Life and Work at the Casa de los Amigos in Mexico City

A year and a half ago, in the fall of 2006, the Casa de los Amigos in Mexico City celebrated its 50th anniversary as a Quaker presence in Mexico. Over the years the Casa has organized service and work projects in Mexico, assisted the United Nations in housing refugees from the wars in Central America, been the home of Mexico City Meeting, and offered accommodation to international travelers. The 50th anniversary celebration provided an opportunity to reflect on and refocus the role of the Casa as a center for peace and international understanding in Mexico. While no brief introduction to the Casa can really capture the personal experiences of staff, volunteers, and guests, I would like to share some experiences and reflections on Casa life and work.

My connection with the Casa de los Amigos began in 1995-96, when our son and his wife served as guesthouse managers. My wife, Mary, began volunteering about this time, and I have been able to join her since retiring six years ago. Our visits are usually for a period of three to four weeks. Our neighbors at home in South Dakota sometimes assume we are doing missionary work in Mexico, following the pattern of local churches, but I would describe our work as participating in the ministry of hospitality. On any given day the Casa is home to a diverse group of staff, volunteers, neighbors, and visitors from many different countries, languages, and backgrounds. Along with staff and other Friends, we try to make this home a place of friendliness, refreshment, and peace, where the Spirit becomes more real to all those who live there and to all who visit.

We welcome guests, listen to the joys and concerns of staff and guests, and try to treat everyone with respect regardless of religious beliefs or condition. Unprogrammed morning worship during the week and regular study of the Bible and Quaker faith and practice offer staff and guests opportunities for spiritual reflection. Saturday night dances, talent nights, and potluck suppers on Sunday provide informal times for sociability. Organizing guests to help with maintenance is another way we invite people into the life of the Casa. One elderly guest, who was helping me paint bookshelves in the library, confided that he liked to visit each winter because people here are caring and would help him should he have another heart attack while in Mexico—quite a testimony to the spirit of hospitality at the Casa.

Staff and friends of the Casa also organize conversations in English and Spanish during the week. These are opportunities for improving language skills and intercultural understanding. Recent topics have included globalization, the impact of Wal-Mart in Mexico, emigration, the rural economy, the changing Mexican family, gender roles, education, and many others. International guests and Mexicans with expertise in these topics often lead the conversations.

As a center for peace, the Casa provides resources for networking among groups doing peace and justice work in Mexico and Central America. This networking occurs both at seminars organized by the Casa and over informal conversations at breakfast and elsewhere among peace workers staying there. At breakfast one might meet a graduate student or Mennonite volunteer researching the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on Mexican corn farmers, a member of a Peace Brigades Team, a Mexican human rights activist, a volunteer at the local shelter for homeless street children, or a facilitator for the Alternatives to Violence Project in Mexico.

The working-class neighborhood around the Casa is an intercultural experience itself, filled with a diversity of life’s activities. There are many single-family homes and apartments; two bakeries; a modern health clinic; a nursery school; numerous small stores; rock ‘n’ roll dancing in the park; a refuge for street children; internet cafés; copy shops; ATM machines and banks; vegetable, fruit, and meat markets; a dozen or more small restaurants; beauty shops; etc. In addition, stalls line the sidewalks where one can get a shoe shine, or purchase fresh-squeezed juices, tacos, soup, sandwiches, clothes, CDs, watches, and most other things one might find at Wal-Mart.

Mary and I enjoy the personal interaction with the vendors on the street. People are generally friendly and patient as we try to communicate with our limited Spanish, and a few even greet us with the traditional kiss on the cheek. It is quite a different experience for us to live in a neighborhood where nearly all the necessities of life are available within a two-block walking distance of our home with no need for a car. As one Friend from Boston said, "I can just live so much more simply here in Mexico City." One hopes the local Wal-Mart won’t erode this vibrant neighborhood economy as it has in so many U.S. cities.

As another part of the 50th anniversary celebration, a group of us were privileged to spend two days visiting rural Mexico. Some members of our group had been AFSC volunteers in this area in the late 1950s. Walking through one village, we met an elderly Mexican woman who had been involved with these AFSC work projects, too, and we were welcomed into her home for tea and reminiscing. It was wonderful to realize these shared experiences were still vital some 50 years later.

For me, it was also an opportunity to observe firsthand some of the economic roots of poverty and emigration that we had discussed in programs at the Casa. In one of the villages, many families belong to a cooperative and are proud of the improvements to their community such as a piped water supply, a couple of blocks of paved streets, a primary school, and a health clinic. However, the director of the cooperative said that corn prices, which are normally a major source of income, have fallen significantly since the creation of NAFTA. In seeking alternative sources of income to sustain the village, the cooperative has constructed an adobe guesthouse, restaurant, and sweat lodge with the hope of attracting tourists. Thus, our stay in the village was not only an opportunity to learn more about rural Mexico but also to contribute to the local economy.

On a walk outside the village we met a shepherd wearing a marine uniform he had purchased in the U.S. He tends sheep in the summer but leaves his family behind to work in a restaurant in Washington, D.C., during the winter months. Later, riding on a public bus, I talked with several other Mexicans, all of whom had worked or had relatives working in the U.S. It is apparent that rural poverty and declining corn prices have pushed growing numbers of rural Mexicans to emigrate in search of work. While this work provides a source of income for families, one wonders how the absence of so many men and women from their families and villages will affect the traditionally strong family structure in Mexico. Perhaps this is one reason there are two shelters for abandoned street children near the Casa in Mexico City.

As we returned to Mexico City, I had a new appreciation for the community and life of the Casa de los Amigos. As Mexicans, international guests, volunteers, staff, peace workers, and visiting Friends return to the Casa periodically, many renew friendships and contacts made during earlier visits. Over time, these patterns of interchange have created a community of people around the world with links to the Casa. Parker Palmer, in his Pendle Hill Pamphlet A Place Called Community, wrote that when a group of people commit themselves to God, they will find they are drawn into community. While the Casa has sometimes struggled to find a shared vision for its work, it has always been a place where people doing God’s work meet and support each other. Whether this work is offering hospitality to the "strangers" who arrive at our door, supporting volunteer service work in the neighborhood or villages, encouraging an attitude of equality and understanding among cultures, or networking and supporting peace work, it has drawn its participants into a community that extends over five decades and continues to witness the presence of love in the world.

This witness of love has taken on new life this year with the appointment of Roberto García as executive director, and with the first birth of a baby at the Casa, Agnita, the daughter of the guesthouse manager and his partner. She joins Jeremy and Yesenia, grandson and daughter of two members of the cleaning staff, in filling the Casa with the sounds of new life. As Bridget Moix put it in her last letter as director of the Casa, "This is truly an unexpected gift of the Spirit to our community in the rebirthing process of the Casa. Having a few minutes to play with a small baby or cradle a new life in your arms inevitably brings a renewed sense of hope." We welcome Friends everywhere to come and experience this renewal of hope and community at La Casa de los Amigos in Mexico City.

Stephen Snyder

Stephen Snyder, a member of Menomonie (Wis.) Meeting, attends Sioux Falls (S.Dak.) Worship Group. Before retiring, he taught political science and directed international programs at University of Wisconsin-Stout. He and his wife, Mary, have been frequent visitors as well as Friends-in-residence at the Casa.