Maria Varela has been a community organizer for nearly 40 years, beginning in 1962 when she joined the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee. Assigned to Selma Alabama, Varela's job was to teach literacy. Instead she found herself a student of the rich African American culture of the black belt south. Dissatisfied with existing literacy materials, Varela began to create filmstrips and photo books that proved useful both in training community leaders and teaching literacy.
Lacking photographs that showed black people taking leadership to change their communities, Varela persuaded SNCC photographer Bob Fletcher to take pictures for her project. Fletcher eventually challenged her to begin making her own photographs and recommended that she study with Matt Herron in New Orleans. Varela notes, "Around Matt's studio were photography books about Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and others who had captured dust bowl refugees, migrant workers and the rural poor of America. I never thought of myself as capable of creating such compelling images. I just wanted to be able to make practical photos, useful to movement organizers. But the Lange and Evans images were ever-present ghosts in the darkroom, challenging me to see differently. Under Matt's tutelage, honed by intensive shooting and long hours of printing, I came to love that moment when the image floated up through the developing solution."
In addition to creating educational materials, Varela's job included photographing marches because SNCC had learned that the presence of cameras often protected marchers from violence. Covering the Meredith march, where the slogan 'black power' was born, Varela remembers photographing the first Black Panther T-shirt hand drawn with a magic marker by a Canton Mississippi teenager. "The media implied that 'black power' was imposed on the southern rural movement by urban-raised black militants. Through the lens, I saw differently. Mirrored in the eyes of that youth was a strength and pride that had been freed from within."
In 1967, responding to a request from the leadership of the Hispano land rights movement, Varela moved to New Mexico. For the next 35 years she organized rural communities in New Mexico and the Southwest to create sustainable enterprises to achieve economic and cultural self determination. In 1990 she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for this 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 inducted into the "Bad Girl Hall of Fame" by Ms Magazine. Maria is an internationally recognized authority on rural economic development and has co-authored a text on environmentally sustainable rural development. Recently she has added writing and teaching at Colorado College to her primary work of community organizing.
Varela is the first Latina woman to document the civil rights struggle in the black belt south. For the last three decades, her work has been included in books and photo exhibits featured in galleries and museums, including the Smithsonian.