Alumni Interview with Mariana Calvo

This interview was conducted over email with Mariana Calvo, an incoming Latin American History PhD student at Stanford University, by Zac Johnson, a third-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. Calvo earned a B.A. in Public Policy and History from Duke in 2017. 

What has been your path to your current position?

I am an incoming Latin American History PhD student at Stanford University, but my path to getting here has been anything but linear. During my time at Duke, I did extensive research on how violence and displacement uniquely affect indigenous communities on the US-Mexico border, in Guatemala, and in the Boston area.

Upon graduation, I received the Benenson Award in the Art Award to do a multimedia project titled “Cocaine: How the Movement of a Drug Moved Millions” in Medellin, Colombia. While in Colombia, I photographed and interviewed dozens of survivors of the conflict in Medellin and in the communities they were displaced from.

In November of 2018, I returned to Colombia to work as a freelance journalist and photographer for Colombia Reports, a local media outlet to cover mass displacement caused by the technical failures at Colombia’s largest dam, the rise of activist murders, and the impacts of the cocaine trade on civilian populations.  I also published a series of articles on the Mexican community in New York City for Roads & Kingdoms and LatinoUSA.

To support my freelance work, I briefly worked as speechwriter and staffer at the Mexican Consulate in New York City where I helped shed light on the challenges faced by Mexicans at a time of great anti-immigrant sentiment. After realizing I wanted to pursue writing and photography full time, I applied for the Lewis Hine Fellowship.

The Lewis Hine Documentary Fellowship is a program at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies that connects the talents of young documentary artists with the resources and needs of community-based organization in New York City. As a part of my fellowship, I worked with formerly incarcerated New Yorkers who grew up at the heights of the crack epidemic and are now in the workforce. My work was published as a long-form photo essay with LatinoUSA.

After completing my fellowship, I realized how much I enjoyed working on long-term immersive projects and that I still had so many questions about the role of commodities in marginalizing certain populations. I knew that pursuing a PhD in History was the best route for me. During the application process, I have also been doing outreach and communications for historically underbanked communities in New York City to build greater financial inclusion.

Before starting my PhD at Stanford in August, I will be working on a documentary photography project in Mexico City about the impact of COVID-19 on small businesses. You can check out samples of my work here.

Which human rights issues do you engage with most directly and how? 

It’s hard to broadly define what human rights issues I am most engaged with, as my work has covered a wider range of issues that include migration, racism, climate degradation, crime, and incarceration. My work has primarily addressed these issues in a Latin American context, and I am eager to continue exploring them through stories in my academic/photography career.

How has your study of/passion for human rights influenced your life personally and professionally?

It has shaped everything. My passion for human rights is ultimately what made me a storyteller. I believe that stories are an important vehicle for social change. Throughout my professional career I have told stories to create greater awareness about our hemisphere’s most pressing challenges.

Do you see room for improvement in your professional field’s engagement with human rights issues? 

If we are talking about the journalism field, I think there is so much room for improvement. I am so glad to see that we are finally having a long overdue reckoning about racism and sexism in the journalism field. However, I also think it’s important to have a reckoning about the costs of having a news media that is so US-centric. In my experience, all human rights issues are global and interconnected. The solutions and, therefore, the stories we tell must be international and intersectional. While there is still a lot of room to improve, I am humbled to see so many rising journalists who are going against the grain and telling stories that are more inclusive of our global community.

How has COVID impacted your work? 

It changed everything. So much of my work, especially as an interviewer and photographer, had always been done in person. I was able to wrap up many of my ongoing projects remotely but was forced to cancel an international project I had planned. I didn’t think doing reporting remotely with my contacts in Latin America could possibly relay the experiences they were going through during COVID, so I decided to turn my attention to New York City, where I have lived on-and-off for three years. Since, I’ve been working with several nonprofits to provide financial relief to communities most impacted by the pandemic. Along the way, I’ve also been volunteering as an interpreter with a nonprofit organization that helps undocumented New Yorkers apply for asylum.

What would you recommend to undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career in human rights? 

Take advantage of the all the resources Duke has to offer. Duke has so much money, and unlike many other undergraduate institutions, it’s eager for undergrads to use it. I would not be a writer, photographer, and now a PhD candidate, if it weren’t for the grants that Duke so generously gave me. It’s because of Duke that I was able to go to the US Mexico border, Guatemala, and Colombia. Even two years after I had graduated, it was Duke money that allowed me to pursue my passion as a photographer with some of the best faculty around. There are so many opportunities and people you can meet at Duke who can help you develop a vision and carry it through. When an opportunity present itself, whether it’s a talk, a grant, or a class, take it. While it may not make sense in the moment, every experience will lead you to where you need to go. Ask questions, and you’ll find your way.