Return Journey


By Jennifer Abe

I 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!

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