Students rushing across the G-Wing to their next class will notice a fresh splash of vibrant colors coating the campus’ wall: an illustration proudly displaying themes of diversity, equality, and history. Designed by junior Celine Chien* and brought to life by alum Jose Castro, the new mural debuted this school year.
The mural’s unveiling honors the new freshman Ethnic Studies course, which replaced World Studies in the 2021-22 year following a community outcry for more minority representation in school curriculum. Ethnic Studies teacher Mallory Byrne said, “The teachers wanted to commemorate the inaugural Ethnic Studies course in a creative and permanent way. We know that murals are important to a variety of ethnic groups in the United States and we wanted to contribute to the beautification of our school with a lasting visual representation of Ethnic Studies.”
Ethnic Studies teachers received approval from administration, then asked students to create a mural for the school as their fall semester final. The open-ended assignment instructed students to represent the school’s motto, ‘Strength in Diversity.’ Students voted on their favorite, and Chien’s design was the winner. “Everyone was drawing flags and hands but I thought, ‘I think M-A’s history is more than that,’” Chien said.
Though the new painting is not the first campus mural centered around the school’s motto, its focus on accurate representation of diversity makes it stand out as a celebration of progress. Its brightly colored illustrations emphasize the Bay Area’s history, beginning with a display of the Ramaytush Ohlone people at the bottom left and progressing throughout history. “To the right of the Ramaytush, it depicts the new immigrants that settled in California during the Gold Rush, and then, to the right of that, there’s the counterculture movement,” Chien said. “There are labor strikes for the Chicano movement, LGBTQ rights protests, and Black Lives Matter signs–it goes from the 60s to present-day protests.”
Castro, a professional muralist, said, “I took Celine’s exact design and said, ‘Okay, let’s add a little extra here [from my artistry].’” He began the process of bringing Chien’s drawing to life near the end of June, and revisions from the initial draft reflect aspects of his personal style and cultural beliefs. The two have collaborated extensively throughout the process.
Atop a hill on the mural’s top right corner, M-A students stand unified looking toward a hopeful future. “The ultimate symbolism is establishing the Ethnic Studies class. It’s sparking this continuous journey towards the day when ‘Strength in Diversity’ is a true statement,” Chien said.
In the fall of 2020, the Sequoia Union High School District (SUHSD) school board accepted Ethnic Studies as part of the SUHSD curriculum. Later, in October 2021, the state approved a measure to make California the first state in the country to require Ethnic Studies for graduation. The state will enforce this policy for all California high schools beginning in the 2025-26 year.
Mara Cavallaro, who was part of the small group of M-A ‘18 alumni that initially petitioned for the class to be mandated throughout the district, said, “It became a community fight in the summer of 2020. There was a lot of momentum surrounding anti-racist policy.”
Cavallaro studied Ethnic Studies in college, where she realized the importance of requiring the class in high schools. “I didn’t even know that high schools had Ethnic Studies classes,” she said. “I started thinking about how I wanted everyone to have the opportunity to see themselves in the curriculum.”
The petition garnered over two thousand signatures. The alumni group partnered with teachers to create a coalition in support of the class. Teachers presented a class proposal at a board meeting and, following its approval, developed a curriculum they implemented the following school year. “This is really a labor of love from the teachers,” Cavallaro said.
Former Ethnic Studies teacher Ronnie Sanchez, who was involved in the class’ implementation, said, “The Bay Area is the birthplace of Ethnic Studies. It is a field of study that started off with S.F. State and has really made its way throughout the Bay, even before M-A became part of it.”
In 1968, the Third World Liberation Front led a student strike at San Francisco State University, advocating for the establishment of an Ethnic Studies department and more representation for people of color. This led to the first-ever Ethnic Studies class, and a second round of protests spread across the Bay to UC Berkeley before the field of study was adopted in hundreds of universities over the following years. Decades later, in the mid-2010s, school districts in San Francisco and Oakland added the course to their catalogs. Now, M-A enrolls all freshmen in the course to learn about race, migration, and power structures. “It was just the next step in the development of the history curriculum,” Sanchez said.
Chien said, “I think the curriculum was really meaningful to me. I felt it wasn’t just a class. It was like a community.”
Sanchez said, “Teaching Ethnic Studies was not only transformational from the perspective of a teacher, but in the sense that you get to see a lot of students really connect with it throughout class.”
Cavallaro said, “It’s a field that addresses all the content that has been missing from mainstream curricula. It’s really a first step, but that first step is filling this huge gap that we’ve had since kindergarten.”
Many believe in the class’ importance, but also hope for its growth. “[Ethnic Studies] is a really beneficial class to have in school to look over the histories and backgrounds of all of the cultures and people that we have on campus,” said junior Tula Basta. “I hope it’s done correctly after they’ve had a little time to figure it out.”
“The mural is a great demonstration of how Ethnic Studies is able to amplify student voices and cultures at M-A,” said junior Corbin Nam.
Byrne said, “It felt full circle to have our Ethnic Studies students design a mural at M-A to celebrate something that former M-A students had been instrumental in creating.”
Castro said, “What’s important to me is to get kids asking more questions. I want everyone to ask themselves about their history.”
Despite Ethnic Studies’ recent arrival to M-A, the class is already contributing to the campus landscape through the mural’s addition. Cavallaro said, “I hope it’s going to be a reminder to people when they walk by it, that this is just the beginning of Ethnic Studies.”
*Celine Chien is also a journalist for the M-A Chronicle.