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Dedicated To The Cause: Activists To Take the Helm at Currier House

James Cavallaro and Nadejda Marques, the couple who will serve as the interim house masters of Currier, speak to reporters at their Cambridge home about their life, work, and thoughts about becoming Currier house masters.
James Cavallaro and Nadejda Marques, the couple who will serve as the interim house masters of Currier, speak to reporters at their Cambridge home about their life, work, and thoughts about becoming Currier house masters.
By Danielle J. Kolin and Naveen N. Srivatsa, Crimson Staff Writers

They met in Brazil and fell in love.

James L. Cavallaro ’84, now a Harvard Law School professor and executive director of the HLS Human Rights Program, was speaking at a conference about the military dictatorship that had menaced the South American state for 21 years. Meanwhile, Nadejda Marques was running late en route to the conference. Fate would have it that her mother was considerate enough to save Marques a seat—right in front of Cavallaro.

After the conference, the resident of the Portugese-speaking nation shocked the guest speaker with her near-perfect English. Later, Marques offered to help Cavallaro, a vegetarian, navigate the meat-heavy Brazilian restaurant scene. Language would further unite them, as their multilingualism allowed the pair to banter in what Cavallaro calls “Portuinglês.” But most important of all was their shared passion for advancing human rights across the globe.

“He’s an attractive man and he stands for the things I believe, so I was like, ‘He’s the one,’” recalls Marques, a slender woman with a bright smile and quiet demeanor.

Three years later on Dec. 30, 1998, Cavallaro and Marques exchanged vows in Rio de Janeiro. Renting an apartment overlooking the beach, the newlyweds held both a wedding party and a New Year celebration, a holiday complete with music and fireworks rivaled in Rio only by Carnival, Brazil’s most famous festival.

The couple may have begun their new lives together on the cusp of a new year, but even as they replace Professor Richard W. Wrangham and Elizabeth A. Ross as Currier House Masters this fall, they will not stray from their initial raison d’être: to share their experiences with others and promote human rights and social justice.

HARVARD ROOTS

Cavallaro, a Brooklyn native, chose to concentrate in Government at Harvard, focusing on domestic politics—but in many ways, it would be surprising for a student at the College today to make the same choices Cavallaro did at Harvard less than 30 years ago.

For one, the interim Currier House Master appointee withdrew from the traditional House system. Cavallaro lived in Cabot House—then called South House—as a sophomore, but after that year, he fled the Radcliffe Quadrangle to be closer to his older sister, then-Adams resident Rosanna J. Cavallaro ’83. He eventually settled into an apartment on 65 Mt. Auburn Street.

Cavallaro, like many of his peers, strayed from what is now a typical summer internship path. The first two summers of college, he worked in construction units. The workers used to call him “Harvey” due to his college affiliation, Cavallaro remembers.

“For me, it was an interesting and worthwhile experience living and working with folks who were not going to Harvard College,” he says. “To have a thicker sense of the world—it’s something.”

Cavallaro’s passion for social justice was more than apparent even in his college years. He  went to study groups at the Institute of Politics and participated in a mentoring program, and his coursework included classes on crime and social psychology. But while he was focused on domestic issues, his future wife was experiencing the chaos of international politics firsthand.

A TURBULENT BEGINNING

Before she even celebrated her first birthday, Marques was forced to separate from her mother and flee her birthplace in northeastern Brazil. When Marques was only nine months old, her father was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by the brutal military regime that had taken over the country in a coup d’état nearly a decade earlier.

The terrified refugees separated and tried to escape the country. Marques’ mother fled to Chile, and a family friend took charge of the infant Marques. The child and her mother reunited in Chile, believing they had found their safe haven, but their hopes were dashed only a few days later when a military coup overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende and elevated General Augusto Pinochet to power in 1973.

Over the next nine years, Marques and her mother would journey across Cuba, Sweden, Russia, and Panama to find a home before returning to Brazil, where Marques and her mother finally settled down for the first time in Marques’ memory.

A Spanish speaker from her time in Chile and Cuba, Marques initially  struggled to learn Portuguese and devoted most of her time to her studies. In high school, she earned a scholarship enabling her to attend the United World College in New Mexico, where she learned English from scratch.

After high school, Marques studied economics and held a part-time job teaching English in Brazil, where she first encountered Cavallaro.

AN ACTIVIST IS BORN

Leaving the Harvard bubble would open Cavallaro’s sights internationally—but first, he would begin at home.

