May 2, 2024 - World

UK honors Chicana Civil Rights-era photographer

Maria Varela, a SNCC-trained photographer, next to her photos of Black residents registering to vote in the 1960s.

Maria Varela (left) and Black voters registering, in the 1960s. Photos: Courtesy of Maria Varela

A British college is exhibiting the works of a Mexican American photographer who captured some of the Civil Rights Movement's most critical moments.

Why it matters: Maria Varela, 84, is receiving international praise for her work after being largely forgotten for decades. This is the first time the exhibit, "Time to Get Ready," has traveled out of the United States.

Zoom in: "Time to Get Ready" opened this week at St. John's College in Oxford and through May 18.

  • It includes Varela's photos of Mississippi civil rights marches, voting rights battles and Chicano activists fighting to get Spanish land grants recognized in New Mexico.
  • The exhibit is a collaboration between St John's College, the Rothermere American Institute, also in Oxford, and the National Museum of Mexican Art (NMMA) in Chicago.
  • Varela, one of the few Mexican Americans involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the South, tells Axios most of her photos sat in her attic for years, though she gave occasional talks over the years and was featured in 2017 at the NMMA.

Background: The Chicago-raised Varela was recruited by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1963 to work in Selma, Alabama, for a voter literacy program.

  • While working on the project, she discovered that the material did not include images of Black people. Her mentor suggested she take up photography and incorporate those images into the materials.
  • Well-known photographer Matt Herron trained Varela in New Orleans. Later, she built a darkroom in Mississippi since local drug stores refused to develop her film.
  • Varela dressed in a skirt and a headscarf, trying to remain invisible while taking photos that were used in booklets for farmers, town residents, and parents working to resist segregation and poverty.

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