On June 8, Pilar Diaz Bombino, a Cuban immigrant and resident of Watts, became a citizen of the United States.
On June 9, she graduated from Jordan High School in Watts and gave an inspiring talk.
But there’s so much more to their story that I’ll go back a bit.
Pilar, 18, had her three dream universities in this order:
Columbia University, New York University and UCLA.
Would she make the cut?
You will have to read the end to find out, but I can tell you she got the grades and was around a GPA of 4.0.
Not only had she done work at school but also in her two jobs – Smart & Final and AutoZone – paying the bills at home.
And she and her brother Daniel, now a graduate of Cal State Los Angeles, had been raised with high expectations and firm marching orders by their single mother, Nancy Bombino.
The siblings “always said: ‘You raised us like we were soldiers'”, Bombino told me a few days ago in front of the family house in the housing projects of the Imperial Court in Watts. “I’ve always been at the top.”
In 2006, Bombino was living in Cuba where she was separated from her husband and struggled to raise Pilar and Daniel. Then came the news that changed everything.
Bombino won the lottery. Not a cash lottery, but a US visa lottery.
“It was like one in a million,” said Bombino, beaming as if it had just happened yesterday.
“If we had stayed in Cuba,” she said, the educational and economic opportunities for her children would have been minimal.
So they moved to Florida, but the US economy was in tatters at the time. In 2014 they moved to Los Angeles, where Nancy became a certified nurse (and works 50 hours a week in two senior facilities).
It wasn’t Cuba, but life here wasn’t easy.
When she was 13, Pilar was playing soccer with friends near her apartment when someone started shooting in the air and then pointed the gun at Pilar and her pals for no apparent reason. And she thought:
“Damn it, our life ends here. … We got our things and started running as fast as possible – probably the fastest I have ever run in my life, ”said Pilar. “They didn’t meet either of us, but it was scary just hearing bullets fly past our ears. I didn’t go outside for a month or two. ”
She hasn’t had close calls since then, but she does hear gunshots a few times a week.
“I feel kind of paralyzed. Most of the time I’m already in bed feeling stuck to my bed. As if I couldn’t move. “
Pilar said she got good grades when she entered high school, but she didn’t feel particularly motivated.
“I didn’t really think school was for me. I got good grades for recognition, ”Pilar said, not thinking about college.
Mom didn’t get any of it.
“She told me that it is very important to stay focused and do it,” said Pilar, “so that I don’t have to fight in life like she did.”
Pilar hit the books and she loved her high school. One of her favorite teachers in Jordan, Cait Cibulsky, had Pilar in her sophomore year and then again in Senior Advanced Placement English in the distant pandemic year. Cibulsky, who calls Pilar by her last name, told me that she had seen how she developed from a teenager with typical insecurities to a self-controlled young woman.
“Bombino was really good, even in the online environment, at reaching out to students who might be a little more withdrawn and making them feel welcomed by not only teachers but their peers as well,” said Cibulsky. “She’s cool with everyone and celebrates people for who they are and what they stand for.”
Cibulsky said she felt lucky to be teaching at Watts.
“The pride of the community is great. Our children are just so proud of this neighborhood. ”And“ they find partying, even if they can cope with the hardships and the rather brutal poverty in a severely stigmatized neighborhood. ”
When Pilar started taking school more seriously and went to a good college, the school was ready to help. Jordan is a member of the Los Angeles Partnership, a nonprofit that manages 19 LAUSD schools and benefits from generous benefactors with the goal of improving outcomes in low-income neighborhoods and building models that can be replicated across the county.
At Jordan, university advice begins at ninth grade, principal Lucia Cerda told me. The school has two college counselors supported by teams from other support groups, including College Track, a charity that helps students who are the first in their families enter college. The organization has 10 employees on the Jordan campus who help students with all aspects of college selection and application, as well as exploring financial opportunities.
“The most important thing is to build relationships with individual students,” says Cerda, who grew up in Watts but didn’t go to Jordan because her parents thought it was too dangerous and not a very good school. Instead, she went to Wilson High in Long Beach, then UC Berkeley, and she was a teacher with Jordan before working her way up to the principal’s office.
“There is so much genius in Watts and we know if we invest in people like Pilar they will thrive,” said Cerda.
And that’s the thing. Los Angeles has no greater resource than its human potential, but with so many barriers to success, much of it is untapped. It is great that there are many ministries in Jordan and tragic that they are scarce in many schools in the district. But maybe success stories like Pilar’s will help build support for leveling the field.
Pilar didn’t come to Columbia, but she wasn’t worried.
She was put on the waiting list at NYU but didn’t panic.
On May 19, she was working at AutoZone when she received an email from UCLA asking her to review her portal. But she didn’t.
“I was really pessimistic at that moment and didn’t want to feel disappointed at work,” said Pilar.
So she waited until she got home and it was worth the wait.
She got in.
“I really had no words. I was just shocked, ”said Pilar.
Her mother was just as enthusiastic. She told me that while UCLA was her daughter’s first choice, “I wanted what makes Pilar happy.”
Pilar eventually came to NYU and made it to UC Berkeley, Riverside, and Irvine, among others. But she spent some time on the UCLA campus and had no doubts. She’s dating a classmate named Said, who is also at UCLA. To celebrate, they went to Norm’s and Pilar got a burger.
Then she shifted her focus to preparing for her naturalization test.
“You have to study 100 questions, but they only ask you 10 and you have to have six right to pass,” said Pilar, who has been a resident but not a citizen since moving to the United States
She got 10 out of 10 including who wrote the Federalist Papers.
“That was pretty easy,” Pilar said to me.
Pilar has a lot to find out before her freshman year begins. She didn’t get a full ride and is still looking into how to pay the difference and whether she can afford accommodation or have to commute to UCLA, which she would rather avoid. Headmistress Cerda – who told me that eight Jordanian students came to the UC campus this year – said Jordan was helping her figure it all out.
It’s not uncommon in Los Angeles for students to attend elite schools but not attend because they can’t afford the bills even with scholarships or because family responsibilities keep them close to home. But nothing seems to stop Pilar from becoming a Bruin where she wants to study political science or criminology.
“I came to the United States from Havana, Cuba, at the age of 4 and I am delighted to say that I became an American citizen yesterday,” said Pilar in her “inspirational speech” at her high school graduation ceremony.
Pilar thanked a police officer, Ms. Cibulsky, and other teachers and staff. She thanked her brother and Said.
And of course her mother.
“She has the greatest soul I have ever known. She taught me to hold on even when it seems impossible, ”said Pilar.
“Our senior year was stripped from us,” said Pilar, “but our power to change the world will forever be in our hands.”