Thursday, October 6, 2011

One language: Global couple keep home base in Memphis, focus on shared values

Published October 6, 2011 in the Commercial Appeal
Matt Farr, 28, a Memphis native, took his Colombian wife, Marcela Pinilla, 29, on her first-ever canoe trip along the Eleven Point River in Missouri shortly after the couple moved to Memphis in 2009. The first day was great.

The second day: "It was a little colder than I expected for April -- 35 degrees -- and foggy. Within the first hour on the river, a gust of wind blew us into a strainer in the middle of the river," explains Farr. The couple hit the downed tree head-on, turned sideways and capsized, the current pulling them both underwater.

By the time they got back to shore, they were exhausted and soaking wet. As Farr started a fire, Pinilla turned to him and said, "Thank you. I have never felt so alive."

"That's why I love her so much," says Farr. "I knew everything was going to be fine after that."

The couple met in a Chinese language class in Qingdao, China, in 2006. Farr was teaching helicopter pilots English, and Pinilla was singing in a rock band.

"I realized quickly that it was not what I wanted to do for a living, but it got me overseas, opened up other opportunities, and taught me many things" Farr says.

Pinilla started touring abroad when she was 16, and met some musicians in Malaysia. They eventually asked her to join their band in Singapore. She spent eight years touring Asia with the band, singing in English, Spanish and Chinese. She was in China only a few months when she met Farr.

They then chased each other around Asia for a while -- Farr to the Philippines, and Pinilla to Shanghai. Marcela then joined Farr in the Philippines, and flew out weekly to play gigs in Singapore. They visited each other as much as

possible and soon decided they wanted to be together permanently.

Pinilla really liked living in Singapore because it was a big, international community with a lot of opportunities. Farr says he couldn't live without her so he followed her there. One night while having a drink at a Cuban bar, they decided to get married. "I gave her a cigar band as an engagement ring," Farr says.

They married in 2007 and stayed in Singapore until the economy collapsed. "My international clients dried up, and Marcela needed to be closer to her family as her father had recently fallen ill," he says. They moved to Memphis to be nearer to their families and to regroup.

Initially they lived with Farr's mom in Cordova, with no car. It was the middle of the recession, and Matt spent the first few months pedaling around town on his bicycle looking for jobs. "We sat down four months into our Memphis experiment and asked ourselves, 'What are we doing?'" The couple wasn't sure that they could stick it out. "It boiled down to Memphis having opportunities for greatness not just for individuals but for the city in general. We decided that we wanted to be a part of something great -- something bigger than ourselves. That's what kept us here," says Farr.

Once they decided to stay, Farr says everything started falling into place. He got a job as the manager of education and outreach at Shelby Farms Park Conservancy. It has given him the tools to effect change in the community. He also leads outings for the Sierra Club-Chickasaw Group. He regularly takes groups to the Cumberland Plateau, and hosts an annual Memorial Day Float down the Ghost River.

Pinilla has been able to support herself as a full-time musician. She manages her own career by booking shows, updating her website, writing songs, recording and touring. Additionally, she works part-time on staff with the Memphis Music Foundation, with a focus on reaching out to aspiring Latino musicians. "We have a lot to offer, and we can learn a lot from each other because of the differences between our countries and our cultures," she says.

"I like it here. It is very real, not perfect, but real," says Pinilla. She really wants to show people another side of Latinos. "I do that with my music," she says, noting that many people don't always associate jazz with Latinos.

Pinilla says it is difficult being a musician in Memphis. "It's weird how hard it is to get people to come to a show. People don't realize what an asset they have here. My friends from out of town are blown away by Memphis and can't understand why isn't it bursting with people," she says.

The couple rent a home in the East Buntyn area, but they plan to buy a house after saving some money. Pinilla says she will probably spend a month or two in Colombia each year since it is very difficult for her family to visit her in the States. "Memphis will always be our home base. There are entirely too many things going on here," says Farr.

They have a small house with no TV. Instead, they like to go out to shows or have people come over and play music.

Pinilla says Memphis and Bogota are both cities where people like to party. "In both places people have their set of issues that everyone lives with and then parties on in spite of," she says. "Finding positivity in all of those situations is the name of the game."

Positivity is one of the things that drew her to Farr. "He's very positive. He keeps me filled with love," she says. "Matt knows the city better than I do, so he helps me maneuver. He also has better writing skills, so he checks my lyrics, too."

In January, Pinilla made a New Year's resolution for them to be healthier. "I started waking up and making spinach smoothies to try and get Matt off of coffee. It really put our relationship to the test," she jokes.

They recognize their cultural differences and say they complement each other. "Americans are typically more individualistic, while Latin Americans have stronger family structures and a sense of togetherness," explains Farr. "Oftentimes, I get focused on my own thing and go without relying on my support structure. Marcela makes sure we have Saturday morning pancakes with my grandmother and Sunday dinner with my mother at least once a month."

He also says that because they met and lived overseas together, in a way they have created their own culture. "We have shared values and see the same big picture," he says. "Our interests in life complement each other and enable us to work together and press on together."

The couple even share their own language. "We have really weird linguistic practices and use three to four languages with each other. It really confuses our friends," says Farr.

Farr says Pinilla is very spiritual and creative. He's more business oriented and practical.

"He does his thing, and I do mine. We are there for each other, but we also let the other one be," explains Pinilla. She was worried that marriage would cause her to lose some of her freedom, but she likes Farr's support. "I definitely recommend marriage," she says.

Making it work

Our occasional series Making it Work focuses on interesting Mid-South couples and how they make being a twosome work. Know a duo you think we should profile? E-mail winburne@commercial


Marcela Pinilla will perform at the Zoomelier fundraiser at the Memphis Zoo on Oct. 14, and at Festival Latino 2011 at Shelby Farms Park on Oct. 16.

Go to for more information.

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