A Seat at the Table
by Anne Bruno
Photographs by Andrew and Dorothy Bennett
“If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him … the people who give you their food give you their heart.” – Cesar Chavez
Shortly before 6 p.m., a parade of food and drink begins at the back door of one of a cluster of colorful houses at the end of an East Austin block. From the driveway of the yellow house (the house with the biggest kitchen), the procession moves swiftly from one side of the street to the other. Long plastic folding tables have been set up on the lawn of the bright aqua house, near picnic tables and chairs scattered under the shade of pecan trees. With relaxed efficiency, the kind born of practiced teamwork, staff and volunteers lay out rectangular metal platters next to napkins, utensils, paper plates, and a stack of red plastic cups. One last check is made to be sure everything is out of the kitchen and a special dessert, a chocolate sheet cake with “Happy Birthday Esther!” written in white icing, is added to the end of the table. The foil, its loose corners leaking aromas of garlic, cumin, turmeric, onion, and other enticing spices, comes off the platters to reveal food as varied and colorful as the houses themselves.
It’s the last Sunday of the month, and this is Convivio at Casa Marianella, an emergency homeless shelter that, since 1986, has served recently arrived immigrants and asylum-seekers from around the world. More than a meal of homestyle global dishes, Convivio is a celebration of community, culture, and shared hope for new beginnings. The monthly dinner gathering, which started about 10 years ago and also features live music and dancing, provides sustenance for both body and soul.
Jennifer Long, Casa Marianella’s executive director for the past 20 years, says that Convivio started in response to what might be called a happy logistical problem. Casa’s former residents loved coming back to visit what was essentially their first home in the U.S. “At dinner, we’d regularly see not just former residents, but former staff just former residents, but former staff and volunteers as well because everyone wanted to stay connected,” Long says. Staff positions at the nonprofit organization are based on stipends and typically last for one year, so the desire to remain in touch is as strong for the staff as it is the residents.
“Basically, we just reached capacity so we decided to do a monthly community gathering and spread the word,” she explains. “This way,” Long says, “Everyone knows where to find each other, at least once a month. All are welcome to join us, share a meal, make new friends, and experience what we do here.” Over the years, Convivio has grown as more people learn about the opportunity to be part of welcoming new arrivals to Austin who’ve made such an effort to be here.
Casa Marianella has aided people from over 40 countries in its 32-year history. Between a total of nine homes — four are exclusively for moms with children and one is just for two-parent families — the program typically houses about 100 people every night, helping to resettle more than 350 annually.
With the goal of encouraging self-sufficiency while building community, the volunteer-driven organization provides other services in addition to the essentials of shelter, food, and clothing. Skilled staff give legal counseling, operate an acupuncture clinic, and help residents locate affordable health care. Casa’s adult English as a Second Language classes, which are open to the public and taught by trained volunteers, can mean the difference between someone thriving and simply surviving. For people who have endured extreme and dangerous travels for months at a time, either alone or with children in tow, the ESL classes offer an important avenue for belonging.
Aster Kassaye, who started Aster’s Ethiopian Restaurant about six years after moving to Austin in 1985, knows firsthand the importance of finding and creating community in a new place. Her husband’s work with Motorola brought the couple to Austin, and Kassaye brought with them her love of cooking and a strong desire to share the traditions surrounding Ethiopian culture — chief among them the conviction that food is not meant to be eaten alone. At the time of their arrival, the city was nowhere near the multinational food destination it is today, and Kassaye says the number of Ethiopians living in Austin was small. “Maybe around 130 people,” she estimates. “And, of course, everybody knew everybody! That’s how we are; you know your neighbors, the people around you. You take care of one another. And food is a very important part of that, every single day.”
Kassaye first learned about Casa Marianella via a phone call asking if she might be able meet with a refugee from Ethiopia who had recently moved to Austin. She went to pick the man up where he was living, at Casa Marianella; that was over 30 years ago, and Kassaye has been involved ever since. She serves on the organization’s board and her restaurant donates the Ethiopian food at each Convivio.
“In Ethiopia, regardless of how much or little you have,” Kassaye says, “the sharing of food is a big part of the culture. Eating together is important. For example, we eat from one big platter. It’s relaxed. We eat with our hands and use the injera [a round, spongy flatbread made from a high-protein grain called teff] to scoop up bites of the food on the platter. And when you are far away from home, trying to adjust to a new culture,” she adds, “you really miss your food. So, being able to have the food you know is a big deal.”
Kassaye’s sentiment is echoed often at Convivio. Kidame from Eritrea, who’s been in Austin for seven months, and Musa from Sudan, who’s been here nine months, describe a feeling of comfort that comes from eating with injera and enjoying the traditional wott (stew dishes) as well as the beloved flavors of Berbere sauce. “It’s very nice. It makes you feel good inside to have it,” Kidame says. “And I like to see everyone here. The people are so interesting to talk to, and we are making our way here.”
Pedro from Mexico has been a regular at Casa Marianella’s English classes for several years. He is a former resident who bikes to Convivio each month. “I love all the food they make from Mexico, where I come from, and everything else they bring. I love learning from everyone, all the time.” A guitar player with música en su alma, Pedro says being able to attend Convivio means a lot to him. “I like all kinds of music, and all kinds of people. At Convivio, everyone I meet is very friendly, I don’t care where they come from, it’s all okay with me. I’ve met many wonderful people here.”
Today, most of Casa’s residents are coming directly from months or years in government detention centers and often find out about the organization through word of mouth. In the past, the majority came from Central American countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, as well as from Mexico. In recent years, the organization has seen more migrants from Cuba and African countries like Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Eritrea, most fleeing economic peril, ethnic violence, and political persecution.
Regardless of their native tongues or the places and struggles that Casa Marianella’s residents left behind, the universal language of food abides. Breaking bread at Convivio’s shared table provides a straight route to the heart of community.
Please visit casamarianella.org to find out more.