My year in Uruguay has been many things. I have had some truly amazing experiences. However, it has not always been, in the words of everyone’s favorite leprechaun, Lucky from the Lucky Charms cereal commercials, “heart, stars, horseshoes, clovers and blue moons. There have been times I have felt very lonely and times when I asked myself what I am doing so far from home. Sometimes feelings of homesickness hit hard and I wanted to curl up in bed and eat peanut butter right out of the jar with a spoon. During these moments, I think about Juan Garcia. Juan was a foreign exchange student from Medellin, Colombia that I met during my senior year of high school. Juan played on the soccer team and lived with the family of one of my best friends, so we got to know each other pretty well. The first time I met Juan, we were sitting on the hill next to the soccer field waiting for practice to start. I said something to him and he just smiled. I will never know if he even understood what I had said but his smile expressed more than words could. His grin told you that even though I may not understand, I am still happy to be here. Throughout my senior year, whether it be at soccer practice, homecoming, or making movies for broadcasting class, I saw a lot of that smile. Smiling in the face of confusion, like Juan, has been something I have found myself doing a lot of in the past this year. Leaving home, family, friends and the United States for Uruguay has been scary but thinking of Juan always gave me a little boost of confidence. If Juan could do it, I could do it.
There have been other times this year that have been hard but have nothing to do with my craving for a Dr. Pepper. Trying to process everything I experience here in Montevideo can be frustrating. My life here in Uruguay is full of so many relationships, many of which with the kids and teenagers at La Obra. Getting to know them has been one of the most rewarding things about this year. However, sometimes learning about their lives can leave me speechless. Barrio Borro is an urban neighborhood in which violence, drugs, broken families, prostitution, exclusion, lack of opportunities and services are realities. I want to be clear that this is NOT the only face of Barrio Borro. I see its other face in each and every single one of the teenagers and kids at La Obra every day. At the same time, I cannot deny that the challenges the youth of Barrio Borro face, leaves me with a lot of different feelings. Feelings of anger towards inequalities, sadness in seeing the lack of opportunity, guilt about how my own privileges and especially confusion as to how God could permit such things. These are times when I also think about Juan.
In June of 2008, Juan Garcia walked across the stage with me and the rest of the graduating class of Platteville High School. Following graduation, Juan returned to his hometown of Medellin, Colombia. We stayed in touch, mostly through Facebook, wishing each other feliz cumpleaños, things like that. Once in awhile I would hear about how he was doing through his former host family. Then one day in the summer of 2010, Juan’s host family received a phone call from Colombia informing them that Juan had been shot and killed in a street robbery in Medellin.
I have often thought about what it would be like if Juan were still alive. What it would be like to be able to talk to him in his own language or even visit him in Colombia. It is sad to think that those things can never happen. It is sadder still that things like Juan’s death are not that unusual. I wrote a blog post earlier this year about a light in the darkness in which I talked about me struggling with my own perception of faith in a world like the one in which we live. Trying to make sense of or find reason in a death like Juan’s is something I do not know if I can do.
However, at the same time I have come to see how much my relationship with Juan, has had a strong influence on my own life. Choosing to study abroad in college, learning a new language, taking the YAGM plunge are all things that I do not think I would have found the courage to do had I never met Juan. Now that my YAGM year is nearing its end I am faced with the reality of saying “goodbye” to people that have been so important to me for the past three hundred and two days. It saddens me to think of saying goodbye, which is something at which I have never been very good. However, more importantly I realize that more than anything I need to celebrate being so blessed to have shared so much with so many during my time in Uruguay and recognize the effect they have had and will continue to have on my life. Finding a way to close my YAGM year has been confusing but if Juan taught me anything it is that even if you are confused, you can always smile.