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Coming Back Around Rotary Exchange Student from Mexico revisits after 29 years

Photo by Esther Smith

The Diaz Family: Rafael, Ana, Ana, and Rodrigo.

The couple’s oldest son, Rafael, is in Toronto as

an exchange student.

By ESTHER SMITH

News staff writer

August 10, 2005

Even though she had only spent nine months in Hood River three decades ago, Ana Luisa Gonzales Diaz felt like she was coming home when she arrived last week from Mexico. She was returning for the first time since she lived here as a Rotary International Youth Exchange student in 1975-76.

Ana’s three host families — Ned and Margaret Marshall, Percy and Doris Jensen, and Dick and Phyllis Nafsinger — welcomed her and her family with a barbecue at the Nafsinger home.

“I can’t believe I’m here!” she said, after hugs were exchanged all around. Though all of the host couples had visited her in Mexico in the years since, this was her first return, and the first time any of the families had met her children.

Ana and her husband, Rafael, have three children: Rafael, 16, Rodrigo, 13, and Ana Luisa, 7. Not present was the younger Rafael who is already in Toronto, where he will spend his 11th grade year as an exchange student. Rodrigo will also be an exchange student this year, in Ireland. Like mother, like sons.

Ana was a 15-year-old who spoke no English when she arrived at the Marshall home in August 1975, but fortunately, Ned Marshall did speak some Spanish. By the time she went home the following May, she knew quite a bit. Percy Jensen was amused to hear Ana now apologizing for her “bad English.”

“When she stayed with us she almost forgot her Spanish — so now when she says her English is bad, it makes me laugh!” he said.

“When you go back to Mexico, you’re thinking in English,” Ana said. “And when I was with my friends, it was kind of hard at first.”

She stayed at the Marshalls’ for the first three months, the next three with the Jensens and her last three months were spent in the Nafsingers’ home. Each of the families had teenage children, so that made it easier for Ana to adjust to school. And — she had sisters! — something she didn’t have at home; only one brother.

Unfortunately, none of her American “siblings” were able to be here for her visit, due to work schedules or distance, but each one talked to her over the phone, and plans were made to try and connect with the ones who were in the area.

Other plans included a trip to Bonneville in hopes of seeing salmon, kiteboarding lessons for Rafael and Rodrigo, and lots of sightseeing. The Diaz’s 5-day stay gave time for Ana to spend a day with each of her American families. She was also scheduled to speak a few words at the Rotary meeting that week.

Knowing she would be speaking to the Rotarians, and worrying about her “bad English,” Ana had prepared a PowerPoint presentation for them, showing sights of her home town and other points of interest, including businesses the family owns, and describing her life since leaving Hood River. She gave a preview to her host families at the welcome home party.

“I almost going to cry,” she said, as her husband started the presentation on his laptop computer.

“When she was here, Rotary had about 60 members,” Doris Jensen said. “Now it’s 140 or so. That would be quite a feat, to get up in front of all those people.” As it turned out, time constraints prevented the viewing of her presentation at the Rotary meeting, and she ended up saying a few words to them after all.

“After my great experience in Hood River,” she wrote in her presentation, “I came back home and studied to be an architect. I married a wonderful man, Rafael Diaz, also an architect.”

One emotional event she described was the kidnapping and holding for ransom of her father, Hector, in 2001. She said that her “American dad,” Ned Marshall, gave her particular comfort and moral support, during that time.

“I just called her,” Ned said. “Just lots of phone calls.” The ransom was eventually paid, and her father was returned safely.

The Rotary International Youth Exchange program has its students stay in three different homes so that they can gain greater insight into the ways of the host country. Each home has a different dynamic — different siblings, different lifestyles.

“When she first came to our house, we were at a fair convention, and all the kids were sleeping on the floor,” said Percy Jensen. “We wondered what she thought about society here!”

What Ana remembers most about her time with the Jensens was snow.

“We took her up to the mountain to get a Christmas tree, and she had no interest in choosing a tree,” Percy said. “She just wanted to lay back in the snow.”

“I had never seen snow before!” Ana said. “In Mexico we didn’t go to cut trees. The Jensens also taught me to ski, and I’ll love them forever!”

Dick Nafsinger praised Ana for her well-behaved children, and Ana replied, “I learned it here.”

The Nafsingers and the Jensens didn’t host any more exchange students after Ana.

“We had the best one and we didn’t want to spoil it,” Doris Jensen said. Dick agreed, saying, “Phyllis and I never wanted another one for some reason; I guess because we figured we’d had a winner, and it doesn’t always work out that way. In our case Ana just came and fit right into the family.” Added Phyllis, “We really didn’t do anything special while she was here.”

As she enjoyed her very American dinner of grilled hamburgers, Ana remembered why she had gained 20 pounds during her stay.

“When she was here she was always going on a banana and milk diet!” Margaret laughed.

Ana wished she could spend more time in her beloved Hood River, just as she had wanted to stay longer in May of 1975.

“She wanted so badly to stay for the Fourth of July,” Doris said. Added Margaret, “She was having so much fun with the girls she didn’t want to leave at all!”

The bonds that were formed during her stay were for a lifetime, and the Marshalls, Jensens and Nafsingers will always be her family.

“It was really cute yesterday,” Ned said of his last outing with Ana and her family before they left for Mexico, “We went to the Discovery Center and there was discussion of admission price, and it being only for immediate family, and she said, ‘Es mi papa!’”

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