Maria Varela (born January 1, 1940) was raised in several places across the country.
Work in the Southern Civil Rights Movement
Varela was formed in her work as an organizer, educator, writer, and photographer by her experience as a SNCC staff member from 1963 to 1967, working first in Selma and then across the Black Belt South. Raised Catholic by her Mexican father and Irish mother, Varela first got involved in the Catholic social justice movement by joining the Young Christian Students (YCS) in high school and then again in college. After graduation, Varela was recruited in 1961 to serve as a college campus organizer for the YCS National Office. She traveled across the country, urging Catholic students to support the Civil Rights Movement and especially the sit-ins.
Through this work, Varela met Casey Hayden, who recruited her in early 1963 to work for SNCC in the Atlanta Office. This changed when Bernard Lafayette and Frank Smith, who had recently had worked in Selma, asked that Varela be assigned to work, instead, in Selma to support one of Selma's civil rights leaders, Father Maurice Ouellet, the pastor of the Black Catholic Parish. Ouellet was a strong supporter of the Movement and had opened his buildings to classes and meetings. He also made repeated requests for a literacy project to assist with voter registration. Worth Long, SNCC Alabama coordinator had also requested literacy programming and welcomed assistance from Varela.
Dissatisfied with the white middle class portrayals in literacy materials, Varela began creating materials that reflected Black people's lifestyles. After the notorious Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark shut the Selma program down by arresting Varela's project staff, she moved to Mississippi (where she herself was arrested several times) and spent the next 3 years responding to SNCC organizers' requests for adult education and training materials.
Varela was determined that these materials would show Black people taking leadership to change their segregated communities. As there were no existing materials showing Black people in action, she enlisted SNCC photographer Bob Fletcher to take pictures for her various projects. Fletcher eventually challenged her to learn photography and recommended that she study with Matt Herron in New Orleans. Over the next 3 years, Maria Varela collaborated on a series of books and filmstrips made with photographs and utilizing taped conversations with local leaders including: Something of Our Own (how to set up an okra co-op), Holmes County, Mississippi (political organizing), To Praise Our Bridges (Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer's autobiography), and three filmstrips including one on ASCS Elections and one on Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. She also published two poetry books: I Play Flute by Jane Stembridge and Hoe Trails by Charlie Cobb.
One of the responsibilities of SNCC photographers was photographing protests to hopefully constrain and/or document any resultant police violence. In 1966, Maria Varela was assigned to shoot the Meredith March Against Fear in Mississippi where Black Power became the march's slogan. The media spun the story of Black Power as coming from militant Black northerners rather than indigenous rural southerners. One of her images showed a young local black man who had drawn a black panther on his T-shirt. "Through the lens, I saw differently", she recalled, "mirrored in the eyes of that youth was a strength and pride that had been freed from within".
Work in Northern New Mexico Land Grant Movement
In 1968, responding to a request from Reies Lopez Tijerina, leader of the Indio-Hispano land rights movement, Varela moved to northern New Mexico to work with the Alianza Federal de Mercedes. Members of this organization were families in rural communities who had lived there for generations under community land grants from Spain and then Mexico, before this region became part of the USA. Over time, because US property law did not recognize common lands, families had lost their ancestral lands and subdivided the remainder among succeeding generations. Poverty was rooted in these lost lands and the smaller farms which were no longer economically viable. Because Varela had worked with Black Farmers in Mississippi and Alabama, she learned there about the economic and political importance of retaining a land base. Black farmers were more independent than those who worked for plantations or the white community. They organized politically and economically to change their communities.
The Alianza Federal seemed to speak to these issues. For 150 years, corporate ranchers, environmentalists, and public agencies had taken over the upland areas traditionally used for summer grazing. This left the traditional livestock growers only small plots of land to graze their animals. Their ability to expand their livestock holdings because of lack of land was one of the roots of poverty and powerlessness. Out-migration, especially of young people, was very high. Inspired by the civil rights activism in southern states, New Mexico land grant activists turned to civil disobedience in the late 1960s to protest the theft of ancestral lands. Maria was recruited to New Mexico to act as a bridge between the land grant movement and the civil rights movement. Eventually realizing that the leadership of the Alianza were uninterested in organizing at the local level to build new leadership and improve poverty and powerlessness, she left the Alianza Federal to work in a different way to support the movement.
