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Maria Cabildo

Year of Graduation: 
1985
Headshot of Maria Cabildo '95.

"This is a special moment in time, when people need to be encouraged to re-engage with democracy."

Community Organizer with an Eye on Politics

A Conversation with East LA Native Maria Cabildo '85

Asked why she decided to run for California’s coveted 34th congressional district seat in a special primary election held on April 4, Maria Cabildo ’85 answers with just two words: “My daughter.” Cabildo, who is a first-generation Mexican-American, says: “After the November election, the first thing she asked me was, ‘What about my future?’ All over the country, and especially here in Los Angeles, people are having similar conversations, and it has caused me to rethink my life of service.” For Cabildo, who has dedicated her entire career to comprehensive urban planning in her native Los Angeles, such a statement is not without significance.

While she considers herself the “grassroots, outsider” candidate in a crowded race for the “once-in-a-generation” seat that was vacated by Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra in late January, Cabildo has been endorsed by both the Los Angeles Times and Latinas Lead California. Her campaign slogan — “Builder, Leader, Fighter” — distills her life path and her platform, which is centered on “reconnecting real people and what they are facing to a policy agenda that is reflective of their needs.”

Born to immigrant parents in the 1960s, Cabildo grew up in the then-troubled East Los Angeles neighborhood of City Terrace, where, she recalls, waking in the night to the sound of helicopters hovering overhead as police sirens blared through the streets was commonplace. Identified at a young age as academically gifted, Cabildo attended neighborhood public schools. While in eighth grade at Belvedere Junior High, she met Exeter History Instructor Jack Herney ’46, ’69, ’71, ’74, ’92, ’95 (Hon.), who was visiting from the Academy on a recruiting trip. With her older brother’s encouragement, Cabildo applied to Exeter, and she was accepted to the class of 1985.

The transition from East LA public schools to the Academy was “really, really hard,” Cabildo recalls. “I was a good student in East LA, and had been given the nickname ‘Brainiac,’ but when I arrived at Exeter I felt that I was immediately so far behind everybody. As a prep, we started off with literature and literary analysis, whereas the previous year, back home, we had been doing the parts of speech. I had feelings of ‘Do I belong here?’, but somehow I knew my future depended on it.”

Cabildo’s initial struggles were eventually tempered by her involvement in school life, in particular the social justice activism to which she was introduced by Barbara James, the wife of Exeter Art Instructor Bud James. “Barbara was key in my civic awakening,” Cabildo explains. “She took me to my first political protest, and it was at Exeter that I first learned about apartheid, the military coups in South America and the dangers of unchecked nuclear proliferation.” A seed, it would seem, had been planted.

From Exeter, Cabildo enrolled at Columbia University, where she majored in Urban Studies and for two years chaired the Mexican-American Student Association, through which she became involved with the United Farm Workers’ “Wrath of Grapes” table grape boycott, which focused attention on the conditions of farm workers as well as the environmental impact of pesticide use. By the time she graduated Columbia in 1989, Cabildo says, protest movements around the world were coming to a head: “Nelson Mandela was freed, and the Berlin Wall came down. I could see that people were joining together and sticking to their causes until change prevailed.” She found the entire milieu deeply inspiring, so much so that, after a year in MIT’s Master in City Planning program, she knew that its (then)-top-down approach “didn’t work for me and my values.”

Cabildo decided to return home to LA, working for Mayor Tom Bradley for a year before completing a Master of Urban and Regional Planning at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, where she developed a passion for housing — “I see it as a foundation of opportunity; I feel it should be a right.” — and honed her comprehensive, sustainable approach to city planning. In 1995, she translated her dreams for her native neighborhood into action by founding the East LA Community Corporation (ELACC), a nonprofit whose vision is to “help the members of a 95 percent Latino community create an environment that supports a productive, healthy, and fulfilling life.” Now 22 years old, ELACC, Cabildo says, has become a “force in LA for social and economic justice” that has built hundreds of housing units, and offers a robust foreclosure protection program along with childcare, after-school care and a food pantry. The organization likewise played a critical role in restoring one of East LA’s most iconic buildings, the Boyle Hotel (Cummings Block), which was declared a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 2007 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2013. In recognition of her work, the Academy presented Cabildo with the 2011 John Phillips Award. She became the first alumna to receive the honor, which is given annually to an alumnus or alumna “whose life demonstrates founder John Phillips’ ideal of goodness and knowledge united in noble character and usefulness to mankind.”

In 2015, after 20 years leading ELACC, Cabildo, who was able to mentor her successor, left the corporation in order to explore a growing interest in government. “I wanted to learn that whole side of things, to see if I could have a greater impact through that channel,” she says. Putting to use her extensive knowledge of urban subsidized housing, she became, in the summer of 2015, the director of homeless initiatives for the Community Development Commission of the County of Los Angeles, remaining in that role until January, when she decided to launch her congressional campaign.

With the primary election, at the time of this writing, just over a week away, Cabildo is as thoughtful, and inclusive, as ever. “My goal is to unite people so that our collective voice is stronger. This is a special moment in time, when people need to be encouraged to re-engage with democracy. What I would bring to Congress is a lot of what I learned at Exeter, which is that it is not about you, it is about what you are able to do for other people.”

Editor's notes: This article first appeared in the spring 2017 Issue of The Exeter Bulletin. It was written right before the special primary election, in which Maria Cabildo finished third in a field of 23 candidates. The regular election between the top two finishers will take place on June 6.

As a 501(c)(3) organization, Phillips Exeter Academy does not and cannot endorse the candidacy of any person seeking to be elected to public office. We share this story as we do any other: to celebrate the accomplishments and contributions made by members of our community.

Photo credit: ELACC (East Los Angeles Community Corporation)