Maria Varela
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217 Maria Varela Maria Varela was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in the upper Midwest and the Northeast with a rigorous Catholic education. She attended Saint Louis High School in Chicago and then went to Alverno College in Milwaukee , where she became student body president. Throughout her formal education, Varela was involved with the Young Christian Students (YCS) program, which she described as a vigorous social inquiry method that guided Catholic students to bring the church’s core spiritual values more meaningfully into daily life. After graduating from Alverno College in 1961, Valera accepted a two-year position with the national YCS organization and began traveling around the country to assist YCS college chapters and to encourage students to support the expanding Civil Rights Movement. In 1962 Tom Hayden and Al Haber invited her to attend the Port Huron conference as a YCS representative and to participate in shaping what would become the founding document of the Students for a Democratic Society. In 1963 Varela went south in response to a call to join the Civil Rights Movement. For the next four years, she worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee , mainly in the states of Alabama and Mississippi. She initially undertook a literacy project in Selma to promote voter registration. Later, in Mississippi, she turned to photography to illustrate literacy material because she wanted to show “local people taking leadership roles in their own communities.” Eventually, Varela edited and/or authored several photo-based publications and filmstrips ranging from voter education training manuals to organizing cooperatives . While with SNCC, she also shot on assignment for the Black Star Photo Agency and the Delta Ministry. In 1968 Varela was invited to northern New Mexico to start agricultural cooperatives and community health clinics. In 1990 she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for her work of organizing Mexican American and Native American weavers and sheep growers to preserve their pastoral cultures and economies. She currently lives in New Mexico and works as a visiting professor at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. 218 I learned [of SNCC at a National Student Association conference] by listening intently to the African Americans talking about their experiences [during the Freedom Rides] and what the [new] law was—the interstate commerce law—which stated that segregation in interstate terminals was illegal. They had to make that kind of an appeal [to get NSA endorsement for the movement]. And if I remember what was going on, the debate over endorsement just about split NSA open. But people like Connie Curry, who was part of NSA, and Casey Hayden, who was working for the YWCA, were mobilizing [support for SNCC] and a lot of white students were there who were allies of the movement or were advocating for resolutions to come out of the National Student Association. I supported SNCC because when they told their story it was eminent injustice. It was the kind of thing that if I’d go home and tell my mom about it, she’d say, “Yeah, that’s not fair.” So because I was raised with a sense of justice and because I came through YCS where we were constantly [working] on issues of injustice and inequity, [I thought] certainly these folks were putting in action Christian values. And what was so interesting to me, they weren’t Catholic [laughs]. Here’s the Catholic Church saying, it is the church, right, it is the Christian church, and here are people acting out the gospel in ways that Catholics were not. So that was the appeal to me of SNCC. Then Casey [Hayden] sent me a letter and asked me to come and work with her. She was staffing the Atlanta [SNCC] office, and I didn’t want to go. It was absolutely not in my mind to go south. And had she not sent me the letter, I probably would have finished my YCS two years, or maybe I would have gone to [graduate ] school, but I wouldn’t have gone if somebody hadn’t invited me. And that’s an organizing principle. Most people won’t come to the work unless you get to know them and ask them. It’s all about developing relationships, which is what Ella [Baker] taught us. There wasn’t much discussion about voter registration at that point. My sense of the movement came through the students [who were] talking about the bus rides down, the burning of the bus, the sit-ins. And I was...


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Subject Headings

  • Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (U.S.) -- History.
  • Political activists -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Photographers -- Political activity -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Southern States -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century -- Pictorial works.
  • United States -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century -- Pictorial works.
  • Civil rights movements -- United States -- History -- 20th century -- Pictorial works.
  • African Americans -- Civil rights -- History -- 20th century -- Pictorial works.
  • Photographers -- United States -- Interviews.
  • Political activists -- United States -- Interviews.
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