A Hippie, A Host Mom and the Making of an International Family

One day in 1972 my parents brought home a big brother for my sister, brother and me (aged 10, 8 and 6 at the time). Heitor was an exchange student from Brazil, and we thought he was cool  because he had long hair and was in high school! That day was the first of many times my parents invited the world into our home.

Heitor when he arrived at our home

To be honest, I don’t recall much of Heitor’s time with our family that year. My six-year-old self was more concerned with avoiding becoming my sister’s live doll and wondering who would be visiting Mr. Roger’s neighborhood that afternoon. Lucky for my siblings and me, my parents had the same open, welcoming spirit as Mr. Rogers. 

Mom and Dad have always been civic-minded. Dad is a lifelong Rotarian and both were active in their local Chamber of Commerce. Mom has the enviable gift of hospitality. She makes everyone feel welcome in her home. So, despite being parents of young children, hosting a teenager from another country was an idea to which they quickly warmed. Mom, at home with us kids all day, was used to the house being filled with noise and dirt and minor excitement. I’m not sure, though, that she had any clue what a teenage boy would bring into our lives!

Mom felt a bit out of her depth parenting a high school boy, but, really, she could handle anything, so, why not? Heitor came to stay with us half way through his exchange year (Rotary typically had their students stay with two different host families). He made friends easily and, like many exchange students – or any teenager, for that matter – wasn’t terribly keen that Mom always expected him to tell her what he was up to. This was a common theme throughout my parents’ hosting experiences. Apparently, American parents are a bit more “helicopter-y” than parents from other countries. Heitor was a pretty easy-going guy, and never gave my parents much trouble. But there was this one time…

Heitor had plans to stay overnight with friends. When he didn’t return home as expected, Mom began to worry. She called the friend’s house and was told he hadn’t spent the night there but had, instead, spent the night at another person’s house – a friend who just happened to be a girl! Ooh. Mom wasn’t happy.

Actually, Mom was boiling mad. I’ve tried, and failed, to recall an instance when my mom lost her temper. So this story she told was a bit of a surprise! When Heitor finally walked in the front door, my 5’2”, unflappable mom was right there, waiting for him. He quickly took refuge behind a recliner in the front room as she gave him a piece of her mind! Heitor was smart enough to stand there, contrite and silent. I don’t think he kept anything from my parents after that! I can just imagine what was going through my mom’s mind – she was, after all, responsible for this boy she hardly knew! What if something had happened to him? Being a host mom puts you in the unique position of being entrusted with the care of another mother’s child. That’s some serious responsibility!

Heitor’s sense of adventure and fun wasn’t squashed by that incident. According to him, during one of the trips Rotary offered to exchange students, he got in trouble with the chaperone.  He and a few other boys returned late to their rooms after occupying themselves into the wee hours of the morning by “chasing girls”! My sister recalls Heitor “baja-ing” down our quiet country road on the riding lawn mower! Dad took Heitor to Deer Camp that winter. My father made sure any kids who visited Camp learned how to handle a gun safely and how to shoot it properly. Heitor got his lesson as well, of course. Unfortunately, the recoil caught him in the head and he still has the scar to remember it by. [Most exchange programs allow handling of firearms with certain restrictions.] Heitor never shied away from a good time or an opportunity to experience something new – really good qualities in an exchange student! 

Heitor, my brother and me on the day he returned to Brazil

His shenanigans notwithstanding, Heitor’s stay was clearly a success. My parents went on to host several more long term high school students as well as some short term young professionals. Heitor calls us an extension of his biological family. He recently told me, “Not even in my faraway thoughts I would dare to imagine that almost half a century later I would feel to be so close to this family, even living thousands of miles away.”

It’s especially fun for me to hear the stories about that girl-crazy, long-haired Brazilian “hippie” (my mom’s words), since my memories revolve more around encounters with Heitor as an adult. He’s my big brother; the one who introduced our family to the richness of international exchange. When my parents and Heitor reminisce like this, it adds depth to our international family’s story for me.

I’ve not yet visited Heitor in Brazil, but my parents have been there twice. Heitor tells me that the Brazilian culture is the result of a complex mix of people: Portuguese colonizers, indigenous peoples, Africans who were brought as part of the slave trade, and millions of immigrants from Europe and Asia. He says, “As a result, we are a very informal people; quite communicative and friendly.” My mom tells me that the people were very welcoming and kind, no matter that there was a language barrier. My parents were grateful that Heitor and his wife, Vera, as well as their families, were wonderful ambassadors of their country.

Mom, Heitor and his mom in Barbacena during one of my parents’ visits

Mom’s memories include a visit to a very large market in Belo Horizonte. Vera didn’t let go of Mom’s hand the entire time and all of them were careful to remove any fancy jewelry prior to visiting the market. Like any big city, I suppose, the chance of being robbed exists, especially for tourists. Mom’s memories focused on family. She loved meeting her Brazilian grandchildren as well as Heitor and Vera’s parents and siblings. It’s really thanks to my mom, and her dedication to maintaining family connections, that Heitor is in our lives at all. She worked hard at staying in touch with him after he returned to Brazil and he eventually responded more consistently (I think, thanks to Vera). Kudos to the women in our family!! 

