Mara Cavallaro ‘18 on Progressive Journalism and Ethnic Studies 

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This is the 45th article in Bears Doing Big Things, a weekly column celebrating the stories of notable M-A alumni. 

Mara Cavallaro ‘18 began her writing career in M-A’s journalism class. Throughout her life—being born in Brazil, moving to Boston, and eventually to the Bay Area—she always had an acute awareness of how she was being taught history. Her sophomore year at Brown University, she petitioned to bring Ethnic Studies to M-A as a required history class. 

Cavallaro saw the disparities in teaching history as early as elementary school. She said, “I remember having a worksheet about Christopher Columbus where we had to list pros and cons of his voyage as if they were balanced—that European enrichments were even considered pros when they came at the expense of the indigenous people who were killed and robbed of their land and resources by colonizers.”

Cavallaro remembered, “In my tenth-grade Western Civilization class, we were taught that the United States was justified in dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki because it ended the war. My teacher asked the class, ‘If you disagree, raise your hand,’ and I was the only person who did. That was my pattern of education.”

History class wasn’t the only place she saw problematic questions being asked. She said, “When I did speech and debate for M-A, I remember having debate topics that I don’t think should ever be debated, like on the drone strikes in Pakistan or the North Dakota Access Pipeline. I thought it was not productive in any way because there was such a clear right and wrong.” 

It was moments like those that helped Cavallaro form her love for progressive journalism. “Some of the biggest moments that affected my career path came from the stories I was working on in high school. I remember writing a story on carcinogenic pesticides being sprayed right outside a high school in Salinas and a story about the diversity of AP and AS classes. I saw that I could ask those questions and people would actually read and listen, and I thought it was very empowering to have the opportunity to do journalism as early as high school,” Cavallaro said.

Cavallaro went to a national journalism convention in Seattle with her class, where she listened to panels of professional journalists. She said, “I saw a panel from the Seattle Times on a video project where they interviewed people about different words relating to race, oppression, and structural violence. While these words affect our daily life, we don’t usually talk about them on a day-to-day basis, especially at school.”

Cavallaro’s senior portrait

This video project inspired Cavallaro and her classmates, and they created a video project emulating it. She explained, “The whole school was showing clips of our video project. There was also an AP English teacher that assigned one of my articles from the Chronicle as a homework assignment. Those moments made me realize my school was listening to what I was writing about.”

When reflecting on the overall community at M-A, Cavallaro said, “In my advanced and AP classes, there were predominantly white students and only a couple other Latinos, and I did feel that lack of diversity which led me to start writing about it.” 

At Brown, Cavallaro was inspired by her lived experience in advanced classes. She said, “I was writing about Providence [where Brown is located] and calling for detracking in the Providence Public School District and outlining all the consequences of tracking students there. They put students in ‘gifted’ or ‘regular’ classes, and there was a lot of inequity there. I’m glad to see the detracking at M-A, and I think it’s a better place now than when I was there.” 

She also double-majored in Ethnic Studies and International & Public Affairs. “Within International & Public Affairs, my elective classes were all in education, so I studied Ethnic studies and education policy a lot. I took my first Ethnic Studies class my sophomore year, and before that, I had never heard of it. I didn’t know that other high schools were teaching Ethnic Studies—I just missed out on that. College was the first time I felt that I was learning a curriculum about my family and personal history. I was able to have really thoughtful and long conversations about things like structural oppression. My first thoughts were about how I wished I’d had this in high school and how students at M-A should have this.”

Cavallaro did not stop advocating for the diversification of classes at M-A. The summer after her sophomore year at Brown in 2020, Cavallaro and a small group of M-A ‘18 alumni wrote a petition for a mandatory Ethnic Studies class. “We circulated the petition during what became the longest, largest protest movement for Black Lives Matter and against police brutality. We met with the current principal, administrators, and teachers to make our case for Ethnic Studies. Teachers had been organizing all across the district for an Ethnic Studies class for a while, and it was really their labor that brought Ethnic Studies to M-A, because they presented it in front of the board.”

“My senior year, I did my honors thesis on Sequoia Union High School District’s organization and implementation of Ethnic Studies and interviewed Ethnic Studies teachers and students taking it for the first time. It was everything I’d ever dreamed of,” she added. 

On the importance of high school Ethnic studies, she said, “Students of color deserve to see themselves in the curriculum, and all students deserve an anti-racist education. We deserve to have the vocabulary and knowledge to be able to talk about what’s going on in the world around us. To make Ethnic Studies an elective that’s not mandatory is to deny that, at its core, it is history. It is a history that is often overlooked, and we deserve to learn it.”

Mural depicting El Tecolote

With her combination of experience in journalism and in Ethnic studies, Cavallaro started her first job after college at El Tecolote, a progressive Latino newspaper. “The newspaper was born out of Ethnic studies. Ethnic studies led me to believe that journalism at its best is a protest against inequality and should be part of the creation of a better world. When I was working there, some of my interviews were with women who were mailing abortion pills to pregnant people in states where abortion had been banned, and people who had been detained and imprisoned by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in California. Each one of those interviews illuminated injustice. I hoped the stories I wrote made it easier to imagine a world where abortion is not just legal but accessible and free, and where immigrants were welcome, not imprisoned and deported. I think part of a journalist’s duty is to allow space to imagine what could be.” 

Now, Cavallaro is a fact-checker and editorial intern for The Nation, located in New York. “A lot of the things that I choose to write about as a journalist I’m trying to write in a way that supports activism. In terms of advocating for Ethnic Studies, I continued to advocate for similar classes after I graduated because I had a lot of faith that the system could be better. I wanted students to have classes that I didn’t have the opportunity to take when I was in high school.”

Cavallaro’s advice for current M-A students: “You are powerful and deserve to be heard. It was students that led the walkouts in San Francisco that led to the creation of Ethnic studies departments. It’s important to organize because you’re part of creating a broader movement.”

Cavallaro’s advice for future journalists: “Read good writing and try to identify what makes you think it’s good. Think critically about the role that you want to play as a journalist in society, and find people you admire and learn more about their passions. If you can write about what you’re passionate about, it’s going to be great writing.”

Tessa is a junior in her second year of journalism. She enjoys co-writing for the Bears Doing Big Things column and the social trends happening at M-A. Tessa also enjoys playing tennis and is on the varsity team.

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