Lulù during an online workshop

Mexico: Among Lulù's books

A retired teacher, with her illness and difficulties. Yet during the pandemic she has continued her reading workshop for children online, which started a few years ago and has distant roots made up of encounters, like that with Fr. Giussani…
Davide Perillo

"Lulù, do you see? He too has been in prison. Shall we read it?". The book referred to was a biography of Van Thuan, the Vietnamese bishop persecuted by the regime. The aspiring reader, 8-year-old Camila, found it on her parents' nightstand. And since her teacher had spoken of the Cristeros, the Mexican martyrs persecuted for their faith, she made this very serious and simultaneously cheerful proposal, with the simplicity of a child who is discovering how, through books, you can enter a world made especially for you, which invites you to discover yourself and life, in order to grow.

After all, this is the heart of the taller de lectura, the "reading workshop" that Lourdes Pineda Mendez, known as Lulù – a 56-year-old retired teacher from Xochitepec, an hour from Mexico City – offers her children. Not only those within reach of the classroom, but also beyond; since the outbreak of the pandemic, the workshop has taken place via Zoom and the all boundaries have dissolved. The kids – most of them are elementary school age, but there is also a small group of pre-teens – meet online to read and recount stories, follow paths and meet people, to play and learn. A specific book always serves as the common thread.

The result is one of the liveliest realities among the testimonies recounted at the last Aral (the meeting of CL responsibles in Latin America). It is an excellent example of how one can face the lockdown without bailing, starting from what there is and not from what is missing. But when you listen to Lulù's story, you immediately understand that it is an attitude, a vision, that has not come about by chance: it has deep roots and a rich history behind it.

Let’s begin with the roots. Firstly, she breathed her mother’s faith, but without any particular accent: "I saw her go to church very often, as if it were a refuge. She was very religious. But it did not seem to me that she had strong reasons." When Lulù fell in love with an Adventist boy, her mother became concerned. "She would always ask me where I was going. It was as though I were her lost sheep." When he, who was studying in another city, told her that he would not be back for a planned vacation because "he was taking an Italian course and had met some very interesting people," her questions began to multiply.

Lulù met these people later at a dinner. "There was Amedeo Orlandini, who taught at the seminary, an Italian family, and a group of young people from Coatzacoalcos. They were all from CL. I had no idea about anything; I thought they were Adventists. But I felt at home, among friends." She felt so at home that when they asked her to help photocopy some flyers, because a certain Fr. Giussani was coming to town, she did so willingly. "I took them to him at the airport, late at night. And I saw this gentleman disembark who I did not even know was a priest." The next day she was having lunch with them. "Giussani was at another table. But before he left, he approached me, took me under his arm and said, 'You are the first young people of the movement in Mexico, remember this.' I was bewildered. Until a few moments before I had been asking myself: is this Giussani married? Does he have children?"

She then participated in the Holy Week gestures in which "I listened, and seemed as though they had known me forever. They said things I had never heard, but full of meaning." Her mother also participated in the Way of the Cross. "When the priest said that anyone who wanted could go to confession, she got down on her knees, moved: 'So they are Catholics!'".

Thus her life in the movement began. And it continues, even when her boyfriend decides to take another path, "I never wanted to leave those friends". She moved to Italy for six months ("to Reggio Emilia, in 1988"). She got married, had two daughters, and even faced crisis. But she was always accompanied by that "path that has educated me even in small things. The summer vacations, for example. I was always on the committee that organized the games. The wildest ideas would come up. I would say, 'No, this is impossible.' And Father Javier de Haro (who was our country’s responsible at that time) would regularly reply: ‘Confía, se puede hacer’, trust me, it can be done... The result was always greater than my ideas. Always. There I understood that the decisive point was not my skills, but my availability.”