Dad is an avid fisherman, so for him, a highlight of their travels to Brazil was a fishing trip with Heitor and his brother-in-law. They flew to a fishing camp in the Pantanal region on the Paraguay River. This UNESCO World Heritage site and national park extends beyond Brazil into Paraguay and Bolivia. The fish they caught there is a relative of the piranha but with human-like teeth versus the razor sharp teeth of its cousin. Until they open their mouths it’s a bit hard to tell them apart!  The Pacu is vegetarian, however, and seed pods are used for bait. Dad remembers the manager of the fishing camp “calling the alligators”. Like pets, they would come to her to be fed every day!  I’m not sure I would like to be anywhere near hungry alligators…

Heitor and Vera live in Barbacena, population 120,000, in the state of Minas Gerais. It is in the foothills of the Serra da Mantiqueira, 100 miles south of the state capital, Belo Horizonte. Since the city is at 4,200 ft, temperatures are quite mild year around. Heitor tells me it is a quiet and calm place. The highlights of Barbacena, he says, are the beautiful mountains surrounding the city and the natural vegetation. It makes for lovely sightseeing. If you seek more excitement, you could try Belo Horizonte, São Paulo, the vibrant financial center of Brazil, or Juiz de Fora, a city with beautiful architecture, and abundant shopping and dining options, located just 50 miles from Barbacena. Ouro Preto, a colonial town known for its baroque architecture and beautiful churches, is 80 miles north. The famous city of Rio de Janeiro is a bit further afield, but accessible as well. I was surprised to discover that Brazil is just slightly smaller than the United States; 8.5 million sq km vs 9.8 million sq km – lots of ground to cover! I look forward to visiting one day!

The view from Heitor and Vera’s apartment in Barbacena

My parents agree that anyone considering hosting an exchange student should absolutely do it! They both say they’ve received far more than they’ve given and the long-lasting, deep connections are the unexpected bonus. Heitor made sure to mention that becoming a member of our family not only gave him a second set of parents and three new siblings, but also “three lovely and open-hearted exchange sisters, and their families”. You see, our international family has enjoyed several “family reunions” through the years so that all of our exchange students were able to get acquainted. Heitor says this was unexpected, and “an additional gain due to being an exchange student.” 

Dad, Vera, Mom and Heitor during one of our international family reunions in Florida February 2016

As for me, I feel blessed and so proud to have Heitor as a big brother. I’m grateful that he was the first, but not the last, new sibling that my parents brought home to us.

Venturing

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. – Mark Twain

Do you agree with Mr. Twain? Why or why not? I so look forward to this; the beginning of a conversation with you. I’ll start by sharing why I believe travel and cultural exchange can open our hearts to the humanity in every corner of the world.

Growing up in small town Michigan, USA between the late ‘60’s and early 80’s didn’t offer much in the way of diversity. World travel wasn’t an option for our family at that time either. Instead, my parents invited the world into our home via my father’s involvement with the Rotary Club. Rotary has an international exchange program for high school students as well as business people. My childhood home played host to many young people from all over the world as a result. Beginning when I was about 5 years old and continuing, on and off, until after my sister, brother and I had grown and left home, my parents welcomed a diverse group of people into their home. We were introduced to India, Belgium, Brazil, Sweden, Japan, Zimbabwe and other countries and cultures along the way. 

As a result of my parents’ openness and hospitality, our family grew. Many of our international visitors wriggled their way into our hearts and have become integral members of our family. 50 years on, and these people are as much my true siblings as my natural brother and sister. Our family continues to grow as each of us marries and has children. And so, my parents’ willingness to open our home so many years ago has continued to have a ripple effect around the world and through generations. I promise to share more about my international family in the coming months.

The world is so much smaller these days, with technology and the ease of travel. You guessed right if you assumed that my family has finally been able to travel the world – visiting our extended international family in their home countries and experiencing their cultures firsthand. Our cultural exchange continues to expand as our family grows. I’ll be introducing you to each of my international siblings in some of my future posts!

My international family at a gathering in Florida in 2016

My parents’ actions opened up a world to me that I might not otherwise have experienced. I chose to become an exchange student in high school, not only because I was studying French at the time, but because I had had such wonderful experiences with international exchange in my own home. My desire to experience new cultures and meet people who are different from me is just as keen now as it was then. As a result, I have followed in my parents’ footsteps and hosted students as well. The one thing I’ve learned is that people are people no matter where they live, who or what they worship, what they eat or what language they speak. Our differences make life so much more interesting!

I look forward to exchanging ideas and opinions with you; discovering new places to see and hearing your stories, too. 

Mr. Twain finished his thoughts with these words:

“Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Let’s, you and I, go beyond our little corners!