It’s 8:25 a.m.
Profesora Cabrera enters the classroom with a stack of papers, a cup of café and a warm smile.
The same smile that says she didn’t grade papers for two hours after reading to her sons, Falco, 8, and Marlo, 4, before they went to bed.
The same smile that tells her kids “it’ll be just like camping” when she tells them to get in their sleeping bags when their home lost power during the Sioux Falls ice storm.
She’s just as caring when editing students’ papers. Freshman Eric Vander Lee, a nursing student, recently added a Spanish major. It all started with the ink of a helpful professor.
Pilar Cabrera pours over each page, purposefully penning ideas about how Vander Lee can take his already revised draft and make it even better.
“With her corrections, she’s so caring,” Vander Lee said. “She didn’t have to do that—it’s over and above, in a good way.”
Mexico City native Pilar Cabrera Fonte speaks Spanish to her children at home. She enrolled Falco in the Rosa Parks Spanish immersion program and plans to do the same with Marlo. Good friend and Spanish instructor Sam Ogdie sees similarities between Pilar’s interactions with her children and her students.
“Every time I go to their house, I see all of these books that they’re reading together, all these little projects and puzzles they’re putting together,” Ogdie said. “They’re always doing something constructive, and that’s how she teaches.”
Junior Sylvia Ramirez thought of her mother when she first met Pilar. Ramirez learned to understand and speak Spanish as a child but never learned how to read or write in the language. After three classes with Pilar, Ramirez became literate in Spanish because she felt comfortable making mistakes in the classroom.
“With all your flaws, she still accepts you—like a mother would,” Ramirez said.
Pilar learned to love literature from her mom, Irene, and her grandmother, Josefina, both Cuban women. She recalls listening at age five to her grandma—the best storyteller she’s known—talk about a “mangosta” (mongoose) from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.
“The name of this mangosta was Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” Pilar said. “She would tell how this animal would jump on the snake and fight with the snake.”
Just like her sons, her students listen carefully when she reads to them each night.
“She’s just fascinated by these books that we read,” Ramirez said. “She just makes us more interested in literature.”
Like Vander Lee, Ramirez added the Spanish major after having Pilar as a professor and chose Pilar as her academic adviser. Ramirez will spend next January with Pilar and her husband, adjunct English professor Danny Gerling, in Cuba.
But Pilar hasn’t always been a teacher. Cabrera studied theatre at the National University of Mexico before traveling to Amsterdam at age 24 to complete her master’s in philosophy and cultural analysis, where she met her husband.
Whereas most in the program had already studied philosophy and knew a great deal of English, both were new to Pilar. But her unassuming attitude and humility in knowledge were most appealing to Gerling.
“Pilar was somebody who just loved literature and loved ideas,” Gerling said. “She knew the stuff very well but she was very modest about it. And that I found very attractive for sure.”
Most don’t know that she’s studied ancient Greek and French. But what Pilar loves as much as teaching or learning language is writing.
Pilar published several short stories after discovering her love of writing plays while studying theatre. She wrote poetry, too, but stopped creative writing when she started her master’s.
In between classes, when she’s not planning, she’s reading Virgina Woolf or Virgilio Piñera. Her love of literature makes research inseparable from enjoyment. While some students got ulcers or developed heart palpitations during grad school, Pilar did it joyfully.
“I was one of those students, banging my head on the table trying to write my dissertation,” Gerling said. “I look over and she’s at her computer smiling—she just smiles when she writes. I’ve never seen that in anybody else.”
Pilar taught six years at the University of Texas-Austin while working on her Ph.D. in comparative literature. She hopes to publish her English-written dissertation on the late Cuban author Virgilio Piñera and his fiction. She’s fascinated by Woolf and Piñera’s influence on contemporary filmmakers, marveling at how Woolf appears as herself in the film The Hours, and Piñera does the same in a play she recently saw in Havana, Si vas a comer espera por Virgilio (If You Are Going To Eat, Wait for Virgilio). She’s reminded to research the topic more by the play’s program, which is plastered in front of her desk.
Pilar lived in Cuba for three years during her early teens. While she was more interested in studying Mexican literature, one of her professors taught a class on Cuba that made her start thinking about the homeland of her mom and grandmother, from whom she gained her love of literature.
“I became more interested in Cuban authors and Cuban literature,” Pilar said. “That has to do with my own experience of having lived in Cuba and my family history.”
Pilar’s combined personal and academic interests in Cuban culture and literature make her an authority on Cuba due to her study of each, according to senior Spanish major Alison Peymann.
“I think Pilar has a lot of untapped expertise,” Peymann said. “In a class on Cuba, she touched on her studies on iconography of figures like Fidel Castro.”
Pilar has changed over the years. Now 38, she’s not the same theatre student she was in Mexico.
She’s no longer the teenage girl who learned how to assemble an AK-47 in less than a minute as part of her three-year Cuban education.
But one thing hasn’t changed: Her ideas inspire. A student in her first class at Augustana, Paul Barduson, ’10, remembers Pilar as someone who had ideas but asked them as questions.
“Pilar had a unique way of asking questions and getting us to respond with more than a basic answer,” Barduson said. “We always had deep, intelligent conversations.”
Whether it’s cooking Cuban food for Falco and Marlo, explaining vocabulary to students or connecting to her Cuban culture through her research, she does it all—with a smile.
After three years teaching at Augustana, Pilar hopes to stay. Ogdie feels the same.
“She’s so much a part of this department now,” Ogdie said. “She’s an integral part. I can’t imagine Augustana without her.”