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ACEs Champion: Rafael A. Maravilla merges his past with his love for science


Rafael Maravilla has what seems the ideal academic background for his job as ACEsConnection network manager and community facilitator for central California. Not only does he have a B.S. in neurobiology from University of California, Berkeley, but he also has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from UC Merced, thus combining an understanding of human biology with insights into human behavior.

He also has an ACE score of 9.

The eldest child of a Mexican farmworker who was an alcoholic and not able to work regularly, Maravilla was abused by his father starting when he was six years old. His first memory was his drunk father chasing him around a car outside their home. His father, who grew up in a small town in the Mexican state of Michoacan, “held everybody back,” says Maravilla. He picked on Maravilla more than he did his two younger siblings because Maravilla was smart, did well in school, was athletic and went to UC Berkeley — the first student in the 100-year history of his high school to attend that university.

Maravilla’s mother was a teacher’s assistant at the elementary school in Planada, 72 miles west of Yosemite in Merced County, where the family lived. The town, with a population of 2,400 when he was growing up, was an immigrant enclave of farm workers.

Spanish was the spoken language at home, but Maravilla, with the help of his mother who had come to the U.S. when she was 13, quickly learned English in kindergarten. Now that he has sole custody of his 14-year old son, Adam, they speak English at their home in San Francisco. Lately, however, his son is more interested in learning Spanish, so Rafael is back to speaking more Spanish at home.

After earning his neurobiology degree from UC Berkeley, where he also acquired an education in political struggles (he was arrested for participating in the occupation of the campus Campanile to protest Proposition 209, which repealed the use of affirmative action), the budding social activist decided he wanted to help people so they wouldn’t have to experience what he went through. That meant he had to focus on the humanities — history, sociology, psychology — all subjects his first degree hadn’t required him to study. Because his credits in math, biology, and physics from UC Berkeley weren’t transferrable, he went back to college for four years, this time closer to home at UC Merced, where he was able to integrate his science background with a degree in sociology to learn more about why some trauma survivors develop resilience and others do not.  

Those years at UC Merced were personally chaotic. Maravilla lived at home after making his father leave. But when his father became ill, his mother let him move back in, so Maravilla moved out again. After he graduated from UC Merced, his mother had a hip replacement and moved in with Maravilla for two years while his siblings stayed with their father. Then he had a major confrontation with his father, who returned to Mexico.

Maravilla’s education didn’t stop with just two bachelor’s degrees. While working at UC Merced, in 2018 he participated in a summer program at the Harvard University Kennedy School under the Latino Leadership Initiative, where he was offered a fellowship, but decided to pursue a master’s in global health science at University of California, San Francisco, instead. He says the Harvard classes were influential in “helping me develop my writing style as well as understand how government and institutions work to keep people oppressed.”

It wasn’t until 2019 when his mentor, Mohsen Malekinejad, at UCSF introduced him to ACEsConnection’s COO Gail Kennedy and he learned about ACEs science.

His first impression? “I didn’t know what to think because I had never heard of it,” he says. “I went home and started looking up information about ACEs and it opened up my eyes to how the abuse and the system of oppression make people ill or shorten their lives or have mental health issues.”

The new knowledge resonated personally as well. “I’ve been told my whole life that everything I do is worthless,” says Maravilla. “I wrote a post for ACEsConnection. That day I felt anxious. I didn’t think people would care enough to read it. But a lot of people loved it.”

As for the childhood trauma, “It’s something I had to overcome mentally,” he says, but his knowledge about neurobiology is helping. That’s why he’s constantly reading medical journals “because I understand and want to share the science. I want to read the science articles and rewrite them in a way that people can understand.”

We hope to see many more posts on the science of ACEs science by Maravilla, who integrates his knowledge of science and big data with a focus on ACEs science to help himself and others identify ways to develop resilience and lead a peaceful, restorative and productive life.

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Comments (8)

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@Rafael Maravilla (ACEs Connection Staff) I love the photo of you that goes with @Sylvia Paull's story. Thank you for sharing and inspiring people. It's wonderful to work with you and I appreciate learning more about your childhood, family, schooling, and activist work and all you do now to make life better for so many others to break the cycle, heal, and all you to do to help change systems so more people can live without pain, oppression, and trauma and can find more support, health, and hope when in crisis. I also look forward to reading more of your writing about your experiences as well as your helping to make scientific articles more accessible. 


@Rafael Maravilla (ACEs Connection Staff) and @Sylvia Paull. Thank you, Sylvia, for capturing in words Rafael's extraordinary resilience, passionate resolve, and keen insights through experience and education. Rafael, your Indigenous Wisdom is exceptional. Your courageous strength throughout your lifetime for your siblings, Mom, and your son is profoundly inspirational. 

Such a joy to collaborate with, learn from, and engage with you, Rafael. I'm so grateful to know you, and thrilled you're one of our ACEs Connection team members. I'm looking forward to reading more of your writings, Rafael.

Great story, Sylvia, on a an ACEs Champion Extraordinaire. 

It is hard to fathom the number of racial profiling, police stops, traumatizing incidents Rafael Maravilla has endured through the years. His social activism is desperately needed, as is the telling of his story. I am constantly amazed by Rafael’s patience and kindness in light of recent and decade’s-long police harassment for “driving while brown” and “running/exercising while brown.” Rafael has the wisdom, knowledge, and experience to help us all better understand the need for Black (and Brown) Lives Matter, as if any conscious human were to need explanation.

It is a daily privilege to work with Rafael, and I am deeply grateful to know him, to work with him, and to have had this opportunity to learn more about him. 

Thank you!

Carey Sipp

SE Regional Community Facilitator

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