I watched Caroline pass the maté gourd back to Cristina. It was filled to the brim with a mix of chopped up green leaves and twigs. I was grateful that Cristina was sharing her maté, but more so grateful that she had let Caroline and me spend these past three hours sitting at her kitchen table while her eight children were still moving about their four-room house in Villa La Lonja.
There was silence between us three and Cristina’s mother, who sat next to Cristina across from Caroline and me. We all stared at different items, I at the maté gourd, Caroline at the sunlight pouring through the open door, Cristina at the sugar container on the table, and Cristina’s mother at the TV to her right. Nobody was really thinking about anything. Then again, we weren’t doing anything too, so it was all fitting. I considered some questions to keep conversations rolling.
“It must make it easier to live here when all your neighbors are family” I asked (in Spanish of course). “I bet that helps keep you surrounded by good people and keeps you away from the bad”. Cristina’s mother gave me a thoughtful look for a second. I hadn’t put much thought to this question, just threw it out to see what would come. The answer was what truly gave it life.
“Yes”, she replied, “it is certainly easier to trust my family. But this is not the point. I do not wish to distance myself from the bad people in this barrio. I do give my family love, but the ones who need it more are the bad people. It is my job here to share love and show love to all those I know. If someone is bad, it is likely that they lack a necessary amount of love that each human needs and deserves. This is what makes it easy for me to live in this barrio”.
I had no idea how to respond to this, not just because my Spanish is fairly weak, but because the words were so perfectly woven together I didn’t want to damage them by changing anything. And so we sat, in silence again, and I simply watched Cristina add some sugar to the maté, pour in the water and hand me the gourd.
“Again”, I suddenly heard Martin’s voice (in English) pierce through my thoughts and bring me back to my body, “the question is, where have you found God in your Praxis site? And if you don’t believe in God, just write a moment that comes to mind that’s beyond words for you. Please, just a short paragraph”. I realized I got lost in the memory while staring out the towering window straight ahead of me in the classroom. I always have trouble keeping my mind from wandering, but having our seminar at 9:30am each Friday just got my mind ever more disorganized.
This memory was too perfect not to write down, so I put my pen to work and dropped my half sheet of paper in the box Martin had placed in the center of the circle we made with the desks. I sat back down, and there was that familiar silence again. Everyone was staring at some item. Several were staring at the box slowly collecting piles of folded papers. I was staring out the window again. Sarah was staring at the whiteboard. Martin was staring at the two pens in his hands as he rolled one over the other in an endless circle. Mary was staring at the stickers scattered across her water bottle.
We soon read a short paper individually, then opened a discussion about it. The topic was how visitors of our background often come to encounter the poor, only to find that it is the poor who help show us the gateway to find enlightenment, to encounter God. How we as middle class citizens live in a world that makes us believe we are at its center, when in fact it is the poor who live closest to the center of everything in life. We talked about the question of if it’s necessary to suffer to encounter love, the stages of emotions we run through when engaging with the poor of Pain to Fear to Anger to Love. And then, Cindy Spoke a Thought.
“This paper is funny to me because it talks about this situation from a visitor’s view, but to me I’m not a visitor. When I go to Escuela Sabin, I see the life these kids live and feel at home. When I am in Nuestro Hogar III, I see myself as coming home. That childhood memory I have of my life from El Salvador feels alive again. And yet, they all talk to me like a foreigner, a visitor. And for me, it’s learning to balance this weird pull of feeling like a returner yet being labeled a foreigner”.
The conversation had been running, everyone would feed off each other. Up until this point. Then we got right back to silence. When she was done talking, Cindy stared back at the box in the middle of our circle. Sam was staring at her water bottle on her desk. Damian was staring at the ground by his feet. Carson was staring at the AC unit on the upper part of the wall to my left.
I did something different in this silence. I don’t know why, but I looked at each person in this Circle of Casa students. I looked at Caroline, Courtney, Mattie, Madelyn, Amia and every single person in the circle. And for a moment, among all this silence, there came a moment of clarity, a moment where I could feel how shared our souls were in this room. I don’t know why, but I had to smile as I finished looking at the circle and joined Cindy in gazing at the Box in the Middle.
Hours later I found myself walking back with about half the other students to our house. I was carrying some Clavos de Olor, which Martin recommended I leave for Belén to use for the next time she’d cook us dinner. I figured I would ask Abbey where to leave them so Belén would know she could use them.
When I walked into the house, I looked to the white L-shaped couch on my left and saw Michelle and Abbey sitting together, chatting. They seemed in mid-conversation, so I settled some things down hoping I could squeeze my question in later without interrupting their flow. Ten minutes pass by and I decide I need to prompt my way in. I walk over and stand by the fireplace, facing Abbey ever so slightly to her left.
“Hey Abbey, I have a question” I hear myself squeak quietly.
“One second Jared” she replies gently. She continues her conversation with Michelle, which I appreciate. Abbey has always carried such intentionality in talking to people, and has always given me her full attention. I was grateful she treated Michelle the same.
I stood silently and glanced to the mantle on my right, which held a row of eight photos. These photos showed different groups of people, some had seven, others had ten. Some were sitting, some standing. All were smiling, and all were members of the past Cohorts of the program Casa de la Mateada. Abbey’s voice faded to a blur as I thought about these people. Some I recognized, like Matt and Anton, MC and Caitlin, Bridgett and Julia and Pinky, Jake and Michelle and Abbey. Others I had never met before. And yet, I shared this same connection to all of their photos in that moment. I wondered who lived where in the house before me. I wondered who had been to Villa La Lonja before, or La Luciernaga. I wondered who wrote “Suerte” in the notebook I stole to use for classes. I wondered what it would be like to talk to them, to share this experience that’s beyond words with someone who had been through this experience that’s beyond words. But most of all, I wondered who would live here after me. I wondered who would look at the photo that would contain me with 11 other students and curiously think of who I was and what I did.
Abbey then turned towards me. “Yes Jared” she said expectantly with a kind smile.
“I have these cloves I bought in Mercado Norte and Martin suggested I leave them for Belén to use. Do you know where I should leave them?” I asked, returning my gaze to her.
“Put them in the spice cupboard, Belén will know she can use them.”
“Ok. Where is the spice cupboard?”
“You’re going to have to open each one and find for yourself.” Abbey said, adding a wink to let me know she was being funny, but also actually asking me to look for it myself. I couldn’t help but Return a Smile and turn my way to the kitchen.
And as I was walking, I heard something extraordinary happen. I heard the silence between Michelle and Abbey. I heard their shared moment, without even looking. And as I crossed the door frame into the kitchen, I thought of a line from one of my favorite songs (Fickle Cycle by Animal Collective):
“This place, I know. Good silence means we’re home”. And that is what I want to thank Casa de la Mateada for. I want to thank the program for giving me this good silence. I want to thank it for giving me this home.
The funniest part; this is just another day in Córdoba.
Jared is a junior Marketing major at LMU and is originally from Palo Alto, California. He is a member of cohort 9 in the Spring of 2018.