On June 8, Pilar Diaz Bombino, a Cuban immigrant and Watts resident, became a citizen of the United States.
On June 9, she graduated from Jordan High School in Watts and delivered an inspirational commencement address.
But there’s so much more to her story, I’m going to back up a bit.
Pilar, 18, had what she called her three dream colleges, in this order:
Columbia University, New York University and UCLA.
Would she make the cut?
You’ll have to read to the end to find out, but I can tell you she had the grades, hovering around a 4.0 GPA.
She certainly had put in the work, not just in school, but also in her two jobs — at Smart & Final and AutoZone — to help pay 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 from their single mother, Nancy Bombino.
The siblings “always said, ‘You raised us like we were soldiers,’” Bombino told me a few days ago outside the family’s home at the Imperial Courts housing projects in Watts. “I was always on top of them.”
In 2006, Bombino was living in Cuba, where she was separated from her husband and struggling to raise Pilar and Daniel. Then came the news that changed everything.
Bombino won a lottery. Not a cash lottery, but a U.S. visa lottery.
“It was like one in a million,” Bombino said, beaming as if it had just happened yesterday.
“If we had stayed in Cuba,” she said, educational and economic opportunities for her kids would have been minimal.
So they moved to Florida, but the U.S. economy was in shambles at that time. In 2014, they relocated to Los Angeles, where Nancy became a certified nurse assistant (and works 50 hours weekly at 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 began shooting into the air, then turned the gun toward Pilar and her buddies for no apparent reason. And she thought:
“Dang, this is where our lives end. … We picked up our stuff and started running as quickly as possible — probably the fastest I’ve ever run in my life,” Pilar said. “They didn’t hit any of us, but it was scary just hearing bullets fly by our ears. I didn’t go outside for a month or two.”
She’s had no more close calls since, but she hears gunshots a couple of times a week.
“I kind of just feel paralyzed. Most of the time I’m in bed already and I feel glued to my bed. Like I can’t move.”
Pilar said she got good grades when she started high school, but she didn’t feel particularly motivated.
“I didn’t really think school was for me. I got good grades for approval,” Pilar said, and college wasn’t on her mind.
Mom wasn’t having any of that.
“She told me it’s very important to stay focused and do it,” Pilar said, “so I don’t have to struggle in life the way she did.”
Pilar hit the books, and she grew to love her high school. One of her favorite teachers at Jordan, Cait Cibulsky, had Pilar as a sophomore and then again in senior Advanced Placement English in the distanced pandemic year. Cibulsky, who refers to Pilar by her last name, told me she watched her blossom from a youngster with typical insecurities into a self-possessed young woman.
“Bombino was really good, even in the online setting, about reaching out to students who were maybe a little more withdrawn, making sure they felt welcomed not just by teachers but by peers,” said Cibulsky. “She’s cool with everybody, and celebrates people for who they are and what they’re about.”
Cibulsky said she feels lucky to be teaching in Watts.
“There’s a tremendous sense of community pride. Our kids are just so fiercely proud of this neighborhood,” and “they find celebration even when they are dealing with the hardships and pretty brutal poverty in a neighborhood that’s heavily stigmatized.”
When Pilar began taking school more seriously, and became intent on getting into a good college, the school was ready to help. Jordan is in the Los Angeles Partnership, a nonprofit that manages 19 LAUSD schools and benefits from generous benefactors, with a goal of improving outcomes in low-income neighborhoods and building models that can be replicated throughout the district.
At Jordan, college counseling begins in the ninth grade, Principal Lucia Cerda told me. The school has two college counselors backed up by teams from other support groups, including College Track, a charitable organization that helps students who are first in their families to go to college. The organization has 10 staffers on the Jordan campus, helping students with every aspect of choosing and applying to college and exploring financial options.
“The most important thing is to build relationships with individual students,” said Cerda, who grew up in Watts but didn’t attend 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 at Jordan before working her way up to the principal’s office.
“There’s so much genius in Watts, and we know that if we invest in people like Pilar, they’ll 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’s great that plentiful services are available at Jordan, and tragic that they’re in shorter supply at many schools in the district. But maybe stories of success, like Pilar’s, will help build support for leveling the field.
Pilar did not get into Columbia, but she didn’t fret.
She got wait-listed at NYU, but didn’t panic.
On May 19, she was on the job at AutoZone when she got an email from UCLA, telling her to check her portal. But she didn’t.
“I was really pessimistic at that moment and didn’t want to feel any disappointment at work,” said Pilar.
So she waited until she got home, and it was worth the wait.
She got in.
“I really didn’t have any words. I was just in shock,” said Pilar.
Her mother was just as thrilled. She told me that although UCLA was her first choice for her daughter, “I wanted whatever made Pilar happy.”
Pilar eventually got into NYU, and also made the cut at UC Berkeley, and Riverside, and Irvine, among other schools. But she’s spent some time on the UCLA campus and had no doubts. She’s been dating a classmate named Said, who also got into UCLA. To celebrate, they went to Norm’s and Pilar got a burger.
Then she switched her focus to preparing for her citizenship test.
“You have to study 100 questions, but they only ask you 10 and you have to get six right to pass,” said Pilar, who has been a resident but not a citizen since moving to the U.S.
She got 10 our of 10, including the one asking who wrote the Federalist Papers.
“That was pretty easy,” Pilar told me.
Pilar still has a lot to figure out before her first year of college begins. She didn’t get a full ride, and is still exploring her options on how to pay the difference and whether she can afford housing or will have to commute to UCLA, which she’d rather avoid. Principal Cerda — who told me eight Jordan students got into UC campuses this year — said Jordan is helping her figure it all out.
It’s not uncommon in Los Angeles for students to get into elite schools but not attend because even with scholarships, they can’t afford the bills or because family obligations keep them close to home. But it doesn’t seems as though anything will stop Pilar from becoming a Bruin, where she hopes to study political science or criminology.
“I came to the United States from Havana, Cuba, when I was 4 years old and it fills me with joy to say that I became an American citizen yesterday,” Pilar said in what was billed as the “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 biggest soul I’ve ever known. She has taught me to hold on even when it seems impossible to do so,” Pilar said.
“Our senior year was stripped from us,” Pilar said, “but our power to change the world will forever be in our hands.”