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'Family is very important to us'
Pinecrest grad receives Hispanic Heritage student honor
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Maria Isabel Guzman discusses the role of religion in her family's life. Guzman, whose family is from Venezuel, received the 2008 Hispanic Heritage Youth Award, a national recognition and scholarship. - photo by Jim Dean

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Maria Guzman talks with her mother about her recent trip to Mexico
Many Americans would say home is where their hearts are. Others think home means a fleeting place where they hang their hats.
For Maria Mercedes Guzman, a native of Venezuela, it's simply wherever her daughter and son go, regardless of hemisphere.
"I want to retire where I can be close to my kids," she said. "That's our culture. That's where we want to be, where our kids are. We don't think much of ourselves. We think more of our kids."
Her daughter, Maria Isabel Guzman, is a recent Pinecrest Academy graduate and recipient of the 2008 Hispanic Heritage Youth Award.
"Family is very important to us," the younger Guzman said. "I wouldn't be the person that I am if it wasn't for my parents. They've really taught me a lot."
Cultural values were consideration for the award -- and a $3,000 scholarship -- because applicants had to explain why their heritage made them successful.
Presented by ExxonMobil and the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, the national award recognizes Hispanic students for academics, category focus and community service.
Maria Isabel Guzman, 18, received the award for engineering and mathematics. Other competition categories included academic excellence, business, leadership, education, journalism and sports.
"I take my Hispanic roots wherever I go. It's part of me," said Maria Isabel Guzman, who was also the girls' class valedictorian at Pinecrest, a private Catholic school in southern Forsyth County. "I'm fluent in Spanish and I keep in touch with my friends back home."
Born in Connecticut, she moved with her family to Venezuela and then back to the United States before she turned 10.
Their south Forsyth home bears testament to those roots. On the fireplace mantel are religious statues of the Virgin Mary, the Lady of Coromoto and the Lady of Guadalupe.
Around their living room are bright paintings of small villages overlooking a coastline. Venezuela, she said, is a "gorgeous country."
"I love the food. I love the people," said Maria Isabel Guzman. "They're so nice, and welcoming and warm. I miss it a lot."
She still asks her mom to cook "pabellon," or a dish with shredded meat, rice, beans and fried plantains. She describes her family's homeland as an area where the plains meet the Amazon rainforest.
On a recent mission trip to the Amazon, she found the native people to be just as generous, offering her and fellow missionaries everything they had.
The same was true of the Mexicans she helped during her recent senior class trip, a mission to the Yucatan. There, she and her Pinecrest classmates rebuilt churches damaged by hurricanes.
For two years, she has volunteered in impoverished Hispanic neighborhoods of Atlanta. She put as much emphasis on church activities as she did on academics. She also played varsity tennis and volleyball for the Paladins.
Calling math "her favorite homework," she plans to attend Georgia Tech.
"I like being able to find the answer but not having to stick to one way. There can be four ways to solve a problem."
Her parents may have been an influence in that area as well.
Her father, Juan Carlos, is a professor at Southern Polytechnic State University. He earned his doctoral degree in computer science from Yale. Her mother also is a computer scientist.
"It's funny," said Maria Isabel Guzman. "My dad is more nerdy than my mom. But they're both computer engineers. It's just neat to see how they solve problems."