The drawings of children who participate in the workshops

Availability. It is also a key word to describe the vocation of her work. "I have always wanted to teach children. As a child, I was shy, I did not talk much and I kept very much to myself. Once, one of the school teachers saw me crying: ‘What's wrong? Why are you crying?’ She took out a tissue, tore it and gave me half of it. That gesture marked me for life. I was struck by the gratuitousness. I was only eight years old, but I said to myself: when I grow up I want to be like her". And she is. She has spent a lifetime in the classroom. She declined a position as principal a couple of times, "because you are not with the kids anymore." It is also thanks to those faces, to her children, that she has gradually found the energy to face other challengesthe separation from her husband and illness, both hers and of her youngest daughter, Andrea.

"Six months before she got married, she was diagnosed with a serious, degenerative form of arthritis," she says about her daughter. "But she was educated in the movement and her way of facing this has always helped me a lot." Especially when, some time later, a period of acute fatigue led her to do some tests and she was diagnosed with an illness, in a severe form.

Thus, when the pandemic hit, Lulù found herself with a low income pension and an illness for which she receives no help from the State ("the paperwork for assistance here takes a long time"). She had to constantly ask friends, for treatment and much more. "It is not easy to learn to depend. But what helped me was my loyalty to a path that has been with me for thirty years". A path made up of gestures, such as the School of Community and charitable work, of people and moments of people. "I remember perfectly a dialogue with my daughter, one day when she almost could not move. She smiled at me: ‘Mom, blessed be this illness, because it makes us see that we belong to Christ and that we only need Him’."

Included among those people are her children, those of her reading workshop, also the unpredictable flourishing of an ancient path. "I have always loved books. At school, I was in charge of the library, and when the Ministry launched a program to promote reading in classrooms, seconding a teacher, I jumped in." Lulù's workshops were thus born. And they grew as they did, experimenting, expanding the field. In that one hour a week, her children not only read, but also meet writers, musicians and artists. "Always starting from the books we read together."

When retirement came, she decided to move forward with friends' children. "I would invite them before School of Community, and we would read." At first, it was all done gratuitously. It then also became a help to her: families agreed to contribute something, according to their means. And taking into account a growing need: as a second job, Lulù began to help out in her daughter and son-in-law's coffee shop, but it was hard.

The idea took such firm root that not even Covid stopped her, quite the opposite. "We began doing the workshops remotely, first with WhatsApp and then via Zoom." Twenty-nine elementary school children, plus another group of older kids, aged 11 to 14. "I was struck by how involved the families got, and by friends who helped with issues of technology. But I am most impressed by them, the kids, and by their faces when we see each other. You have to offer them something attractive, for them to become enthusiastic. Beauty and meaning.”

Thus, they meet to read, to pray ("I have always wanted to start class with a Hail Mary. Now I can: every morning, we pray to Our Lady and St. Joseph, since it is also his year.... It is wonderful to see the children praying"), and to play – a lot. They also organize activities and meetings that stem from books they read, for example the meeting with Veronica Cantero Burroni, the very young Argentine writer who, three years ago, enchanted people at the Rimini Meeting with her testimony of how "one can be happy" even while living one's adolescence in a wheelchair. "The meeting with her was something extraordinary. I had read her book, The Shadow Thief, but I would never have imagined the richness that would come out of the dialogue with the children." Both simple and unsettling questions, just like the children themselves: from "why did you put so many pineapples and mangoes in the story, do you like them?" to "where did you get your inspiration from?", and so on.

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But it is also nice to see what, through children, reaches the adults. In a video clip shown at Aral, families talked about the workshop from their point of view. And you could hear phrases such as "I am very impressed by the relationship that Lulù has built with the children", or "she does not know it, but she is also my teacher". This was said by a mother who used to read a few pages to her son in a hurry, just waiting for him to fall asleep, but who now says that she understands much better how important those minutes spent together are, how they can be "the opportunity for a different relationship".

Children also spoke in the video, with cheerful faces and open smiles. When asked what words best describe the workshop, their answers were very clear: "happiness", "companionship", "knowledge", "friendship", "magic"... But if you ask Lulù what she learns from the workshop, her first word is another: "It is a gift to be spend time with them. Without their gaze, I would not be able to be aware of all the graces that are given to me. What I ultimately desire is to learn this gaze. To be with them as they are. To become a child."