In the outskirts of Chilecito, in the town-neighbourhood of San Miguel with 1,100 inhabitants, everybody knows “Reina” (Queen) because she is like a mother to the community. She knows and takes care of everyone, and like an ant’s work she gets everything she sets her mind to. Since she has memory, she has always been doing this and will keep on doing it; with over 70 years old she is like a train engine at the service of others. She knows everyone and to everyone she asks for help, thanks to that and with a lot of effort, she managed to make a reality the Dining Room, the cemetery, the Chapel of San Miguel, the Library and so many other things.
What we found surprising was that we went to the Dining Room expecting to find “Reina” and in her place we found 3 men cooking and serving food. With a pretty fluent Spanish, 18 years old Lorenz, explained to us what they were doing, while Bergde invited us to eat some delicious spaghetti with tomato sauce and the irish Sean Paul tried to understand what the kids were saying, they asked him for salt and he would continue to give them more spaghetti thinking that was what they were asking while facing their astonished faces. Sometimes, the kids forget he doesn’t understand Spanish, even if he tries and have fun trying to solve any conflict with a smile.
The Dining Room was municipal but wasn’t working efficiently, until in 2006 Reina took charge of it and decided to include it as part of an Exchange Project with foreign volunteers, generally young Germans who want to participate in a volunteering experience for 3 months up to one year. For different reasons, each one of them decide to come to share their time in La Rioja, Argentina; far away from the comfort of their homes in order to grow as a person, meet a different reality and try to improve it as best as they can. They organize the meals themselves, cook, obtain donations and play with the kids after each meal. The kids themselves do the dishes, ask them showing the clean dish “Is this fine?” while practising their “Please” and “Thank you”. It is funny to watch them playing at cards with 5 year old little girls who act as “Miss Teacher” with these grown up foreign students.
“Reina” is active all day, if she is not at the Dining Room, she might be baking some cakes for a birthday or preparing some “empanadas” for the foreigners (we included); but always with a smile and with her trust placed in the Divine Providence. The donations always appear, the people are very generous and are used to have a foreigner asking for donations for the Dining Room. They are in charge of picking them up and taking them to the Dining Room, 3 kms away by bicycle or walking. On a Saturday we went along with them to share their routine of going to the Food Market and ask food donations for the Dining Room. Everybody cooperates with the little they have, and this is how we left the market with our hands full of beets, potatoes, carrots, onions, lettuce, chard, a box full of squash and an egg carton! Being so curious about the Dining Room, it was left pending to meet some very humble workers who grow their own vegetables, so they could see where their donations go and generate consciousness of the importance of their work.
In San Miguel everything is linked and very close by. At the beginning, the religious activities of the town took place in a donated chapel that has been part of a big old family house until it turned to be very small and started to be used as a library, where today the kids get help with their homework and eat a snack. In the property across the street the Chapel of San Miguel was built with materials and workforce donated by the neighbours. Today, 20 years later, it is being re-painted with the help of donated paint and workforce. Always with lot of effort, there is Mass celebrated every Sunday and the altar is decorated with Madonna lilies and callas from “Reina”’s garden. The chapel is surrounded by olives, and the project is to have more of them to become self supporting. The vegetable garden taken care by the kids from the Dining Room is situated there too.
“Reina” is not called Reina, but her real name is María Epifanía because she was born on January 6th, but everyone knows her by “Reina”; there must be a good reason for it. Not precisely because she wears a crown or has a royal bearing, but because she is the queen of humbleness and disinterested service to others. She really does it for Love, dedicates her life to others. Her nickname comes from her father, being the first girl after two boys and believing her to be the last, he called her Reina; curiously 5 more children came after her. She tells us about her family with 8 siblings and the great faith of her mother, how she was a catechist at the age of 15 and wanted to be a missionary when turned 18 years old; but being the eldest daughter her father didn’t support her decision so she turned out to be a teacher in rural areas with lot of needs that helped her see more clearly her mission in life. In her house they didn’t want her far away, suffering with little water or food; so her family managed to keep her close in San Miguel and this is where she took action and helped her community. She doesn’t have any kids, but has 15 nephews and nieces all very close to her; for the last 2 years she travels every month with a niece to Buenos Aires for medical appointments with an outstanding generosity; raised another nephew during 4 years at her own home and was present at the birth of another one; always ready and available when her brothers needed her to help with sickness and hospitalizations of their kids. She is firm like a rock.
After many conversations among mate, empanadas and chicken, and sharing stories, we could unveil her secret: she is very pious, she is extremely closet o God and that makes everything easier. She says it herself: “I don’t know how I did it, there is like an extraordinary force that drives me….is Jesus…” It is exactly like this, the day we met her, for example, she has woken up at 5am, went to Chilecito for the Adoration of the Eucharist, stayed for Mass and came back to the Dining Room at 2pm; we kept her for an hour and sent her for a nap and have lunch when we realized she didn’t eat anything. Later we continued to talk, she showed us around the town in which there is not much poverty like you can usually see in the outskirts of Chilecito, she managed that everyone has sewer and the desire to have a nice and dignified house. While walking around the town, she visited a man to pay in advance for his works at the chapel and then returned home to cook a dessert for a celiac kid birthday. On Saturday she cooked some incredible empanadas for all the foreigners and us, on Sunday she went to Mass twice because she is Minister of the Eucharist and dedicated her afternoon to visit and bring the Holy Communion to the sick people who cannot leave their houses.
She enjoys this, she is happy, and you can see it. She couldn’t not do what she is doing. She is mediator in the families and for the town, mother in her soul and an eternal teacher, a real working ant who helps others without any rest. And luckily she has her personality, fights against injustice and for the truth no matter what it may cost.
To make this possible, her “only” pillar is God. Simple, right?