Pilar’s Secret to Staying Young

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Pilar’s Secret to Staying Young

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Initially, I went to observe Pilar Góngora, however, upon walking into her Spanish room, I was reminded of the two years I spent with her, learning everything from the subjunctive to Zumba. It was the first time I had been in there since the beginning of the year, but Pilar still welcomed me with the same warm, “¡Hola!” and immediately we launched into a conversation. While we spoke, she scurried around the room quickly nixing tasks off her To-Do list. She listened attentively to what I was saying while also efficiently grading papers, proving that she had mastered the art of multitasking.

The corral of sheep on her family’s property, another one of her father’s interesting business endeavors. (Courtesy of Pilar Góngora)

I met her for our interview, and subconsciously ventured back to what used to be my seat across from the weathered Botero poster on the adjacent wall. Pilar sat next to me, turned her chair slightly to face me, and a poised smile appeared on her face. For the first time in that Spanish room, it felt like time had come to a standstill. As Pilar started to tell me about her childhood, I felt like I could feel the thick humid air emanating from the Costa Rica poster over my shoulder. The lush green mountains suddenly didn’t feel that far removed.

Imagine a five-acre property nestled in the mountains, sometimes covered in sheep, other times figs. This is where Pilar Góngora grew up. The family that lived in the home atop the property was her’s. Her mother from upstate New York and her father from Peru, which made her “half gringa, half Latina, and half from Central America,” as she puts it. They left Peru when Pilar was only seven years old at a time of political unrest and sought refuge in the peaceful mountains of the Central Valley in Costa Rica. Her mother stayed at home and raised Pilar and her sister, and her father? Well, I asked her what her father did, and at first said, “He’s a businessman,” then after a little more thought, she said, “He’s like [an] entrepreneur. He’d have businesses like a wire production factory or he owned some property and he rented it out. He was a landlord. He started an alarm business company, there was always a new idea…” This is when I learned of The Figs.

“He planted the whole property with figs and then we had to do the fig production and packaging in our kitchen and sell it at the market… Luckily I was in college by then, so my sister helped with that… She hates the smell of figs because it was so traumatic.” I asked Pilar why her father chose to grow figs of all things, and her response was concise: He just really likes figs.

Pilar, with one of her father’s 43 sheep that he would slaughter and sell at the market. (Courtesy of Pilar Góngora)

While Pilar was escaping the fig escapade, she was experiencing the United States for the first time as a resident as a student at the University of Virginia. “I lived in the dorms and it was a huge shock to live in the United States,” Pilar began, “I had visited, I knew what it was like. But [it] was very different living here because the social situation is very different. Like in Costa Rica, things were very traditional.” That was not the case at UVA. The chivalrous dates that were typical of Costa Rican boys was a foreign concept. American dates were frat parties, something Pilar was appalled by, “And that I thought it was like the grossest thing ever seen. People’s relationship to alcohol was very different and I’m not saying in Costa Rica young people don’t drink, because they do, but there was like this … it was like the American kids had been unleashed and it was sick… in the States I’d see people pass out and just abuse the alcohol. And I thought, wow, that’s totally different.” 

As Pilar struggled to understand this new culture, the American kids struggled to understand Pilar’s culture, “They’d never gone anywhere outside of Northern Virginia and DC, so they thought Costa Rica was Puerto Rico. And then I would say no, it’s in  Central

Pilar, in her high school years in her home in the Central Valley of Costa Rica. (Courtesy of Pilar Góngora)

America. And they would say, ‘Well, do you have cars there?’ and ‘Do you guys live in trees?’ They had no idea.” Many of them assumed she was from some East Coast state like Connecticut, and denied her true identity and culture. However, Pilar became very involved with the Latinx community at UVA and began to feel accepted and comfortable being surrounded by people who came from similar backgrounds.

Her time at UVA came to an end, and she began looking at graduate schools. Coming from Central America, Pilar was accustomed to the heat and humidity, which was something that UVA lacked. She told me how she made her choice to move to LA. “People said, well, you should really consider Brown.” She waved her hands as if to dismiss the idea, “I don’t care. I need to be able to live. And [so] I got a USA Today map and I looked at [the weather] in December, and I just looked at everything that was whatever color, yellow to green. That’s how I made my decision.”

Pilar felt much more at home in the sunshine of Southern California and surrounded by a heavy Latin cultural influence. This stark difference from Virginia was something Pilar was excited to be a part of. However, there was one problem with being surrounded but Latinx people… or at least people who seemed to be Latinx. “I remember making big mistakes because I would walk into places and I would totally– I’ll admit it– I would totally profile person and say, ‘oh they look like they speak Spanish,’” she laughed nervously as she admitted this to me. “And when I started speaking Spanish to them and they would get insulted… they’re not going to speak Spanish to me because of the way I look and they might think, ‘well you can’t speak Spanish.’ And so then when I would meet someone I was just excited to speak Spanish with somebody, but they are like, ‘Oh, you’re just profiling me.’ My intention was not to insult. My intention was to speak Spanish and to be excited about that. But so I learned.”

While at the time Pilar loved Los Angeles, she doesn’t think she’d ever move back, “I went back recently, and it’s too hipster for me. It’s changed a lot, you know, and that’s okay. I made my peace. This place is beautiful. I mean Marin Academy is a very important thing in my life because I don’t ever see leaving. I love it.”

I asked her what she brought with her to Marin from her life in Costa Rica, “Costa Ricans are chill people, they’ll work and that is party time and relax and you don’t. That sort of thing that really missed, I missed about Latino culture is everything’s a joke. Everything is funny, you can make fun of anything. So that’s how I approach a lot of things, you know, … I don’t behave. I have to sit in the front of every meeting or else if I sit in the back I’ll just misbehave. I know myself, so I have to put limits because I like to make jokes about anything that anyone is saying… But, I am in control of things. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I like to be very professional.” 

Grinning, she continued, “People are like, ‘How do you work with high schoolers?’ I mean they keep you young. You guys are always the same age. I get older but you guys are always going to be 17,” and I couldn’t help but smile back at her.