In 1983, after helping start and run a community based clinic for 10 years, Maria co-founded and helped coordinate Ganados Del Valle/Tierra Wools, a cooperative of sheepherders, weavers, and craftspeople that strove for culturally sustainable economic development and environmental justice. Based in Los Ojos, New Mexico, Ganados has revitalized the economy of the Chama valley, based on the breeding of Churro sheep, a near extinct breed well suited to the area. Families organized to restore traditional livestock breeds, seeds and methods of agriculture that created the cutting edge of the 'local and natural foods' movement which now has a firm hold in U.S. popular culture. The theory was that making even the small holdings more economically viable and restoring ancestral methods of agriculture and art, that perhaps young people would see the value of staying or coming back to preserve their family land holdings. Ganados was considered a model for culturally appropriate economic development for numerous native nations as well as isolated rural communities in the southwest.
In 1990 she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for her organizing work. Varela has been the subject of a Smithsonian article on conflicts between environmentalists and land based people, was listed as 'Hero for Hard Times' by Mother Jones magazine and in 2005 was among the 1000 Women for Peace nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In addition to her primary work of supporting communities in the Southwest, Varela has been a visiting Professor at the University of New Mexico and the Colorado College and is a published author. In addition to supporting various environmental justice and immigrant rights movements, she travels the country speaking at college campuses and exhibiting her photographs.
Varela is the first Latina woman to document the 1960s civil rights struggle in the black belt south. For the last five decades, her work has been included in books and photo exhibits featured in galleries and museums, including the New York Public Library (1968), the Smithsonian (1980), the Howard Greenberg Gallery (1994), Eastman House (1998), The Colorado College (2000), Smith College (2005), a traveling exhibit, This Light of Ours (2010) and "Time to Get Ready" which included images from the civil rights movement and her work in northern New Mexico.
- MARIA VARELA, HOLLOWELL LECTURE, UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA ATHENS. MARCH-20-2018 https://kaltura.uga.edu/media/t/1_5pfdht4r
- TIERRA O MUERTE: LAND OR DEATH. 1992 documentary https://vimeo.com/75809143
- MARIA VARELA CIVIL RIGHTS PHOTO EXHIBIT: Time to Get Ready , March 3-July 31, 2017. National Museum of Mexican Art. Chicago Illinois. INTERVIEW ON NM PBS https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_X_URg76Pnk
- SNCC DIGITAL GATEWAY WEBSITE: Maria Varela's Work in SNCC https://snccdigital.org/perspectives/learning-from-experience/part-1/
- PBS/BLACK CULTURE CONNECTION: September, 2015. Interview with Maria Varela about her SNCC photos. https://www.pbs.org/black-culture/explore/civil-rights-movement-photography/maria-varela/
- LIBRARY OF CONGRESS SPEECH: September, 2013. Maria Varela: Encounters in Liminal Spaces. http://www.c-span.org/video/?321701-1/discussion-civil-rights-movement
- NBC Latino Varela Op Ed: 50th anniversary of the March on Washington http://nbclatino.com/2013/08/29/opinion-on-civil-rights-then-and-now-its-up-to-the-youth/
- Link to Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC
Segment of Varela chapter http://www.press.uillinois.edu/wordpress/?p=6444
- Leslie G. Kelen, ed., This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011), 217-222.
- Maria Varela, "Time to Get Ready", Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith S. Holsaert, et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 552-572.
- Biography of Maria Varela, Take Stock: Images of Change.
- Frederic O. Sargent; Paul Lusk; Jose Rivera; Maria Varela (1 October 1991). Rural Environmental Planning for Sustainable Communities. Island Press. pp. 12–. ISBN 978-1-61091-319-5.
- "Department of Anthropology - Miami University". www.units.miamioh.edu.
- "Event detail: "Images of Liberation: Photography of the 1960's Civil Rights Movement" • Colorado College". www.coloradocollege.edu. April 1, 2014. Retrieved January 21, 2019.
- Frederic O. Sargent; Paul Lusk; Jose Rivera; Maria Varela (1991). Rural Environmental Planning for Sustainable Communities. Island Press. pp. 12–. ISBN 978-1-61091-319-5.
- "Take Stock: Maria Varela". www.takestockphotos.com.
- Chu, Dan (January 14, 1991). "Macarthur Grant Winner Maria Varela Shepherds a Rural New Mexico Community Toward Economic Rebirth". People. 35 (1).
- "History". September 6, 2012. Retrieved January 21, 2019.
- Contreras, Russell (Aug 27, 2013). "Latinos inspired by 1963 march to push for rights". AP. Retrieved January 21, 2019.
- SNCC Digital Gateway: Maria Varela's "The Learning Curve" Digital documentary website created by the SNCC Legacy Project and Duke University, telling the story of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee & grassroots organizing from the inside-out