Working for Mass. Representative Edward J. Markey while bartending at night, Cavallaro became increasingly interested in the causes and consequences of U.S. policy toward Central and South America. His newfound focus led him to the Annunciation House, a facility that helps poor migrants and political refugees along the U.S.-Mexico border. Provided with room, board, and a small stipend, Cavallaro worked with Central American refugees on asylum cases, leading him to become interested in using law to further human rights.

“For reasons beyond anything we can control, some people are less fortunate than others, but we have social structures that cause inequalities and we should work to empower those who are excluded,” Cavallaro says. “I started out wanting to do that domestically, and then as I became more informed about situations of injustice internationally, I became more involved.”

Cavallaro attended Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, but he did not stay long. An opportunity came by for him to work for human rights organizations in Chile.

At the time, Chile was embroiled in an election where voters were to decide whether to grant Pinochet another eight years in office. Cavallaro regularly attended anti-Pinochet rallies, facing the wrath of police water cannons and once even being detained and threatened with immediate deportation.

On Oct. 5, 1988, Cavallaro witnessed history when 56 percent of the country voted against Pinochet. He then remained in Chile through March 1990 during the inauguration of the first democratically-elected president in more than a decade.

He returned to law school, earned his degree, and returned to his pursuit of international justice. This time, he worked for Human Rights Watch in Washington, D.C., eventually winning a grant to open offices for the organization and another NGO.

THE PAIR UNITES

After meeting Cavallaro, Marques began to volunteer for Human Rights Watch, where she became friends with many journalists, including a Washington Post chief based in Buenos Aires who offered her the unique opportunity to travel throughout South America and cover the ongoing political and economic developments there. Eventually, Marques became a special correspondent for the Post.

“Journalism is fascinating,” Marques says. “I’m a very curious person. I want to find out the truth.”

Marques worked with her husband to found a Brazilian human rights organization called Global Justice Center. Cavallaro headed the organization for several years before the couple would relocate to Cambridge, where Cavallaro began his work as associate director of the HLS Human Rights Program. Marques, though, travelled between Angola and Cambridge several times a year for Human Rights Watch to conduct research on freedom of speech and on resettlement issues.

Cavallaro teaches several classes on human rights and oversees projects that take him and his students abroad to investigate human rights abuses.

“At any given time, you’ll see Jim in Guatemala vetting work for Panama, translating work and also coordinating things in Boston,” says Claret M. Vargas ’96, a third-year Law School student and co-president of HLS Advocates for Human Rights. “He has boundless energy and yet never makes you feel guilty in terms of how much work he does.”

While Cavallaro ran the Human Rights Program, Marques wrote a memoir. The goal, she says, was to preserve the stories of her mother and grandmother for the day when her daughter Mara would be able to understand the memories.

“Mara is at an age where she starts asking questions. She’s too young to understand some things, but I’d like to answer her questions,” Marques says. “And then I decided that before I forget, before it’s too late, before I don’t have the energy, I wanted to write.”

“Born Subversive: A Memoir of Survival,” was published in April 2008. It is currently being adapted into a play. Now, Marques spends her time as a research coordinator at the Harvard School of Public Health working on a global health initiative project.

MASTERS OF THE HOUSE

The pair live only a few blocks from Harvard Yard in a cozy home that they meticulously redecorated themselves. Every small detail is loaded with meaning, from the African masks hanging on the walls to the music playing in the background, “Obrigado Brazil” played by cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76.

But before the next academic year, the two will pack up their belongings, rent out their house, and move back to where Cavallaro lived over 20 years ago—the Radcliffe Quad.

Along with their luggage, they will also bring their passion for bettering the world to Currier House. Indeed, the pair says they are most excited to advise undergraduates as they make major life decisions. But not everyone in the family shares the same priorities.

“My daughter’s most excited about the soft-serve ice cream,” Cavallaro says of their nine-year-old daughter Mara.

Vargas can vouch for the pair’s ability to connect with students. The couple regularly invites HLS students over to their house to watch human rights movies as they snack on food, courtesy of the couple.

For a breakfast meeting at 8 a.m. at the pair’s house, Cavallaro brought the students danishes and even offered to make them scrambled eggs, according to Vargas, a former Currier House resident.

“He’s basically the reason I went to Harvard Law School,” Vargas says. “The amount of enthusiasm and dedication to the Human Rights Program—there’s no comparison in terms of other programs and other directors.”

And Cavallaro says that becoming interim House Master might even help develop a renewed vigor for his work.

“At some level, I just find that being around students recharges my batteries,” he says. “There’s an enormous energy, idealism, and capacity that students bring to their work. I feel that energy, and it moves me as well.”

—Staff writer Danielle J. Kolin can be reached at dkolin@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Naveen N. Srivatsa can be reached at srivatsa@fas.harvard.edu.

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