real poverty that marks the lives of so many who live here, but in the midst of it. And that there is immense dignity and power and beauty in the lives of those who call Nuestro Hogar III home.
How do we know this? Through the the simple power of an encuentro: Adriana opening herself to us so fully, not measuring the time or trouble, but allowing the time with us to be what it needed to be. We felt so welcome.
And we will do more work in the days, weeks and months to come.
Such work is not unimportant. But it is not the most important thing either. As we said our goodbyes to Adriana that day (more besos!), each of us was given something beautiful and important to ponder: the importance of presence. The gift of a simple encounter with another human being. The chance to open yourself to that person and to feel her opening herself to you. In such a moment, you may even begin to feel more deeply than you have before your own capacity for giving and receiving love.
Douglas E. Christie, Ph.D., Co-Director, Casa de la Mateada