Feb 3, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Chicana civil rights-era photographer honored

Black voters registering to vote in Mississippi in the 1960s.
Maria Varela, a SNCC-trained photograher, next to her photos of Black residents registering to vote in the 1960s. Photos: Courtesy of Varela.

A Mexican American photographer who captured some of the Civil Rights Movement’s most critical moments but has largely gone unnoticed is getting her due.

The big picture: Maria Varela was one of the few Mexican Americans involved in the Black Civil Rights Movement in the South, and her work largely has gone unnoticed.

Driving the news: The Mexican American Civil Rights Institute in San Antonio, Texas, featured the 81-year-old Albuquerque, New Mexic0, resident during a live Facebook forum, along with an interactive display of her work last week.

  • The Chicago-raised Varela was recruited by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1963 to work in Selma, Ala., for a voter literacy program.
  • While working on a literary project, she discovered that the material had no images of Black people. Her mentor suggested she take up photography and put those images into materials.
  • "I had never picked up a camera before I came to SNCC," Varela said during the forum.
Black protestors march in Mississippi in the 1960s in the rain.
Black protestors march in rainy Mississippi in the 1960s. Photo: Maria Varela

Noted photographer Matt Herron in New Orleans trained Varela. She built a darkroom in Mississippi since local drug stores refused to develop her film.

  • She dressed in a skirt and a headscarf and tried to remain invisible while she took photos to be used in booklets passed out to farmers, town residents, and parents who were working to resist segregation and poverty.

The intrigue: As her reputation grew, SNCC assigned Varela to various marches and demonstrations to document the event where activists faced violence.

What they're saying: "I find it so interesting today that I'm considered a civil rights photographer. I never thought of myself as a photographer. I thought of myself as an organizer," Varela said.

  • "Your legacy takes interesting turns after 50 or 60 years."
Black protestors in Mississippi with a Black woman holding a sign that reads, "I wonder is white power is dying?"
Protests in Mississippi. Photo: Maria Varela

Between the lines: Historians and art museums recently have taken note of Varela's work as Latino voices are sought to explain their roles in historical events.

Don't forget: Varela would go on to photograph Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, New Mexico land grant leader Reies Lopez Tijerina and the organizing meetings leading to the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, a march Dr. Martin Luther King planned to draw attention to poverty.

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