header icons

Poco a Poco: A Catholic Worker Reflects on Life at Casa Juan Diego

by Angel Valdez

It is the season of giving and receiving. Some would say it’s the best time of the year. The days sandwiched between late November and Christmas are a special time hopefully spent with the ones we love. This is one of my favorite times of the year, and I think we can all agree that there is something magical that surrounds this time.

When I was a kid, my family would go to the Christmas Eve vigil Mass. I think there was a stretch of years when I couldn’t sit still because I was shaking with so much excitement. All I wanted was to fast-forward a few hours so I could experience what I had been looking forward to the entire year. As I’ve gotten older, I have grown to appreciate that Mass. While the kid in me still tingles with anticipation, I now have the maturity to sit in that excitement. One of my favorite things to do is to look around and see the little kids wiggling around in their seats, just longing for Mass to be over so they can go to bed and Santa can come.

I arrived at Casa Juan Diego on June 15th not really knowing what to expect. I graduated from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia about a month prior and was eager to start living a faith that does justice, just like my Jesuit education taught me. I think I exchanged about 10 total emails with Louise before and after committing to coming here, so I can honestly say I didn’t fully realize what I was getting myself into.

 Life is busy here. The days are very long yet the weeks fly by, which may be because I am currently the only Catholic Worker living in the men’s house (Casa Don Marcos) working with a team of immigrant men. There has been a big surge of immigrants, mostly from Venezuela, in search of a place to rediscover their identity and a source of community. The biggest transition, besides moving halfway across the country, was being thrust into a world that spoke an entirely new language, Spanish. To say I was overwhelmed would be an understatement. I’m not sure what I was expecting, as I only completed about three lessons on the language app Duolingo. In hindsight, now that I can communicate more effectively, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. My immense struggles with communication gave me a little perspective of what the people I’m living with experience when moving to a new country. My time here so far has been extremely transformational, reshaping my grasp of what the world is and tearing down my understanding of what giving and receiving actually is.

I think a lot of people have a very transactional view of the acts of giving and receiving. One person is the giver and the other is the receiver. Before spending time here, that’s exactly what I thought too, and from the outside, it may appear as if this is true. It surely looks as if Casa is a place of giving and our guests are the receivers. But I can assure you, the script is flipped. By coming here, I wanted the opportunity to give my time and effort to a demographic of people that are cast away from our society and are often an afterthought. I’ve come to learn that what happens at Casa Juan Diego is a mutual encounter of each other’s whole being.

by Angel Valdez

It is a privilege to encounter the journeys of immigrants. When these men, women, and children embark on a journey in hopes of a better life, they know it will be a long and extremely dangerous trek. Many come face to face with many life-threatening things, like the jungle in Panama or the Cartel. But when asked about their journey, the phrase poco a poco (little by little), is often used by the men I talk to. Their journeys were certainly long and strenuous, and at a glance would seem impossible. Yet against the evils prohibiting them, they approached it one step at a time.

Every night when things start to slow down and everyone gets ready for bed, most guys spend time on the phone with their wives and family members back home. It took me a while to notice, but this time really is a beautiful moment. You hear the echoes of babies babbling and kids talking to their fathers, often hundreds of miles away. It’s a reminder of the heart-wrenching reality of families being separated. And yet, this exact moment at the end of each day is a beautiful and perfectpresent that is hope for a better future.

 We are all on our individual journeys in some way, whether it be our relationship with God, our career, or just life in general. One of many gifts I have received is a new understanding of how to approach my individual journey. I have often been blinded by the thought of the future. I think we can all learn how to be better at taking things poco a poco. Our society in the United States is very much geared towards the future and what is coming next. My mind has always been in the future, failing to recognize the perfection and beauty of the present that is right in front of me.

 Matthew 25:31-46 is a bible verse that is in our minds often at Casa Juan Diego. Every day, it is Christ himself coming to us in the migrant, the single mother struggling to decide between baby formula or rent, the addict, or the unemployed father. Jesus, in his least recognizable form, right in front of us each and every day. I see God in every single person I encounter daily. What bigger gift is there than to encounter Christ right in front of me every single day? In reality, I am receiving way more than I could ever give. I am beginning to realize that heaven isn’t necessarily something we wait for, but a reality we should strive to continually engage with in every aspect of life.

So as we enter into the season of Advent, may we receive the gift of taking things poco a poco, striving to establish heaven on earth, just as He imagined. May we sit in the excitement that is this very moment, similar to a kid on Christmas Eve, because the good news of Jesus Christ is here.

This Christmas season, maybe if we slow down a little bit, take on the world poco a poco, and embrace the perfect present of the very moment that is right in front of us, we will see Him, in His least recognizable form.

I can also honestly say living here has been the highlight of my life thus far. It is truly a privilege to be able to walk with immigrant men, women, and children on their journeys to a better life. The world will certainly criticize you for spending time at the margins of society, with those that are an afterthought, but the opinions of those critics don’t matter at the end of the day. I can only pray that one day, they receive the gift that I am blessed enough to receive. I can assure you that if you live with a passion to see the gospel in every aspect of your life, by approaching every day poco a poco, you will see Him, and the little kid in you will be overwhelmed with excitement.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XLII, No. 4, October-December 2022.