Thirty years later, former exchange student makes return to Lebanon

It’s been a while since Juan Carlos Urrutia has seen Nancy Pinzino, but she still dotes on him like he’s the teenager who came to live with her 30 years ago.

“I don’t want to embarrass him but he’s a wonderful, wonderful young man,” Pinzino said. “He was wonderful at 19 and he’s wonderful at 50.”

Urrutia still calls her ‘Mom,’ just as he did when Pinzino and her husband Victor hosted him as part of a student exchange program.

“It was my best year that I experienced,” Urrutia said of the 1986-87 school year. “(I left) back in Honduras, my parents, my brothers, my sisters, everything. I became what I am right now.”

He returned to Lebanon for a visit in January, a trip that coincided with his 50th birthday.

“It’s so amazing,” Pinzino said. “I just can’t get over it because he was 18 and turned 19 when he was here. Then he contacted me and said that he was going to be able to come here and visit and it’s just such a blessing.”

Urrutia also was able to bring his daughters, Sofia, 14, and Lucia, 10.

“Actually, the first option for the trip, I was going to make it alone,” he said. “My brother and my sister gave me the ticket as a birthday present to come. Then I did arrangements to bring the girls. That’s the big issue behind all of this. It was a 50th birthday celebration.”

“And he wanted the girls to meet me, my granddaughters,” Pinzino added.

Pinzino has a framed photo of Urrutia displayed in her home and stacks of photos from the first time he visited Lebanon.

“I was so thankful I found all of them,” Pinzino said of the photos. “There’s a bazillion pictures.”

She and Urrutia shared some laughs as they looked through them, with Pinzino commenting every couple of prints: “That’s cute. That’s cute too!”

“When he was here we did things like we took him to Disneyland and to meet some of my family out (in Southern California) and what not.”

Pinzino picked out a photo of them with a snowman they’d built during Urrutia’s first visit 30 years ago.

“Our country is a tropical country,” Urrutia said of Honduras.

“We don’t have snow. We don’t have that type of weather. I brought the girls to meet their grandmother and to see the snow. For us, Latin people, since we don’t have snow, it’s a big deal for us. It was a big issue for me, turning 50 and bringing the girls to experience where I lived 30 years ago.”

He took Sofia and Lucia to Mary’s Peak, with a purpose: to build a snowman. They found a photo of one to model their creation after, which they named Federico.

They also squeezed in a visit to the Oregon Coast Aquarium, with Urrutia’s former schoolmate Rebecca Grizzle, then Becky Carter. They went to the Oregon Zoo and then to a Katy Perry concert in Portland.

“Sofia is a teenager and she loves Katy Perry,” Urrutia said.

“The time has gone so fast,” Pinzino said.

“I have been in the States in many different places, I was telling Mom,” Urrutia said, referring to Pinzino. “Atlanta. Houston. Las Vegas. Nashville. But the best place I have known in the United States is here.

Urrutia said his time in Lebanon marked his life.

“I left home,” he said. “Living in Lebanon with them was a big deal for me and changed my life. I still have the same manners, like being neat.”

“Can I tell stories?” Pinzino asked, continuing: “When he came here, and he was 18, he was telling me that they had maids and yada yada. And I said ‘Oh, you do, huh? Not at this house, young man.’

“Just teasing him. What’s amazing, he was so darn neat it was unbelievable. He is the same way now.”

He said he lives on his own after a divorce about 10 years ago.

“I do all my own stuff, I cook, I clean, I do everything. I’m a handyman, I iron my own clothes, I cook,” Urrutia said. “Sometimes I cook the Christmas dinner.”

During his visit, Urrutia tried to give something back to Lebanon’s current high school students. He spent a day sitting in on some of Kim Fandino’s Spanish classes.

He showed them videos with history and information about Honduras and the students asked questions in Spanish – at times helping each to complete the question.

Urrutia has an MBA in business administration and used to teach marketing classes at university.

Pinzino still has the folder with Urrutia’s exchange student information from 30 years ago.

His elder daughter Sofia is thinking about participating too.

“In fact, we were teasing. I said, ‘Maybe in a couple of years, you could come,’” Pinzino said.