Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Newly awarded Bush Fellow to work on cancer care for Latino families

Mari Avaloz
Mari Avaloz is a 2024 Bush Fellow.
Caroline Yang

Each year the Bush Fellow program recognizes people who are making a difference in their communities in Minnesota, the Dakotas and 23 tribal nations in the region.

The fellows receive up to $150,000 to learn and expand on their work. The 2024 cohort was announced on June 17.

The fellows have a wide variety of work including art, food, housing, racial justice and more. Many are focused on health care and healing, like Mari Avaloz.

She’s currently director of the St. Olaf College TRIO/Upward Bound program that prepares low-income and first-generation students for higher education. She’s putting the fellowship toward a vision of getting Latino families better access to cancer care. Mari Avaloz joined Minnesota Now to talk about her work.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Correction (June 20, 2024): An earlier version of this post misstated the amount fellows received from the Bush Foundation. The post has been updated.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: You've probably heard of the Bush Fellows. The 2024 Bush Fellows have been announced. Each year, this is a program that recognizes people who are making a difference in their communities in Minnesota, the Dakotas, and 23 tribal nations in the region.

The Fellows receive up to $100,000 to learn and expand on their work. The work of this year's cohort includes art and food, housing, racial justice, and more. Many are focused on health care and healing, like Mari Avaloz. She's currently Director of Upward Bound, a program that prepares low-income students for higher education at St. Olaf College.

And she's putting the fellowship money toward a vision of getting Latino families better access to cancer care. I'm so happy that Mari is on the line. Congratulations.

MARI AVALOZ: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thanks for having Me.

CATHY WURZER: What did you say when you were told you were a Bush Fellow? Because the process is rigorous.

MARI AVALOZ: It is. This was actually my third time applying for this wonderful opportunity. And when I found out, I thought, oh my gosh, third time's a charm. I was so excited. I immediately went and told my family. And yeah, it was exciting.

CATHY WURZER: Congratulations. It's huge because so many fellows say their lives have changed because of it. And I picked you out of the list here, Mari, because I wanted to talk with you about your focus. Obviously, you've been in education for quite some time. And now you're focusing on cancer care. For those in the Latino community, there's always a story, of course. What is your story?

MARI AVALOZ: Well, my story, cancer has been pretty prevalent in our communities. But in 2001, my dad was diagnosed with carcinoid cancer. And he is still alive. And that's great. He had sought out some traditional medicines in Mexico. And now he's combined that.

So when he was diagnosed, there was a little bit more limited resources for us. But then when my sister was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer in the late 2018, it really impacted our family. And we were very privileged and had an opportunity to access health care systems that I don't think many people have access to or even know about. And it was because of the people we knew.

I just so happened to know someone who was funding clinical research for this specific cancer. And I mean, that just doesn't happen. And so we were very lucky to have access to clinical trials and doctors. And it was very clear to me that not everybody has that sort of access. And it was just really an eye-opening experience for me to see-- there was a one time in the hospital where I thought, oh my gosh, I feel like a celebrity that we're getting this great treatment.

And actually, I walked away and thought, this is what everybody should experience. And so that's where everything changed in my life. And especially when she passed away in 2019, I knew my life would never be the same. And yeah, that's what led me to this.

CATHY WURZER: I know you were probably one of her caregivers, your sister's caregiver. You're probably her primary caregiver, I'm betting. And I'm wondering, did you wish for-- and I hear this often. Did you ever wish for some culturally specific support as a caregiver?

MARI AVALOZ: Yes, absolutely. I think the most noteworthy experience that comes to mind is when she passed away, I joined a sibling grief support group. It was great. And I think it was a wonderful experience. I'm very thankful for that.

But there were so many things, even when you consider Day of the Dead, [SPANISH]. Not having anyone to share that with and to honor her and celebrate her and be able to talk about that with, people that understood that sort of importance, that was really clear to me that we were lacking in some of those services.

CATHY WURZER: Now, how do you want to change things? Because, of course, part of your plan is to learn and to grow and to make an impact in your community. So what do you want to see change? And how will you be the changemaker?

MARI AVALOZ: That's a great question. I think that what I want to see is just accessibility. I think there are so many people and so many organizations and clinics doing great work. But if our communities don't know about it and it's not accessible because maybe they don't trust the system or they just can't communicate with the system, I feel like this is so needed in our community.

And so that's what I want to see. Change is just that there's accessibility because especially if someone is undocumented or they just don't know what's out there, I think this bringing it to the community and saying, look, here, I can be-- I can refer you to this organization or I can help you read your medical bills. Just having a center that can focus on that and being an-- we outsource a lot of things, obviously.

But I think that that's where we're really lacking. So accessibility is huge. And that's where I want to be able to network with other clinical trials, other foundations, other organizations, so that I can learn from others, so that I can help bring that to the community.

CATHY WURZER: Because your dad, clearly, has had an interesting experience combining alternative traditional Mexican medicines and maybe therapies with Western medicine. I mean, he's had cancer now for a while, right?


CATHY WURZER: Do you want to bring some of those modalities here and maybe have more of a culturally responsive treatment options perhaps, along those lines?

MARI AVALOZ: Absolutely. That is where I think we don't all fit the same. We all have different journeys that we're on. And so when my dad had his cancer, he didn't feel like he could access the cancer treatment here. So he went to Mexico.

When my sister had cancer, she didn't want to do treatment in Mexico. She wanted to do Western medicine. And we respected that. And I think we're all so different in how we heal, how we grieve. So having culturally specific resources combined with current resources I think is so needed because we're all so different. And we all heal differently.

CATHY WURZER: So what are your plans for the fellowship? Because now you get to work on yourself and your leadership. So what's the plan?

MARI AVALOZ: My first thing on my agenda is going to Mexico. I will be studying in Mexico for about three months. I am taking a Spanish immersion program in Puebla, Mexico, actually where my family is from, to perfect my Spanish.

Growing up, we didn't speak Spanish in my household. And so that's always been a barrier. A big barrier for me when I'm working in the Latino community is that I haven't felt that I could communicate properly, effectively. And so that's my first item on the agenda. And then also visiting other cancer resources in other states that are currently doing some similar work.


MARI AVALOZ: That's big.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. Yes, it is. I wonder what your sister would think if she were still with us about what you're doing? What do you think?

MARI AVALOZ: The first thing I did was I went to the cemetery and just shared it with her and just said, look, you've changed the trajectory of my life. And I think she would-- if she was around and she had made it, she would be-- she'd be part of the team.

So this would be something that she would find a lot of passion in. And I know she's with me every step of the way. And I'm super excited to carry on her legacy through this journey of mine and for the community.

CATHY WURZER: Well, I wish you all the best. And I know it's going to be a fascinating journey for you. Thank you so much, Mari. Take care of yourself.

MARI AVALOZ: Thank you so much.

CATHY WURZER: Mari Avaloz has been with us, one of 24 Bush Fellows selected this year to build on their relationship skills and to lead forward their vision in Minnesota, the Dakotas, and in tribal nations around the region.

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